“Destination Amherst” seems to have become a guiding principle for zoning and other proposals related to downtown Amherst. It is designated on the town website as “A Roadmap for Downtown Amherst,” but when I asked some town councilors from the first council what it is, they said they didn’t know much about it—maybe “it’s the BID (Business Improvement District), maybe Town Hall has some involvement.”
What is Destination Amherst? Who is behind it? Who is responsible and accountable? Are they subject to Open Meeting Law, with appropriate documentation of meetings, impact studies, contracts, public outreach, and so on? What is the relationship between the BID and the recently established Downtown Amherst Foundation, with whom it shares an executive director, and with the town, whose manager sits on its board as a voting member? How did Destination Amherst come to supplant the Master Plan, or appear to, in a series of changes in downtown regulations?
I hoped that an interview with Paul Bockelman, our town manager, would clarify these issues,. He accepted my invitation and I invited Rani Parker, a new resident with a fresh appreciation and keen interest in the town, to sit in on and participate in the interview at will. The interview took place over Zoom on January 19, 2022.
Kitty: I don’t want to do too much chit chat but are you alright, are you well?
Paul Bockelman: Yes, and how are you doing? And hi, Rani, good to meet you. Thanks for being here.
Rani Parker: I’m very glad to be invited to join.
Paul: Kitty, you’re doing this in preparation for an article, is that right?
Kitty: Yes, an interview, not an article. I prefer interviews because I don’t have new thoughts. But I’ve been fascinated by this Destination Amherst Plan, Paul. I first heard something like it when I interviewed Gabrielle Gould [director of the BID] in December 2019 and she mentioned her excitement about Amherst as “a destination, not a drive-by or drive-through” town, with art galleries, boutiques, performances, museums, a modern library…a place for small shops to establish themselves and thrive
The next thing I heard [about] was a presentation of proposed downtown improvements at the January 27  town council meeting. Downtown improvements was actually a presentation of “Destination Amherst [A Roadmap for Downtown Amherst],” and you were the contact person… [see here and here.)
I think I know what Destination Amherst is, but who takes responsibility for it? Whose plan is it? Who did the research, who did the design, who created public participation (I’m not aware that there has been any), who’s marketing the plan, what agreements have been made? What’s the role of the town? You’re on the board of the BID, what’s your role? Are you negotiating for the town or for the BID? I’m in the dark and so is everybody I ask.
Paul: That’s interesting. So, this has been a highly public process. And Destination Amherst isn’t a plan. Destination Amherst — I put that together so that there’s a rubric because we had all of these initiatives going on downtown …and I felt it was important for the council to understand that these different initiatives sort of hung together… We were coming to them with different initiatives, and the BID was coming with its own initiative.
I wanted to make sure that they saw this because when you’re on a council, you’re seeing these sort-of independent things come at you, and it can be confusing. Having a rubric — and I termed it “Destination Amherst”—
Kitty: That term was yours, OK!
Paul: Yeah, but it wasn’t original. I saw the City of Salem had done something similar, so I said, “Oh, that’s what I want to do, too.” I just sort of [thought] that sounds like a good thing because we knew we wanted to build Amherst into a 12-month economy, not just dependent on students. That we wanted to highlight the arts and culture, and the restaurants in our town, and the cultural facilities we have, like the museums—the Emily DIckinson museum, the Eric Carle—and highlight that we’re also someplace to go for outdoor recreation, all those things were sort of part of it.
Kitty:Just a little question— you mentioned not wanting to be dependent on students, but my impression is that we’re dependent on UMass for employment, but not so much on students. We’re actually relying on our year-round residents to float the town…they’re our “main” population that we want to support and invigorate. Is that wrong?
Paul: That’s true, but we also want to grow, make sure our downtown business area is robust and has people to come to it.—it’s not just going to be Amherst residents who come to it. I guess instead of saying students, I should have said a college-based economy, and we’d like to broaden that to an economy that people would come to without having any relation to the colleges, they would want to come here because they want to see a play or they want to hear a concert, or go to a great restaurant here.
So it was to create a vision for the town to start to look toward the future as we started presenting these things to the council. And part and parcel to that was the need to invest in our infrastructure or the core infrastructure downtown—our sidewalks, our crosswalks, our roads needed desperate investments. We sort of wanted to conceptualize all that for the council, which was just beginning its second year, and helping frame some of the projects we’d teed up many, many, many years ago.
Kitty: Oh, how long ago had you started this project?
Paul: Well, the North Common’s been in the works for a decade —I actually got that initiated at town meeting, I believe. Improvements to the North Common was one of the major things we were putting together. We’d applied for a grant for Kendrick Park…four or five years ago, things were percolating through, and when the funding came through it was great news. Investments in the infrastructure, things like crosswalks, we did with town funds, CDBG, grants, have been incredibly spectacular, our staff has been spectacular at securing grants.. walkways…handicapped access… [ramps]…we’re making parking improvements to old North Pleasant Street, on the other side of Kendrick Park, we’re getting that teed up, and we tried to get as much grant money as possible to improve that. The BID had its own initiative to create a performing arts shell, but that required the town council’s approval.
I knew there were going to be questions like, “You just came to us to make a big investment in the North Common. How do these things fit together?” We wanted to sort of frame that for the council so they could see how all these decisions interface with each other.
Kitty: Are you saying that when the council said OK to the performance shell, it wasn’t connected to other aspects of “Destination Amherst”?
Paul: Each one of these things is independent —don’t think of Destination Amherst as a plan, which is how you framed it. It’s never been called a plan. It’s a rubric.
Kitty: It’s been quoted as a plan by [a former town councilor], the Destination Amherst Plan.
Paul: I’m not responsible for the councilors — I’m responsible for my staff and [myself]. The councilors speak for themselves. How they want to frame things is up to them.
OK, it’s not a plan.
Paul: And you know the performing arts shell was in Frederick Law Olmsted’s plan for the Town Common, so we know that’s been percolating around. Kendrick Park was in the Kendrick Park Plan to activate that space. All these things were there, they just needed money to move forward.
Kitty: I’m a big believer in planning, knowing how [projects, zoning law changes] are all going to fit together and benefit the residents of Amherst —a year-round economy in a year-round population of people who are staying here. So, who handled the public participation, for instance, and the studies that have been done on these disparate….
Paul: Tell me which one you want to know about.
Kitty: Well…who takes responsibility for public participation about the parking garage [rezoning] on North Prospect Street.
Paul: So we identified the idea of a privately funded parking garage, recognizing that…demand for parking was projected to increase…there was a proposal to rezone a parcel. What the council has been talking about lately is, what are the other options available? That came up recently, in terms of location, and so that’s something we obviously will be looking at.
Kitty: I felt like residents participated, without being invited to participate, and forced the town council to say OK, OK, OK, we’ll look at other places [and options].
Paul: Well, that’s your opinion, OK, but to change the zoning has requirements [for] public hearings and all that kind of stuff. The planning board has to have a public hearing and the council has to have a public hearing. I think there was a fairly robust participation in some of these meetings.
Kitty: So, what [were] the impact studies done on, say, [rezoning for a] parking facility on the town-owned parcel that Barry Roberts’ land borders?
Paul: The town hasn’t put forth any kind of proposals for that space. That was [just] a zoning change.
Kitty: Let me get clear [about] the BID’s role in that and the Amherst Downtown Foundation’s — what were their roles? I understand now that it was the town…
Paul: This was proposed by [two] councilors. When councilors come forward [and say] we want to change a law or we want to change the zoning law or general law, our job as staff is to help them do what they choose to do. And help craft it and put it into legal language, and also give feedback because we have professional staff in the planning department who are really highly qualified and could give you feedback as to what is do-able, what will be manageable from their management perspective of implementing zoning. Councilors are the legislative body, they’re the ones that propose laws and pass laws.
Kitty: Let’s go back, can you tell me what the BID is? I always thought it was there to improve the businesses downtown. And then I started wondering why the BID would [support that] multi-use buildings shouldn’t have to have more than a very tiny amount of non-residential square footage on the ground floor and accessible to the public and usable by the public, and clearly visible, “because [developers] can’t even fill the spaces already there.” And that there’s no need for more retail space, retail is dead, there’s no such thing as retail anymore. I started looking it up, it’s just not true. There are conflicting studies, but in certain towns around us retail is thriving. My question is, is the BID actually interested in improving small businesses? What they seem to be interested in is helping the paying members of the BID, who are the owners of business properties [not the owners of the small businessses]. Could you explain to me who the BID caters to?
Paul: The Business Improvement District was established to have the property owners within the boundaries of the district contribute extra money to fund a nonprofit organization, which is the Business Improvement District, as permitted under state law, to make improvements to the downtown. So the types of things they do is, they put the flowers up on the the lampposts, they sponsor the [holiday] lights, they have someone who goes around everyday and cleans things that are beyond what the DPW [Department of Public Works] can do, they’re the ones sweeping the sidewalks and picking up trash, and when things break they try to fix them, that’s part of what they do.
Kitty: But I’m wondering first who they are, who they cater to, because you said “property owners” but my understanding is that residential property owners are not actually part of the BID, they’re exempted from paying into it…
Paul: There aren’t many residential properties in it…we can look at that, we can look at who pays. That’s public information so it’s easy to do. [But] it’s also the university, the college, and the town—we pay fees to the BID and have seats on the board. Sharon Sharry [director of the Jones Library] is on the board representing the library.
So, that’s what the BID is, and they receive fees and put on events like the Block Party to try and draw people downtown. They try to keep businesses open—I think I don’t agree with you. I’ve seen them individually working to fill retail spaces. It’s really important to the property owners and the livelihood of downtown that all of our retail, all of our storefronts, get occupied. We have some vacancies now, but they work very hard with the property owners to fill any vacancies we have. It’s hard in this economy because…everybody’s doing Amazon. We work hard to keep [stores] open.
Kitty: On town council there’s a lot of “I talked to a developer” and “I talked to some developers” and “Developers say,” [so I feel free to say] I talked to some business owners and they say what they really need is a year-round economy.
Paul: That’s how we started this conversation, that’s exactly what we’re responding to—what do we do to bring people downtown? Amazingly, Kendrick Park playground has been really successful because people come downtown and bring their children or grandchildren…it’s a destination. Even if you don’t have kids it’s a nice place to sit and talk. People are happy at a playground like that, it seems like the right size. And that park had been so underutilized. We’re hoping that the North Common [will be tremendously well-utilized, too].
So anyway, creating things to bring people downtown…I’ve talked to so many people who would say, “We come downtown and there’s nothing to do with my kids. Right, we go to the library, but…you take them to the library and they say, “Well let’s go to the park,” “Let’s get a slice of pizza,” whatever it is.
But you want to make it “sticky” so people stay downtown and start to walk around, and we think if we create more of those destinations—which is why we named it that, to say “we want you to come downtown and spend some time”—and get North Common cleaned up and a pleasant place to be…One of the great realizations that Covid brought was…we put picnic tables out in different places, and they’re heavily used. We put some across from the Black Sheep, some on the North Common, and people love them. It’s like, “Wow, we need to have places where people can sit outside and do take-out and enjoy themselves!”
Kitty: Yes, yes that’s a great thing. But when I hear or read about Destination Amherst not-a-plan, a lot is about drawing people here from Springfield, from Boston, from the Cape, visitors. Is that the main thing to accomplish, a tourist destination? Or to make it a destination for local people to get their groceries, their shoes…instead of going to the mall or ordering on Amazon. I think people here would and do support local stores.
Paul: I think it’s both. I think we know that the people who live here year-round are not going to support a strong downtown year-round, there’s not enough people, and the malls are too competitive—if there were a market for things, businesses would respond to it. But, you know, there’s a reason Louis’ [the downtown grocery store, now CVS] went out of business, right? The stores we had downtown… have moved to someplace else or they’ve gone out of business.
Kitty: Louis’ was doing a fantastic business, I think the property owners got a better price from CVS.
Paul: Well, they weren’t good enough for the market, right? We don’t control the prices—it’s the property owners and the businesses who control it. We can’t say, “Lower your [rents].” If someone can say, “I can get more money for the space from someone else” [they do]. We live in a capitalist society.
Kitty: Well, that’s what I’ve been told but…
Paul: Maybe not in Amherst so much! If you’re looking at the BID, I think they have multiple interests involved…. If you look at the BID board, it is primarily property owners but not exclusively.
Kitty: But when you say “property owners,” it’s a little bit different than saying “developers who own big parcels of land downtown.”
Paul: They’re property owners.
Kitty: But they’re a particular category of property owners.
Paul: Yes, they own the big buildings downtown, so by definition…they rent to businesses.
Kitty:Their property is their business.
Paul: And let’s hope they’re all very healthy—we want their storefronts to be filled, so that they’re getting rent [and] can invest in their property and make it better along the way… I’m looking at three that opened last year.
Kitty: True, and it would be great to have more. Could the town provide help and support for new businesses, like a business innovation center?
Paul: Yes, we’re doing that. With some of our ARPA funds, we’re putting together an economic empowerment position to help people, and a fund to help small businesses who might not be experienced and might need something, maybe $500 or $1,000 to put together a plan and get permitted.
Our biggest challenge is the rents, our rents are much higher than Easthampton’s, and for a lot of good reasons— Easthampton has big [former] factories [with space] and things like that, that we don’t have. We’re not struggling to fill vacant parcels, like Greefield is. It’s a market-based economy. Businesses charge what they think they can bring in.
Kitty: You’ve had experiences with new businesses, Rani, right?
Rani Parker: Yes, but first I’m very interested that Destination Amherst is sort of your idea and it sounds like a compilation of ideas from different places, including the BID. I’m a little unclear about your role in all of this because the way you’re talking sounds somewhat passive—it’s sort of like the BID comes up with ideas, and the town council says, “oh, go do this” and you do it, but then you have your own lens on all of this. You’re talking about how useful the park is, lots of trees and space for families there.
How do you see your role in bringing that kind of richness to the discussion of what is downtown Amherst going to be like? Specifically I’ll address the issue that’s been quite controversial since I moved here, about a new multi-use building that’s going to be put up, and not really talking about things like stormwater management in that building or a wide sidewalk so that you can put these picnic tables and benches there, and a canopy of trees.
And you may say, “oh yeah, this is great” because that’s what you’re saying, but I’m wondering: As the town manager, what’s your role in bringing this knowledge that you have to the town council, while you’re bringing these ideas to them as well?
Paul: It’s a great question, thank you. I look at the Destination Amherst as a rubric. There were all these different initiatives percolating through that we wanted to capture and say, “Here’s how they fit together.” So the BID had the performing arts shell, a big initiative for them, and if you look at that January report, when the economic development director, assistant manager, and I made the presentation to the town council, we all agreed this would be a way to help frame the issue.
People recognize how downtrodden the North Common was, so what’s our role…what’s the council’s role? They can change laws, and appropriate money, and they’re the keepers of the public way. The town common is a public way, so they can control what happens on the town common. That’s why we were before the council, for permission to do things on the public way, and were asking for funds to support the work being done for the town. We bring expertise, but the decision making for many things, for funding, for zoning, for public way improvements lives with the council. The BID had its goal for a performing arts shell. [Some] people were saying, “why not have a performance shell on the North Common?” Well, the BID wants to do it privately funded and pay for their own fundraising, and we’d prefer the private sector pay for things versus the public sector pay, that’s always our goal.
So, putting all these things under a [Destination Amherst] rubric, here are the things you’re going to be looking at over the next couple years because, otherwise if you’re a councilor you’re saying, “Well, wait a minute! Why are you doing this, how does it interact with this if I approve this North Common? Does that mean we don’t get a performing arts shell? Are you looking at the same space?” It was just to help frame it.
My role as town manager is—and we’ve got a very strong staff, and our planning department—
to help develop the downtown area into a lively, good place, and we’ll work to do anything that creates economic activities, economic drivers downtown.
This year we said we would prioritize outdoor dining, so we’re going to take parking spaces because this is the only way our local businesses or restaurants are going to survive. When, hopefully, we’re emerging from the pandemic, we can start to have the conversation about what do we want that to look like. We’ve got [a certain amount of] space and all these [choices].
Rani: Based on your experience, what do you think is the best way to engage the communities, the people around you, the users and the residents, to figure out “what are the trade offs?”
Paul: So we have had innumerable in-person meetings pre-Covid, typically led by Chris Brestrup in the planning department, and typically, people would show up and talk about what they wanted. Recognizing Covid, we have a website called EngageAmherst.org where we can post a project and there can be a dialogue, it’s another way of trying to engage people. Although it’s harder under Covid, it’s easier for people to participate in meetings electronically, which is nice! Trying to get as much participation is a high value for us.
Kitty: I was just curious, why did the BID say they’d pay for a shell on the South Common but [the North Common didn’t seem to be discussed]?
Paul: Well, it’s ultimately up to the council to decide. It’s the council’s land and they can say, “We don’t want to put it on the South Common, we want it on the North Common. If they wanted that, they would have said that.
Kitty: Going back to another topic—Rani, you were telling me earlier about the business innovation center you worked with…
Rani: It’s a very powerful way to bring in businesses. I wouldn’t simply say it [necessarily] applies to Amherst, being so new here, but if you were to [explore that], well I know a lot about how to do it because my own business started with support from a business innovation center. But I don’t know if it’s something you want to do here, there’s so much going on already.
Paul: Yes, Amherst Works was a co-work space but there was a company that rented space there to be able to connect with young entrepreneurs. I don’t think it really worked that well, they didn’t find they had the traffic or they’d been thinking they’d leverage off of the university. And working with the university is something we want if there are things that can’t be done on their campus or by their people there… One of our biggest challenges is trying to leverage all the incredible work being done at the university. How can the town benefit from it? And a big challenge right now is space, we don’t have the ample space to rent to people. There are a lot of vacancies downtown but it’s not the right kind of space, a lot of our older buildings don’t have elevators, things like that.
But when I talk to people, like “what’s your favorite street in town?” they often will talk about the block where Hastings is, right across from the Commons, and trees, trees make all the difference, even though the buildings are right up on the sidewalk and actually encroach on the public way—it’s little storefronts and a very nice variability that makes you want to walk alongside it. People like to walk along Main Street but not on the Town Hall side…creating wider sidewalks and more activity on the sidewalks, that’s a high value for us because it generates activity, especially in the summer, people sitting outside cafes…
Kitty: I know we want to wrap this up but I’d like to know about the time spent by town staff, like if the BID says, “We think there should be a performance shell on the South Common,” does the planning department look into that?
Yes, if [the BID] is proposing something, before it goes to the council we’ll have our DPW and planning [department and other] departments critique it. We don’t want something ridiculous, we don’t want to waste the council’s time with something that doesn’t make [sense because it’s] on top of a sewer line—we’re going to help anybody who comes up with a proposal to figure it out.
What I’m really asking is [the BID] in the town budget?
Paul: There isn’t a line item in the budget. We pay a fee taken out of our transportation fund, which is funded by some of our parking revenue. The town, the university, the college all contribute a certain amount of money and that’s the sort of agreement we have. The town collects the BID fees from the [business] property owners (I’m not sure if it goes on their tax bill) and turns that over to the BID. The [business] property owners aren’t getting from the BID and the town separately. I meet regularly with the BID and the Chamber, typically together…especially during Covid, and work through a million things, business support, activities, grants so that’s staff time, and our DPW works in tandem with them on things going on downtown like they get lights and we help them put them up, because we have the trucks for that. They take care of their flowers and baskets and banners, things to make the place look nice.
Kitty: Do you ever say no to requests like that?
Paul: We can say that but usually these things are benefits to the town. Lighting downtown is usually a good thing for businesses, especially in the winter, and we appreciate having additional lighting. (They’ve been focused partly on lighting lately.) They help us by picking up [small] trash—after we go through with a machine they come back with a broom. They help maintain the tree wells, things like that. We work together and it’s a good partnership, we all want the downtown to look sharp. We need to invest more in it, actually, quite frankly from the town’s point of view. A lot of the sidewalks need work. We do sweep and remove snow and ice from downtown areas. You had another question?
Kitty: Where was I, well, those fees that the owners of business properties pay, and the town and UMass and the library, I believe, is that [information] available to the public?
Paul: I’ll try and get that for you.
Kitty: I’m hesitant to create extra work for you—
Paul: No, let me see what’s easily available and I’ll shoot it off to you. I can certainly see what’s out there that’s public.
Kitty: OK, so in terms of “Destination Amherst” and town planning, a lot of people (I hate that phrase) think there should be a year-round population and a year-round, economy, and long-term residents or full-year residents are very important, as is diversity including a good balance of students who live in owner-occupied houses or rent entire houses or live in the quote-unquote multi-use housing. I say in quotes because there’s so little multi-use there, in my opinion. How does the BID get involved in making Amherst a place that’s affordable and busy…having more residents [who are not only] students in those big buildings, having more full-time residents is going to help downtown Amherst, right.?
Paul: Having residents living downtown, utilizing services downtown, is a plus, yes, creating density is a plus.
Kitty: And would you say that having a balance of types of people, like long-term or year-round people there should be [part of the] balance?
Paul: Yes, diversity of people so that there’s mixed income is really, really important, and we don’t want all one age group or all one…it’s hard to achieve diversity but we work towards it, as you know, the council just approved inclusionary zoning… that will create additional units in any new development coming forward so that’s a really good thing for us.
Kitty: Diversity that includes year-round population and people who are not year-round is good for the downtown—does the BID seem to have any plans for helping [downtown business by helping] affordable housing and various diverse populations? And maybe an emphasis on year-round populations to improve business downtown.
Paul: I think “year-round” is a funny term because…there are a lot of professors who go away for the summer so they’re not year-round. I question your use of “year-round”.
Kitty: Let me defend it for a minute…when I do petition gathering or giving out pamphlets on the common, and say “Are you an Amherst resident?” they might say yes, but if I follow-up with, “Do you vote in Amherst?” they say “No, I vote at home.” There’s no denying that we’re a college town, the colleges heavily influence the town, and I think it’s facetious to say there’s no difference between year-round residents and….
Paul: There’s “year-round” and there’s “permanent.” We can’t have meetings in the summer so many people go to the Cape for two months. So I’m guessing you mean to say “long-term” residents. And here’s my pushback on this.
A young woman who had a young child applied to be on the Recreation Commission, LSSE at the time. I said OK, and said, “Why [what motivated you to] apply, because we tend not to get folks [from your neighborhood].” and she said, “Look, I have a little baby and I was trying to find swimming lessons for her and I found your website almost impossible to navigate. I said, “Well that’s great, that’s exactly what we [need to know] and we want someone from your demographic here.” And she says, “but the reality is, my husband’s doing a postdoc at the university, he’s going to be here for two or three years and then we’re probably going someplace else.”
I said, “That’s too bad, how do we [convince] you to stay here?” and she says, “That’s not the point, the point is when I move, there’s going to be someone just like me who rents the apartment, who’s going to have a baby, who’s going to be here for three years, and you need to start to plan for people who are only here for two or three years because that’s the nature of the economy here…we have a right, just like anybody else has.”
It was really instructive because before I’d always sort of bifurcated, but then I thought, “this is a person who’s year-round but not long-term, we have to listen to that person. How do I get them on our committee so we hear their perspective.” It was an “Aha!” moment for me.
Kitty: I think there’s actually three [groups]—”permanent” people who are really committed to the area, undergraduate students who are doing what they’re supposed to at this time—studying their heads off, socializing their asses off, doing sports…they don’t care about town government and they aren’t interested in or swimming lessons for their kids because they’re not at that stage of life, and the third category is this woman, graduate students [and their families]. They’re a different demographic, often with a commitment to the area, even if they’re going to move away. Some of them stay a long time. And I’ve read that one of the goals of some college towns is to get those people to stay.
Paul: Yeah, and there are probably more than three major demographics… Amherst is really a diverse population, in terms of economic level…We try to be a welcoming place for lots of different folks and make everybody feel like that’s one of the biggest challenges we have is make people feel like they have a stake [in the town], when you feel like you…have the right to care. And that’s where the dialogue, sometimes, gets broken down when people talk about the students doing this, and it’s an accurate because student parties are creating a lot…I went to college here, I had no clue about town government, although [former town manager] Alan Torrey was the treasurer at Hampshire at the time. I think I only came into town to get ice cream, basically.
Rani: I have one quick question but if it’s not really quick, that’s fine, I see the time, Why did the BID establish a separate foundation?
Paul: I think the BID in its charter has certain things it can do and I think a foundation gives them more flexibility to do things, they can give money to things they want to do and initiatives they want to support. [There is] stuff I’m not that privy to…there’s some overlap [between the two] but it’s not complete overlap….
Rani: Thanks, it’s a pleasure to meet you, and I’m looking forward to meeting people in person too.