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Editorial: Amherst ‘vision’ quest should focus on fun

  • Sarah la Cour, executive director of the Amherst Business Improvement District, says a goal of the campus and community coalition is to develop “healthy and fun and safe” events that do not involve alcohol for students. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO


Thursday, October 27, 2016

The title of a recent Amherst community meeting contained a goad to the public: “It’s Your Turn to Speak Up!” Shaking loose viewpoints is usually not hard in an engaged place like Amherst. And as is often the case, the topic was not simple.

Organizers of last week’s gathering wanted to gather new approaches to an old problem: making the town center a more appealing entertainment destination to students on area college campuses under the legal drinking age.

Fortunately, the session’s sponsor, the Campus and Community Coalition to Reduce High-Risk Drinking, can draw from creative efforts underway on and off campus. The coalition is made up of officials from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and surrounding towns.

First, they may want to keep the group’s name off promotional materials related to entertainment events they cook up. No offense to the coalition’s hard-working members, but we suspect students see something inherently disapproving in the group’s name.

Sarah la Cour, executive director of the Amherst Business Improvement District, said the search is for “healthy and fun and safe” events. The first and third items on la Cour’s list are legitimate, and the town has seen plenty of nights that were unhealthy and unsafe.

But if this effort aims to attract a cross section of undergraduates, as well as teens in town, it needs to push the fun part.

Young people dress up on party nights for fun, not to be cogs in a social engineering project.

That said, a lot of good things can be accomplished, provided organizers keep their eyes on the “F” word – fun.

While the issue of economic vitality came up at the session, it’s important to focus on creating legitimate reasons for college-age residents of Amherst who are under 21 to make downtown a prime destination.

Events already offered on the UMass campus offer a template. The UMass Night Out program, held monthly, invites students to alcohol-free events. The most recent saw students painting watercolors, swimming at the Totman Gymnasium, skating at the Mullins Center practice rink and enjoying an outdoor movie.

As far as pulling people to events downtown goes, you couldn’t do much better than the September Block Party held on and around Kendrick Park at semester’s start. That boisterous event sent a message to undergrads that Amherst welcomes them downtown. That hasn’t always been the message, la Cour acknowledges, in the wake of disturbances involving alcohol, particularly past St. Patrick’s Day bar promotions and the infamous Blarney Blowout.

One advantage in the town’s column is that given the regular turnover on campuses, attitudes can be reset. By creating new entertainment options, and getting word of them out to students through social media, Amherst can address the perception that it doesn’t want undergrads downtown.

And good riddance to that, because it isn’t true. Merchants of all kinds want the thousands of young people on Amherst’s three college campuses to visit their establishments.

It makes most sense to start small. Because Amherst does not have as many entertainment venues as Northampton, it has to be creative. We like la Cour’s notion of working with churches and fraternal organizations to open their spaces for all-ages events that would add to the mix of things to do in the town center, regardless of who attends.

That is far more feasible than one idea that arose at last week’s meeting: opening a bowling alley. To get results, people behind this effort need to use what exists; they cannot rely on private enterprise to provide options on their timetable. That might mean a dance party in a church hall this winter, or, come spring, some sort of celebration or performance in newly designated outdoor spaces.

Whose turn is it now? Ideas identified in the speakout will be included in a report along with other proposals from the BID and the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce. Organizers hope to identify three to five entertainment concepts to roll out starting next spring. We’re eager to see what they come up with.