At first glance, a 2021 outlook seemed like an unpredictable landscape during this unprecedented and challenging time. But as I considered the critical role that the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce plays in supporting a thriving economy and community, I am inspired by what we achieved in 2020 despite unimaginable odds.

As we navigated through a year rife with turmoil, we discovered pathways to new opportunities that we probably would not have thought possible in a “normal” year. The pandemic caused us to power test our five-year strategic plan that we launched in 2019, which directed us to adopt a culture of experimentation to become a nimble organization and to create sustainable models that expand access and value to our programs and services.

Another reason to be hopeful is that there is finally a line of sight to a return to “regular life” given the vaccine rollouts and stronger requirements for everyone to mask up. I do not have a crystal ball, but I am optimistic about 2021 and know that the Northampton chamber remains committed to fostering a thriving economy and community, with a positive outlook toward recovery.

We will continue to support our local economy through our coveted Northampton Gift Card Program, which pumps nearly $370,000 annually into our small-business community. This year, the program will celebrate its 15th anniversary with a plan that includes expanded distribution, enhanced marketing promotions, and stronger consumer engagement.

Our “Shop Local” campaign and the commonwealth’s statewide “My Local” campaign go hand in hand to support the economy. According to the U. S. Small Business Administration, $68 of every $100 spent locally returns to our community. This key driving insight is at the core of our work to help small businesses succeed and support our local economy.

Through our Economic Development Committee, we have determined that the arts, music, and restaurants provide unique opportunities that make Northampton a destination. In the near-term, we will kick-off a Restaurant Campaign that will leverage “Project Takeout,” an initiative launched by the Boston Globe to encourage individuals to support their local restaurants by ordering a meal at least once a week. This restaurant campaign is another way to help save jobs, stimulate our economy and engage the community.

As far as jobs go, the number of lost jobs since the pandemic has been significant. One recent source reported that there are 54% fewer jobs among Northampton’s small businesses. According to Labor Market Information on Massachusetts, Northampton’s unemployment rate was 5.3% as of the November report. This was the first time in recent months that Northampton’s unemployment rate was below all three comparative unemployment benchmarks – the Franklin-Hampshire Workforce Development Area, the state of Massachusetts and total U.S. We are hoping for continued declines toward pre-pandemic unemployment rates which were in the 2% range for Northampton.

Entrepreneurship has always been highly regarded in Northampton, which is known throughout the region for its boutique retail shops and farm-to-table restaurants. We have been disheartened by the closing of 15 small businesses in Northampton as of the writing of this article. Several of them were cherished Northampton destinations all their own for decades. Ten other businesses are closed temporarily for the winter, and this has cost even more jobs.

On the flip side, 15 new businesses have opened in Northampton since the pandemic. This reflects a fearless, entrepreneurial spirit and welcoming business culture that run throughout Northampton. These new openings are a mix of restaurants, retail shops and cannabis businesses and have resulted in greater diversity.

Also, Northampton’s share of the steadily growing cannabis industry is increasing. In addition to three medical and adult-use cannabis dispensaries that are currently open, two additional dispensaries are scheduled to open very soon and seven more have applications pending, spaces rented, and other set-ups that suggests rapid expansion in 2021. Additionally, five cannabis production and manufacturing facilities are expected to open.

Located in the Five College area of Western Massachusetts, Northampton is poised for a roaring economic comeback when 37,000-plus students gradually return to the area. The five colleges are prepared to accommodate approximately 60% of their residential student population in February.

The Five College student population is representative of all 50 states and 173 countries, contributing to dynamic growth opportunities throughout all of Hampshire County and the Pioneer Valley. Having students back in the area will breathe a level of vibrancy into our communities that has been sorely missed, so long as we follow the safety protocols and aim for herd immunity over the next few months.

nd, finally, we look forward to a full reopening of the travel and tourism industry. Prior to the pandemic, the visitor center at the Northampton chamber managed well over 100,000 visitor or potential visitor touch points throughout the year. We look forward to welcoming visitors back to the “the other side” of Massachusetts to experience our amazing outdoor attractions, iconic museums, historical landmarks and scenic beauty.

The statewide “My Local” campaign encourages all to “Put your money where your heart is.” This sums up how to help our economy and community get to the other side of the pandemic. 2021 will be a year of recovery, reengagement, reimagination and revitalization. Surely, the best is yet to come!

Vincent Jackson is executive director of the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce. To learn more about the chamber, go online to northamptonchamber.com.