Report: Challenging economic times remain in Amherst due to COVID’s impact

  • A view of Main Street in downtown Amherst on Saturday afternoon, March 14, 2020. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 1/25/2021 5:28:27 PM

AMHERST — Even if the University of Massachusetts can function normally in the fall following the significant disruptions caused by the pandemic, Amherst’s economy may not bounce back right away, according to a Pioneer Valley Planning Commission analyst.

“The bottom line is we should be prepared for a lot more pain in the pipeline,” Douglas Hall, a Pioneer Valley Planning Commission data manager told the Planning Board and Town Council at a joint meeting last week.

Hall, an Amherst resident, was invited to give insights into how the pandemic has impacted the region, with a specific focus on the town where UMass, as well as Amherst College and Hampshire College, have, since fall, operated at both reduced on-campus capacities and with large amounts of remote instruction. There are also fewer people attending the area’s community colleges, with enrollment down 14% at Holyoke Community College and 8% at Greenfield Community College.

A major cause for the drop in economic activity is illustrated by data from Hampshire County showing a 17.4% dip since last March in the amount of time people are spending outside their homes, including a 30.4% decline in time spent at their workplaces and a 41% reduction in visits to retail stores and restaurants.

For restaurants, which have been the backbone of Amherst’s downtown economy, Hall painted a bleak picture, describing them as being “on life support” due to the pandemic.

“We’re going to continue to see businesses closing and their employees falling into bad economic situations, too,” Hall said.

This is reflected in the 18,841 jobs available in Amherst pre-pandemic, which fell to 16,777 in November. The unemployment rate has gone from 2.6% to 5.1%.

Of the estimated 2,064 jobs lost between February and November in Amherst, four out of five workers have dropped out of the labor force entirely, while one in five are unemployed.

At the worst period of the pandemic, Amherst saw an 11.9% unemployment rate, though that was only about half the high mark of 23% hit in Holyoke.

Hall also presented statistics showing how the economic fallout has taken a particular toll on the lowest wage workers, women in the workforce, and workers of color. This, he said, is true regionally and nationally.

At Large Town Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke said with a continued emphasis on people working from home, it’s possible that western Massachusetts benefits from people wanting to live in more rural areas.

But Hanneke also noted that if higher education continues to offer more remote classes, and students are not coming to live in Amherst, that could also have the opposite effect on housing demands.

Hall said his general sense is that remote learning will become a larger share of teaching done at university and community college levels on a permanent basis, but that for better or worse most students will want to continue to come to Amherst to get the full experience.

Planning Board member Janet McGowan said she wonders if the economic strategy should be to help businesses to hold on for the next six months, using both town and federal government support. Students likely will want to live on campus and off, and be back in the classrooms with face-to-face instruction, she said.

“I don’t think online learning has been a treat for most people,” McGowan said.

The biggest variable for economic recovery is determining when things are back to normal and how to find ways to help people keep their heads above water until then, Hall said.

But Hall said there are reasons to be optimistic. The economy was in a good place before the pandemic, and there is serious substance in the new federal government plans unveiled by the Biden Administration and trust in the advisers to the White House on the COVID-19 response.

“You can’t fix the economy until you fix the pandemic,” Hall said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.


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