Amherst’s Color Divide Meets ARPA Funding

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Photo: eastbridgewaterma.gov

At the Town Council meeting on June 26, two members of the public and one member of the town council spoke at length about their concerns that the town’s ARPA funds were distributed inequitably. Below, I offer excerpts of their extended comments to the Town Council. At that meeting, the Town Manager Paul Bockelman and Town Finance Director Sean Mangano disputed the charge that ARPA funds had been unfairly distributed.  Their rebuttal can be found here and here).

Amherst persists in having a color divide, and it isn’t because the town doesn’t give real estate investors more freedom to build affordable housing here.

Vira Cage says , “I have a problem…we should all have a problem…with the fact that our Town Manager sits on the board of the Business Improvement District”.

Amilcar Shabazz says he was personally involved in bringing Hazel’s Blue Lagoon to Amherst and now it is painful to see how they have fared here. He urges the town to make a strategic investment in supporting Black businesses.

At-large Town Councilor Ellisha Walker has observed that ARPA monies are awarded to projects that have little to do with impacts of COVID, and was dismayed when ARPA monies were originally allocated to moving the sixth grade into the high school (this plan was later changed) but not to helping students and educators who were impacted by COVID, and when people and groups could not receive ARPA grants because of bureaucratic hurdles, and when some businesses are being given preferential treatment in funding and other support. She wants Amherst’s downtown culture to be more expansive and inclusive so that more people will come here and feel comfortable.

Excerpts

Vira Cage

“The fact that $300,000 went to the Downtown Amherst Foundation for The Drake, which is a project of the nonprofit arm of the Business Improvement District, means that it didn’t go to the most qualified entity [as] there was no “application process” and there was no “request for applications”… That is not objective. 

“[Former Downtown Amherst Foundation president] Barry Roberts received $150,000 [of ARPA funding] basically to do an upgrade to his building.”
— Vira Cage

“The fact that we are so OK with this business-as-usual — that our town council president and our town manager regularly meet with the executive director of the Business Improvement District, the lobbying group for downtown developers and landowners in this community, and that $150,000 of that $300,000 went to improve the facility, which is owned by developer and Downtown Foundation member [and former president] Barry Roberts — is beyond my understanding or comprehension. Barry Roberts received $150,000 basically to do an upgrade to his building.

“[At the same time, a mere] $150,000 went to help tenants and homeowners who were behind on their rent, behind on their mortgage, and now we’re thinking, ‘Oh, there’s a need … so we’ll kick in another $50,000 in the second round.’ Well, that’s still $100,000 less than what The Drake received.”

“When you push people to the wall, what do you expect them to do? In this community, sit back and take it [but] we will have a real revolution on our hands when we go to every door, every resident in this community and tell them that this is happening in our community.”

“[Earlier, you said] that you can’t find a ‘driver’ for the Teen Empowerment Center, and that’s why there has been so little progress. But you know people who can drive this forward, people that can make this a reality three weeks ago. You choose to ignore the people we appoint… people we have worked with in the CSWG, the CSSJC, we can throw out a whole bunch of acronyms and alphabets, but I’m over my time. I don’t know if you will allow me more time but I’m the board president of Amherst Media, which is an entity and non profit in this town that could benefit from ARPA funding, an entity that provides real critical resources to this town to document and archive our history and the progress we’re achieving in this community. We work with college students, we provide internships, we equip regular community members with equipment, with training, with the tools to tell their own story. We’re one of the oldest organizations in town. How can you not trust us, but you trust people who have put together a concept that hasn’t been tested? 

“I’ll stop here by saying we need to stop having the Town Manager serve on the Business Improvement District. It is a lobbying group, and although created a 501C3 non-profit arm, it’s the same people running the same show.”

[Later, Monica Cage took to the podium but yielded her time to Vira Cage so that she could continue.]

“I hope that the Town Council will take action on my advice that the Town Manager should step down from his relationship with the Business Improvement District because it seems like everything the BID wants, the BID gets, and that doesn’t sit comfortably with a lot of us — not everyone can speak up against the wealthy landowners in this town. A lot of us want to be in proximity with these wealthy White landowners and developers because maybe they can do more for us, but a lot of us in this community disagree. A lot of us in this community are suffering economically, financially, and we have heard that our children are suffering in school. We could use more help and more support. And the data is there, the research is there, the engagements are there, and that could be a priority. The litmus test [of value] shouldn’t be, “How many powerful people agree with these projects?” 

“Sometimes we need to listen, and provide adequate support for communities who are truly suffering. ARPA funds are meant to target communities and businesses who are suffering economically, help people who are struggling. Not people that are well off! 

“This is not a game, right? For a lot of people in this town, the elites, it’s a game — how much can we get? And who cares if people are suffering, if you’re behind on your rent, if you’re behind on your mortgage, on your taxes? Who cares in this elite club? “We’re going to run the show. We’re going to get the money. And we’re going to spend it on ourselves. You [and you and you] will get some, don’t worry, we’ll put our people to work and we will gain from the money coming down the pipeline.”

“Well, this is not a game for many of us. This is life and death. This is our livelihood. This is our pride. This is our joy. This is our life.

“You have signs all over the town that say “Black Lives Matter”. Really? In this town, there shouldn’t be one [Black Lives Matter] sign up because of how you all have made decisions. 

“Black lives do not matter in this town.”

Amilcar Shabazz: “I am part of the Black Business Association of the Amherst Area. I believe that the coming together, the organizing, and the expression of a kind of united voice of Black business owners is very important to the long-term viability of those businesses.

“We can see this back at the turn of the in the early 1900s, when Booker T. Washington organized similar kinds of Negro Chambers of Commerce and [there was] help to organize Black businesses to come together all over the country in what historians refer to as the nadir, one of the worst periods in race relations, the high-water mark of racism against Black people in this country. It was vital to their development, their communities, their survival to have that kind of organizing. In fact, Booker T. Washington came to Amherst and went to what today we call Hope Community Church as part of helping that church get off the ground and become financially viable, and at the same time promoting the Black community in town, Black businesses in town. That was all part of his coming here to little Amherst.

“I hope something will be done [for Hazel’s Blue Lagoon] but also that the town will make a strategic investment in supporting Black businesses.”
— Amilcar Shabazz

“I think we have to really look at Black businesses as a strategic investment in the viability and long term development of the particular diverse community in Amherst of people of African descent.

“When I first came to the town, as I drove down the street there was Baku’s African restaurant, and we immediately turned in to have lunch. And it was very impressive to me because where I was moving from, Tulsa, Oklahoma, there was also a restaurant owned and operated by a Nigerian chef, Chef Mundy. So it was very impressive to see that, ‘Oh, I’m moving somewhere that has the same kinds of diversity.’ When it closed, I was very sad, and found myself going out of town to Chicopee, to where Hazel was located. And as I would go, I was thinking, ‘I’m making this trip from South Amherst over to Chicopee, but what if they came here?’ 

“[In talking] to Junior Williams and Patrick Chapman, I saw that in terms of where they were in their business development and their ideas, the idea of moving to Amherst was very appealing, and I was directly part of the encouragement of that. So to see how they have fared in this town is a source of really great, great, great pain to me.

“I hope something will be done for that particular business, but also that the town will make a strategic investment in supporting Black businesses.”

Ellisha Walker: “I’m actually glad that the [ARPA] monies allocated for the move of the sixth grade to the middle school did not get used because I think that’s a strange way to utilize ARPA funding, especially considering the current crisis — in terms of social and emotional well-being that exists within our schools right now (yes, you can talk to any staff in any school here — there is a crisis) why we would not allocate the money to something for our students that would actually help combat the impacts they are experiencing from COVID? We are cutting teachers. We are cutting programs. We are not fully paying our paraeducators. And when we have extra monies to combat the impacts of COVID in our community, we’re going to fund the move of the sixth grade to the middle school? That is strange. I’m very glad that did not happen, and I’m hoping we can find a way to use that money to help our students who need resources and who are lacking fully compensated caregivers during the day.

“Another initiative was the community grants, and again, while that has been a beneficial program to many, a lot of people have not been able to access it because of the requirements. For example, you need to have an eviction notice, you need to have a notice to quit, you need to have a [utility] shut-off bill. You can’t simply be behind. You can’t say I cannot pay, because living in poverty is not that cut-and-dry. It’s not just ‘I missed my rent.’ Maybe I had to take my money for my electric bill and my gas bill and my car bill to pay my rent because I don’t want to lose my house, but now I didn’t pay my other bills and there’s no funding for that. 

“We need to find a better way of balancing because the scale is very heavily tipped in favor of financially well-off and non-BIPOC peoples…and what they like to do and what they want to see in our town.”
— Ellisha Walker

“I think we need to think about the requirements we’re putting on the […] people receiving the community grants. There are a lot of very strict requirements as to who and how people can receive that money, and if we’re going to allocate more funding to it, I beg of you to revisit the requirements, and how people can apply for that funding without bucketloads of documentation. People should be able to write simply, write COVID impact statements. 

“And I did want to talk a little bit more about Hazel’s not getting money because that is so very troublesome for me for all of the reasons that were already mentioned and I don’t think people realize that not only did Hazel’s not get money, but when we’re talking about the ramp issue [The Drake was permitted to open with just a temporary ramp to the stage but Hazel’s was] not allowed to open at all. They were not allowed to function as a business for many, many months, because of this ramp. That is delayed income. That is setbacks. That is a debt that happened during COVID.

“Why are we not compensating them? If we are allowing other businesses to currently run, operate, generate income and revenue for themselves, why are we not compensating them for the amount of time that we did not allow them to open?

“And then they didn’t get ARPA funds. It just makes no sense. My big hope is that when we’re looking back at the monies allocated and not spent, let’s not just roll it over into the next round where we have a new pot of money. Can we look backwards for a minute, and look at all the people who didn’t get money during the first round and should have gotten money? Because there’s money left over. Can we reopen and change some of those requirements? [For example] why would there be a requirement that if you have an outstanding bill you can’t apply for ARPA funding? Isn’t that what it’s for? This, too, makes no sense. 

“We need to revisit the requirements because this is a systemic issue, literally how systemic racism happens. Because it’s not within the people, it’s within the systems — we set it up to happen like this. We need to look at this. This is a very serious issue. And when we talk about dismantling systemic racism, this is a system right here, one that we’ve created and can readdress if we really are serious about dismantling systemic racism. We change the policies. We change the practice. We change our approach. We listen to the people in our communities.

“People are suffering. We need to change our practices and our policies. And we can do that. We still have ARPA money left.”

[Later]

“I wanted to add that thinking about our town’s economic development and what benefits our town, we’re really, really missing out on community members. I don’t think we take into consideration the businesses and the things that don’t directly benefit us. We’re talking about what can increase the revenues that come to us so that we have more money for our budgets, [but] we need to help the people in our community. It doesn’t always have to be a direct benefit to our revenue — because expanding the culture downtown, expanding what’s available for people, making it more inclusive, making it more open, making there be more diversity, more possibilities, more things happening inadvertently benefits our town and our revenues. People will want to come here. People will feel more comfortable here.

“And there was a comment made earlier [that reminds me] about the differences in communities when you say ‘our community’ and ‘our priorities’. I think just like recognizing and understanding that there is a real difference in priorities between different racially identifying communities. That is a real thing and it doesn’t need to be a bad thing. And so when we’re addressing our priorities, whose priorities are we addressing? And whose priorities are we completely ignoring and missing out on?

“I think we need to find a way better way of balancing because the scale is very heavily tipped in favor of financially well-off and non-BIPOC peoples. It’s very, very much tipped in favor of those populations in those communities and what they like to do and what they want to see in our town.

“But a lot of people are also very much excited to have Black food in our community — that is also very exciting and that is also an economic driving force for our community. We just need to look at these things in the same way instead of so differently. I see a huge divide in how we’re talking about and thinking. [For example] all of the really good things we’re saying about the Drake, you can say those same exact things about Hazel’s. I don’t understand this huge divide. We need to accommodate our whole, entire community, we need to pour funds into our whole, entire community. And some of our community is suffering more, and we need to address those things.”

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1 thought on “Amherst’s Color Divide Meets ARPA Funding

  1. I want to underscore Vira Cage’s objection to the Town Manager sitting on the Board of the Business Improvement District (BID). She is basically correct in describing the BID as a lobbying association of downtown property owners and developers. Such an association is perfectly legal but it is improper for Town officials – who are being lobbied – to sit with it.

    This is quite apart from the damage that has been inflicted on our downtown in recent years and from the serious matters of inequity raised by the comments in this post. The political, economic and social developments in town since the
    implementation of the Home Rule Charter in 2017 have both led to and been the consequence of the concentration of power in a few interlocked organizations which have deliberately violated the separation of powers and the checks and balances which are fundamental to democratic governance. Truth be told, this was happening in Amherst before 2017, but it was only codified by the charter.

    As the Town Council takes steps to democratize town government by making service on Boards and Committees more possible for parents, renters and others, one easy and necessary step would be for the Council to insist that the Town Manager – and the Town Council President – disengage themselves from the BID and make sure that access to Town government is available equally to all members of our community.

    Thanks to Kitty Axelson-Berry, Vira Cage, Amilcar Shabazz, and Ellisha Walker for doing the heavy lifting in the project to democratize Amherst.

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