This time of year, there is lots of change going on all around us. As fall heads into winter, we work to prepare for it. Perhaps we have stacked wood, brought in the yard furniture, put up the storm windows. All of this is hard work and yet satisfying because it is part of the way we take care of our families and prepare for the cold days ahead.
There’s another kind of winter coming to Amherst – a financial one. Meeting its challenges will be hard. We’ve already made preparations in terms of budget cuts to schools, libraries and other town services, and we’ve added the local option meal and hotel taxes. But there’s still more work to do if we’re going to avoid being out in the cold.
For years we’ve been calling for “smart growth” – clean, green, mixed use development in already-developed areas like downtown and University Drive – to support our local business climate and generate badly needed revenues for the town. The good news is there is now a live proposal for a new building downtown that would do just that.
The folks who did the beautiful renovation of Judie’s are proposing a five-story building behind Judie’s, next to the parking garage. This modern, “green” (LEED-certified) building would have retail shops on the ground floor and 11 residential units on the upper four floors, enhancing the new vitality of our downtown that began with the renovation of the Amherst Cinema Center.
Yes, it’s a change, but it’s a sensible change, consistent with the town’s comprehensive plan, which basically says we should develop the already-developed areas more intensively to generate more revenue and preserve our open spaces. It’s also a healthy signal about our town’s future to see that people are willing to invest in it.
According to Elisa Campbell, long-time Amherst resident and former member of the Select Board and the Parking Garage committee, this kind of growth was hoped-for when the garage was built. It may have taken a while, but now the Monkey Bar has expanded tastefully, the Knights of Columbus put up a nice facility and it all seems to fit in.
We are really excited to see this proposed building emerge as another signal that smart, well-designed economic development can happen here in Amherst. It’s great to have momentum building toward smart growth in our town, growth based on our values of strong public schools, green open space, diversity, a family-friendly small-town feel, while not soaking the taxpayer. What’s the next step to sustain this momentum, with perhaps even greater benefits?
A recent story in the Boston Globe, entitled “UMass to recruit from the outside: 15% enrollment increase sought,” noted the following:
“Massachusetts’ financially strapped flagship university plans to aggressively recruit out-of-state students, who pay twice as much in tuition and fees as state residents, to help fund an ambitious effort to boost the college’s academic reputation and elevate its national profile…. Starting next year, (Chancellor Robert) Holub hopes to begin enrolling an extra 300 out-of-state students a year, bringing in an estimated additional $4 million each year.”
We think this plan makes a lot of sense for the university. But it’s also a huge opportunity for the town. UMass and town administrators should immediately start working together to identify a site and a builder for a private, taxable “student village” to house the extra 1,200 students that will be looking for places to live in the next four years. Taxable student housing is a win-win situation for town and gown. The university gets more revenues from more students but doesn’t have to build new dorms to house them. The town gets the tax revenues from privately built student apartments. Sometimes opportunity knocks – this one is practically kicking the door down! Town Manager Shaffer, Chancellor Holub – let’s form a Welcoming Committee!
We have already faced the chill of budgets past, and the coming fiscal winter looks bitterly cold. It’s time to get to work on insulating our community from the storms ahead. A key part of that work is to keep seeking Amherst-friendly, smart growth, to help us support the libraries, schools and other services we need to serve our kids and our seniors and everyone in between.
Amherst Center is a monthly column in The Amherst Bulletin that seeks to portray local issues from a centrist perspective. It is written by Town Meeting members Baer Tierkel and Clare Bertrand and School Committee member Andy Churchill. Amherst Center appears in The Amherst Bulletin on the last Friday of each month.