Editorial: New eyes on town-gown issues
When Amherst Town Meeting opens next month one reserve fund spending item deserving of close attention is a proposal to split the cost of a $60,000 consultant with the University of Massachusetts.
UMass Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy has proposed hiring the consultant to study town-gown relations and to suggest ways Amherst and the university can strengthen the local economy and improve neighborhoods near the campus. This grows out of the university’s ongoing talks with town leaders, especially Town Manager John Musante.
One question that will be asked is why, in a tight budget year, an outside consultant is needed? There is a wealth of professional planning expertise between Amherst and the university.
In our opinion there is a case to be made for new eyes looking at this town-gown partnership, especially if the consulting firm can engage the partners in fresh, creative discussion.
Subbaswamy, in making his proposal, argued that the consultant could bring to the discussion the experience of other college communities, including how a university grows, alternative housing options and ways to ensure neighborhood civility.
Let’s face it, Amherst and UMass have wrestled with these and other questions in the past. Two years ago campus and community representatives went off together to an International Town-Gown Association conference in Colorado to learn ways to better co-habitate.
Over the years many conflicts have been solved, and systems set up to manage and mediate others. There are some — off-campus housing and the public conduct of students — that remain thorny issues. The university’s relationship with Amherst’s business community has also hit a rough patch of late, particularly as it relates to new limits on local restaurants catering university events.
Musante, the town manager, said he supports the town-gown study as a means of promoting economic development, providing more housing, improving public safety and dealing with off-campus student behavior.
Musante sees the consultant’s role as counseling the planning staffs for UMass and the town to set groundrules for the relationship in changing times.
Meshing the separate master plans for the town and university, and having an outsider’s recommendations on how to mend any rough edges, is critical.
The concept is a good one and the time seems right. Before it commits, Town Meeting needs to hear that members of the town’s professional staff are on board and invested in the process. And they should ask both UMass and town leaders to commit to act on recommendations that serve the best interests of the entire community. Otherwise, don’t waste the money.