Black business association contests Amherst’s final $3.8M in ARPA spending

Downtown Amherst looking down Main Street toward the Town Hall building.

Downtown Amherst looking down Main Street toward the Town Hall building. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 03-21-2024 5:40 PM

AMHERST — Black-owned business owners and supporters made a final appeal to the Town Council this week for $1.5 million of the $3.8 million in remaining American Rescue Plan Act money, though it appears that money is being directed to other purposes.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman said Tuesday that the plan being pursued, as presented to councilors the previous night, will include using $2.5 million for upgrades at the Bangs Community Center, $1 million for solar canopies at Fort River School — the site of the new elementary school — and $300,000 for roads and sidewalks.

The final decision, which Bockelman is making after getting input from the community and councilors, comes after a nearly 10-minute protest outside the Town Room at Town Hall during the council’s meeting Monday, which led to a brief recess, as people shouted “ARPA for the people” and “Black lives matter.”

This came after the Black Business Association of Amherst Area requested the money for businesses and to help with youth empowerment in the community, with members of the organization and supporters, speaking both in person and via Zoom, saying they have been treated unfairly in the allocation of ARPA money.

Pat Ononibaku, president of the Black Business Association, continued to note her concerns about the $300,000 previously allocated to The Drake performing arts venue and how ARPA funding was not used to repair harm caused to Black residents and business owners during the pandemic. Ononibaku referred specifically to the plight of the former Hazel’s Blue Lagoon, a Black-owned business that failed to secure ARPA money and also faced delays during a municipal inspection process. That business was later evicted by the property owner.

“When some members of my group applied for ARPA funds, they were denied,” Ononibaku said.

Following the meeting, Ononibaku issued a statement on behalf of the organization that the Black Business Association needs to receive resources similar to how the Amherst Business Improvement District and Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce are supported and also called for Bockelman’s resignation due to “anti-Black practices.” In the summer of 2022, Ononibaku made a similar appeal at a public meeting for former Police Chief Scott Livingstone to step down following a highly publicized interaction of police officers with local youth.

Bockelman, who didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about Ononibaku’s statement, told the Town Council that the $11.9 million Amherst received was far less than the $22 million Northampton got, so the town had to be selective in how the money was used. In addition to supporting affordable housing projects and improvements to municipal parks, money has already gone to help low-income people install heat pumps at their homes and to study and develop a youth empowerment center.

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Another $100,000 is being used to create a resident oversight board for police, and $419,000 is for economic development and business grants.

Bockelman and town officials have previously said equity was a factor in all spending decisions and that two of the largest ARPA grants went to Black-owned businesses.

At Large Councilor Ellisha Walker, though, said Black and brown residents and businesses aren’t benefiting. “One of the things that is still severely lacking is Black and brown residents and businesses, and I think that’s a major concern,” Walker said.

While she would like to see more done to assist Black and brown people, District 2 Councilor Pat DeAngelis said many of the projects supported with ARPA funds will benefit them and Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC).

“I felt that the way the ARPA fund has been distributed and potentially will be distributed has tried to directly address a lot of the issues that come up from the Community Safety Working Group, from members of the BIPOC community in all areas,” she said, noting town ARPA spending toward the youth empowerment center; the creation of the Community Responders for Equity, Safety and Service and the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion town departments; the mobile food market that goes into low-income neighborhoods; and toward the creation of a resident oversight board for police.

“I want us to acknowledge what we have been trying to do, and I think we have been doing a decent job,” DeAngelis said.

The first complaints about how ARPA funds were being distributed surfaced in late 2022 and were revisited last June, when similar appeals for the final portions of ARPA funding were made directly to the Town Council.

On Monday, some of those who have been critical were back.

“We’re going to keep on because we feel like we deserve to be recognized in this community,” said Yasmin Brandford, an Amherst native who runs Amherst Extensions and Beauty Salon on West Street.

Being what she said is an important place for Black families and children, specializing in care for African American hair, she contends she was denied ARPA support.

“I thought that was unfair, but I’m not surprised that we were overlooked,” Brandford said. “We were told that you guys didn’t know we existed, that you guys didn’t know Black businesses existed in Amherst.”

Former taxicab operator Edward Cage said he had hoped he and others struggling could get money to restart their businesses, recalling that he would often ferry low-income and homeless people to their destinations.

“Town manager, we would really appreciate if you could look at small businesses like the one I ran when it was above water,” Cage said.

Debora Ferreira, who co-chairs the Community Safety and Social Justice Committee, said town officials need to consider those businesses passed over for ARPA funding and recognize that Black-owned businesses are part of Amherst and deserve to thrive.

“This will go along with the town of Amherst’s commitment against racism and really dealing with the infrastructure of structural racism within the town of Amherst,” Ferreira said.

“Our Black residents are disproportionately affected by COVID, so I do support what Black Business Association of Amherst has put forward, especially its focus on youth,” said Allegra Clark, who also co-chairs the committee.

Prioritizing Black-owned businesses and Black, Indigenous and people of color families is critical, said resident Josna Rege.

“Our town must do better to live up to its stated values as a diverse, equitable and caring community,” Rege said. “Too many families of color, Black families in particular, have moved out of Amherst because they don’t feel at home here.”

Monica Cage, who owns the hair-braiding business Crowned by Cage, said support needs be shown for the organization that promotes Black culture, excellence and history.

“Not only does BBAAA want to support young people who want to start businesses in this town, but for everyone who needs to find community or resources or anything our businesses are used for,” Cage said.

Former councilor Michele Miller said town leaders should remember the 2020 Town Council vote to support the welfare of all residents, and reflect on a more recent commitment to make reparations.

“I urge the town manager and the Town Council to consider the policies that have been set by the Town Council regarding its Black residents, and also to revisit the treasurer’s guidance in terms of equity as it pertains to ARPA funds,” Miller said, pointing to information from the federal government about how local communiti es can ensure an equitable economic recovery.

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