When asked a year ago to do an Outlook 2020 viewpoint for the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, one never imagined the dual health and economic crisis that was about to shut us down flat. There was no curve. It was a steep drop. And with the closures of our flagship University of Massachusetts campus along with area colleges, our Amherst Area towns simply shut down overnight.
I want to talk about how our chamber will work with our local and state partners to play an active role in our economic recovery as a key part of our outlook for 2021. But first I must reflect.
I am in awe of our small-business owners. We have cried, held virtual hands, coached them through grant applications, grant acceptances and denials, Paycheck Protection Program questions, and we funneled their inquiries to the Statehouse as needed.
As a chamber, we tried to offer a lifeline at every turn, but no system is perfect. We could not save them all. Like most small towns, we have lost businesses permanently, and some are choosing to temporarily close as we hit another peak in COVID cases. But through it all the resilience of our business owners reminds me why my parents and my husband’s parents came to this country – the American spirit. It is alive in each small business.
Through it all, 2020 gave our small-business owners new perspective. It gave them the opportunity to think about their business differently. Our owners were forced to take a second look at their offerings. From reimagining their menus to creating brand-new outdoor spaces, they breathed life into this crisis. And while it’s not over, I believe those left standing are better positioned for the future.
While I am hard pressed to predict the future, I do want to reflect on one of our original 2020 goals which was to activate our voice on behalf of our members. Mission accomplished. From weekly meetings with town and college officials, to state representatives and state leadership during COVID, we have never been more well positioned to advocate for our corner of Western Massachusetts.
Together, we effectively advocated for federal and state grants. At the federal level, we successfully curated two Community Development Block Grant programs through the Valley Community Development Corp. The Amherst COVID Recovery Grant Program and Regional Small Business COVID Recovery Grant programs are both offering one-time grants up to $10,000 for businesses across the Pioneer Valley.
At the municipal level, we successfully created and ran a pilot effort in December to help our businesses through the winter months, matching town of Amherst CARES Act monies to monies raised through the Relief & Resiliency Fund to feed 100 neighbors two dinners a week during the month of December. That December Dinner Delights program is extended, and more restaurants and families will benefit. Through another state earmark of $20,000, we are offering Winter Pivot Grants that began in January as an additional boost to small businesses.
We successfully advocated and received a Mass Development Resilient Places grant to adapt our visitors center and provide enhancements to other area town centers, while working nearly daily with Amherst to reduce liquor-licensing fees, expedite permitting for outdoor dining and liquor to-go, while implementing an Amherst-wide Relief & Resiliency Micro-Grant program that provided additional micro-grants, safety signage and personal protective equipment (PPE) for our businesses.
We have turned every stone to keep our businesses afloat. We launched our Amherst Area Gift Card program in December, raising over $11,000 in just the first few weeks that will go back to our small businesses. Despite all our actions and even with the relief and the vaccine on the way, our small businesses are only operating at 25% of their capacity.
I believe we are on the precipice of a second “Roaring Twenties.” That title was not acquired by accident, it was earned with a purposeful surge in economic drivers, even the cultural economy boomed. We need to create our own roar.
We must invest in growth. That includes doubling down on long-term infrastructure with investment in capital projects – from leveraging outdoor spaces with physical improvements to large-scale ideas. Capital projects provide jobs in the short term to set us up for long-term success.
When the pandemic hit, our chamber advocated for a Destination Amherst. That is a five-pronged project that includes the addition of an outdoor performance venue and parking structure and improvements to the North Common, Kendrick Park and other planned physical improvements.
It’s time to innovate and reimagine our downtowns and storefront spaces. Is current zoning ready for a post-COVID world? Modified zoning and expediting permitting during COVID was a stark reminder that we can do better. It’s time for us to reform policies, procedures, and practices to reflect our new reality, and myriad possibilities for both indoor and outdoor space use.
Harnessing the technology and research happening at UMass and area colleges and connecting them to financial and space resources, we can build a pipeline for entrepreneurship to build our local economy. We also know there has been a surge of talent arriving to our beautiful part of the world due to the urban flight. We must take advantage of that new talent and make it easy for them to do business.
There is a pent-up demand to travel, but how comfortable before we all get on a plane? When it feels safe, we must be well positioned for local travelers and the reactivation of college and alumni events. Thus, we have reignited our Hampshire County Regional Tourism Council board. Together, with our Greater Northampton and the Greater Easthampton chamber partners, we are leveraging our shared resources, and enhancing tourism tools to generate tourism.
We also need to talk about people. With unemployment at its highest, both locally and nationwide, we need to support our nonprofit leaders who are buoying our most vulnerable. We must be ready to partner and embrace new ideas on addressing food insecurity and homelessness, as advocates for leveraging varied funding resources. We just ended a $10,000 campaign for the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts that included a $5,000 match from PeoplesBank which will provide 40,000 additional meals. The needs are varied, but we are ready to partner.
Last year, when our members sought out more networking, we gave them 56 events. This year, we relied on technology to keep us together, with over 56,000 connections across our marketing channels. We look forward to bringing new Women’s Leadership and Equity and Inclusion workshop series among other virtual programming throughout the first six months of the year and be back with our signature events all when it feels safe to do so.
We are heading into 2021 with a sense of pride and humility. Gratitude for our members who have stuck with us, when there was ZERO additional funding for us, and for those who invested with us that kept us whole during the darkest of times, our Chamber Champions. Please allow me to thank them here: PeoplesBank; Pioneer Valley Hotel Group; Cooley Dickinson Health Care; Encharter Insurance; Greenfield Savings Bank; UMass; Hampshire Hospitality; Steve Lewis Subaru; Applied Mortgage; Hampshire Mall; and Amherst College. Speaking of gratitude, I must thank my board, led powerfully by Lynn Gray, general manager at Hampshire Mall, and my exceptional staff, membership and marketing manager John Page and bookkeeper Laurie Freitag. This team truly helped shoulder the burdens of these times.
All that I share here demonstrates a response that has been characterized by cooperation and collaboration. For any vision of recovery to become reality, this must continue. We need to think creatively, be proactive, partner and remove inhibitors to what will be a long economic recovery. Stay safe. Mask up. Your Amherst Area Chamber is in your corner and ready to roar.
Claudia Pazmany is the executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce. The chamber is located at 35 South Pleasant St., Amherst. To learn more about the chamber and its work, go online to amherstarea.com.