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Tony Maroulis: UMass, Amherst work together well

The public discussion that has played out in the press over the past few weeks between the area’s restaurants and University of Massachusetts Auxiliary Services is a reminder that Amherst’s long-term economic health and stability require cooperative solutions. The Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce is determined to play a positive role on behalf of our member businesses.

The town’s restaurant owners are truly concerned about campus access and a strong dining services operation. While 2007 catering policy referenced by our restaurants did not prevent the delivery and purchase of food to campus, its wording was vague. There were many reports of confusion by staff and departments who have been important customers to the downtown. For some of our restaurants, the expansion of the university’s award winning dining services and a still sluggish economy can feel like a one-two punch.

Yet, the university has been responsive to many of our requests. It has helped us encourage restaurant reservations during commencement. It has corrected traffic flow concerns after large events. It has conceived and coordinated off-campus orientation events to bring students in to experience the town.

And the university has worked with us in agreeing to restrict its mobile food trucks and catering operations to campus.

It wouldn’t be accurate to claim UMass doesn’t have a stake in our continued success together. There has been considerable effort by the school to leverage and promote the “Best College Town in America” tag. Education is a competitive business and Amherst’s success helps UMass attract students to the flagship campus. As much as we need them to do well, they need us to do well, too. Our success makes four years here more attractive to applicants.

As a charter member and active participant in the Amherst Business Improvement District, UMass has made a financial investment in the future of the town’s business and its own. Through a Memorandum of Understanding with the BID it has committed to such important efforts as a downtown campus trolley and a debit-style card for students to use in town, both of which are in the works, and which should provide some real tangible benefit to businesses. UMass has provided critical marketing and support for downtown events, including the planning and promotion of the BID’s Celebrate Amherst Block Party last September, which brought thousands of students downtown.

Are town-gown relations ever perfect? No. Do we have work to do? Yes. Will there be stresses? Certainly.

We’ll be at odds in the future. We’ll continue to push for changes to the university’s catering policy to create access and opportunity. We will lobby UMass tirelessly for input, cooperation and consideration of the interests of our businesses.

But more than anything we need the help of Amherst residents. We need you to come downtown and frequent our establishments on a regular basis. We need you to think creatively and expansively about our Amherst future. It must be one in which businesses and institutions thrive and students are welcome. Calls for UMass to keep its students on campus are harmful to an economy dependent on them. Bylawing our students into submission is not a long-term strategy for growth.

Residents and business also will need to seriously reckon with additional density in downtown and our village centers. To the ire of some, students will be — and must be — part of that solution.

The aborted Gateway proposal would have supported the downtown’s viability and sustainability by extending the downtown to UMass’ doorstep. We have to be much more open to these possibilities in the future for the health of businesses and community.

I’m ever-confident that the Chamber, UMass and the BID will work closely together to identify, implement and fund the solutions necessary to make our town succeed. To do so, we need to keep the lines of communication and cooperation honest and open.

Tony Maroulis is the executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce.

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