Letter: Town Must Plan Now For The Coming Decline In College Enrollments

Photo: umass.edu

Editor’s note:  The following letter was sent to the Amherst Town Council on April 19, 2021

A town is defined by its core. To have ours predicated on student housing, especially when the demand for it is increasingly questionable is short-sighted and the height of folly.

In an article  on Boston.com, Marty Meehan, the President of the entire UMass system, discusses the “Demographic Cliff” coming within the next decade at which time “the number of college-aged students will drop almost fifteen percent in five years.” He  talks of the need for “rightsizing” in the future.

The “Demographic Cliff” is the result of the decline of national birth rates, already at historic lows, which further decreased dramatically during the last economic downturn in 2008. The rise of remote learning and the latest, even more drastic economic downturn due to the Pandemic, will surely compound this trend.

To depend on hand-outs from UMass, Amherst College and especially Hampshire College is wishful thinking, as they will be facing great obstacles of their own and, even in flush times, have been less than forthcoming.

According to the report “Long Term Population Projections for Massachusetts Regions and Municipalities” produced by the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute’s Population Estimates Program, the overall predicted population growth for the lower Pioneer Valley in the next 15 years is 6.5 per cent – not annually – but in total.

“It’s okay growth,” Susan Strate, Population Estimates Program Manager at the Donahue  Institute, is quoted in an MassLive article.

It goes without saying that not all of that growth will come to Amherst. In fact, with our already high taxes compared to neighboring towns and a downtown with a 6-8 month economy centered around housing students and the businesses which cater to them – bars, fast food, pot dispensaries – I venture to say it’s a competition we are bound to lose.

Once those student dorms are built, those buildings won’t be coming down.

What is needed are facts. Cinda Jones, in a recent op-ed in the Hampshire Gazette, claims that developers have done studies. If those studies do indeed exist, let’s see them. UMass     has undoubtedly done its own studies of predicted student enrollment. One of their Senior Planners currently serves as the Vice Chair of our Planning Board. Let’s ask him   what they say.

We should endeavor to create a 12-month economy, which will appeal to the young families and professionals we keep saying we want. To do this, we need to create an attractive town center with parking and services that appeal to their needs and desires. We should study and contact other college towns that  are succeeding where we are currently failing.

Steve Bloom

Steve Bloom is former Chair of the Lincoln-Sunset Local Historical District Study Committee and a former member of Amherst Town Meeting and the Local Historic District Commission.

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