Letter: Is There Really “No Room” For New Businesses In Downtown Amherst? 

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Town Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke has claimed  that there is a limited amount of businesses that Amherst can support, and much of that demand is already supplied by businesses in North Amherst, so downtown should not attempt to grow more business, so we might as well have downtown focus on five story “mixed use” dorm style apartments, only requiring 30% of the first floor to be non-residential.

But if that’s true, then:

Is Hadley realizing they should not start too many more businesses, as they are likely also at capacity?

Is there a rule that the “leakage”, that is, the amount of business not captured by Amherst businesses, that could be reasonably seen as theirs for the taking, could not be reduced, if we built stores, restaurants, and offices that serve our needs?

Is there a reason why downtown Amherst is better off, in any way, if the balance of uses of downtown continues to deteriorate?

And as Amherst has experienced the frenzy of house sales, aka people of means moving here during the pandemic from New York and Boston, would there not be more demand (aka more registers ringing) downtown?

I think it’s corny and wishful to believe that “if you build it, they will come” but I think the pent up demand for more reasons to patronize downtown is palpable and measurable.

Ira Bryck

Ira Bryck has lived in Amherst since 1993, ran the Family Business Center for 25 years, hosted the “Western Mass. Business Show” on WHMP for seven years, now coaches business leaders, and is a big fan of Amherst’s downtown.

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21 thoughts on “Letter: Is There Really “No Room” For New Businesses In Downtown Amherst? 

  1. Easthampton is filling up and growing. Restaurants in Hadley are packed. No question about demand.
    Up to us to make it clear that Amherst welcomes businesses and that we have the economic base to support them. Open up those retail spaces and invite businesses, please.

  2. Ira, You’re right. I am convinced that Amherst could support more – and more diverse – businesses. I believe, for example, that Amherst could support a cooperative grocery store, the kind of market we’ve being trying to get off the ground for years. If Amherst builds a more walkable downtown business district that supplies the normal range of needs that a community has, including food, clothing, a variety of retail, and entertainment along with places of employment, I think more people would want to come and live here. Sustainable development, which must be our future if society is going to survive, will be all about proximity, community, and availability of services. I do not think we need more high-priced student dormitories.

  3. The Master Plan and our communal wish is to have thriving, active, diverse town and village centers. How can we achieve that. First, engage the wisdom of the many. Expand the Planning Board back to 9 members and have them do more public engagement forums to inform their work. Start the Master Plan Implementation Committee (MPIC) to extend this engagement across all sectors of our community that tend to lock into a particular, oftentimes narrow perspective. That includes all of us. Let the expensive student housing be built if it is needed and brings us tax revenue, but not in our cherished communally shared town center. The single biggest resource for funding our collective needs and wishes is the 14 000 students that annually spend $200 000 000 – $300 000 000 on housing alone. We need to figure out how to keep that resource local and more broadly distributed. Why are hedge funded entities (is that true?) buying these buildings. We should be capturing more of that resource that just the taxes. To me it seems the best way to begin is to promote and incentivize owner occupied duplexes and triplexes. I have often said that this idea is potentially a powerful means of creating middle income affordable housing without subsidies or public funds. I urge us to gather our collective wisdom around this idea. Two years ago Maria Chao on the Planning Board circulated an article titled “The Missing MIddle”, what lies between single family homes and large multi-unit complexes. We do have some of that in Amherst, but it is primarily non owner occupied student rentals with the profits going to local and non-local individuals and small LLC’s (I think?).
    To summarize – we need to harness our collective wisdom to forward a creative, constructive agenda to build the community that we ALL want. Watch the video suggested last week by Ira https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hy4QjmKzF1c and let’s think and act broadly and boldly toward building a community of increasing beauty and vitality. Thank you INDY and all contributors for this collective dialogue that gives everyone a voice in a public forum. Bob Greeney

  4. What a comprehensive and clear presentation made by Easthampton, Christina. Thanks for pointing us to it.

  5. My critique of downtown development aside, I am glad to regularly patronize and support Hastings, Laughing Dog bikes, Share, la Veracruzana, Brueggers, CVS, Toy Box, Black Sheep, Lili’s, Fresh Side, Collective Copies, Miss Saigon, Bueno y Sano, Johnnys, Antonio’s, Bruno’s, Zanna, Formosa, Garcias, Mexcalito, Vespa, Go Berry, Amherst Cinema, HB Financial, Boltwood Inn, Pita Pocket, Paul’s shoe repair, Paradise of India, Art of Intimates, Arigato, Ren’s, and any others I forgot- these are all businesses that I enjoy, and feel compelled to do business with – also looking forward to the Drake, Hazel’s, and more and more upstarts making their home here

  6. Don’t forget The Works (open throughout the pandemic and with a great mobile app), Panda East, Oriental Flavor, Rao’s and Amherst Books (a real treasure!)

  7. Let’s not let Bob Greeney’s vision of middle income living units IN TOWN get lost. College towns all over the country have become destinations for active retirees. “Active”is the key. They want to live in-town, within walking or bus distance of restaurants, movies, cultural and learning opportunities. It is unlikely that retirees would prefer to share a building with young students; just as it is unlikely that young people want to have older neighbors who don’t share their enthusiasms. Why not build to attract middle income people, who want to be free of the responsibilities of home ownership upkeep, seek proximity to recreation and social interaction (are not interested in out-of-downtown retirement communities) who would also spend their discretionary income IN TOWN? A walkable, vibrant downtown is possible if we acknowledge that our colleges are an attraction to an older population, who have particular housing preferences. The Master Plan will not be fulfilled passively. Investors could be attracted. If they build it—-they will come.

  8. Sorry, Dave, my lapse. I should have said “Share Coffee” which Rao’s morphed into after an ownership change. The café has moved from its original location on Kellogg Ave. to North Pleasant St.

  9. I and many others would love to see Amherst be a thriving location for a strong mix of unique, locally-owned small businesses. The construction of the large “luxury apartment” buildings downtown in recent years appears to have had a stultifying effect on small business activity, and to have made the center less interesting for pedestrians. As a local resident, I’d love to resume going downtown for ice cream (how can it be that there is no longer an ice cream shop in Amherst?) Similarly I miss the small shops, like the Blue Marble, where it was fun to browse and buy an occasional gift. I believe there are still three vacant storefronts in a row (the former barber shop, the former Lone Wolf and Himalyan Cuisine restaurants) on Main Street. This is just not a good look for Amherst, whatever its future. Could our Town Council call for the launch of an incentive and grant program, to assist existing small business and recruit new ones? The downtown needs the fresh energy that new and diverse restaurants and shops could bring.

  10. Amherst residents are spending $200 million in surrounding communities and of this over over $20 million on food alone. UMass is the largest employer in the region. Yet we have fewer physical places for retail shops and services than 10 years ago. Is there really no room for more retail shops and spending in Amherst? Tell that to Hadley which has added many small businesses along Route 9. Our leadership should have some vision and get focused on bringing more of Amherst residents’ spending back into Amherst. This should be a government priority. More local jobs, fewer vehicle trips, a stronger town economy. People also should join the Amherst Food Coop ASAP, since they are close to having enough members to fully launch.

  11. It would be helpful to understand why the proposed Amherst Food Coop is not seeking a strong relationship or affiliation with River Valley Market, which has just opened it’s 2nd store in Easthampton, and which is a terrific market. Wouldn’t that potentially increase efficiency and therefore long term viability? And what would the impact be on really great locally owned stores like Atkins and the new Provisions? We joined the short lived cooperative venture in the middle of town a number of years ago, but that never seemed busy enough to sustain itself. We are also members of River Valley Market but shop there infrequently. It should be noted that Big Y is also locally owned.

  12. Any expansion of retail should be considered when there is a study of not just locational retail spending, as noted in an earlier post, but a study of Amherst, Hadley, Northampton along with regional retail capacity or demand. Recently, an Amherst developer publicly rejected the potential of any new hotel construction for Amherst and Hadley. This was a declarative statement. Whether he is correct or not, his comments show that every market has a ceiling. Whether it is right or wrong, Hadley has created a very substantial retail corridor. So if surrounding towns expand their retail does that really help all of our towns? Do we need deficit sum inter municipal competition? And does it dilute a defined pool of retail spending which harms all businesses – Big Box and “Mom and Pop”? Or consider a town that already has several pockets of retail outside of its downtown that is marginal and just more ugly sprawl in a “green” town. Will the Atkins Circle someday become another retail sprawl rotary? And does allowing more retail harm our existing businesses and their payrolls? I grew up in Westchester County and when I return to visit it is a nightmare of endless retail and mixed zoning. Once green towns are now asphalt alleyways. Towns competing with or cannibalizing border towns for the same offices, retail and homes. We see the same deficit sum games with Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. Maryland has their National Harbor Casino near Alexandria VA and now Virginia will be opening a casino in Dumfries VA just a few miles from the Maryland casino.

  13. Regionalize?

    Perhaps by restoring county-level county government (and county-level tax collection)?

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