The Smith College effect: Should the college do more to help the community it calls home?

Fog rolls in over downtown Northampton looking from above College Hall on the Smith College campus Tuesday afternoon. Elm Street on the left joins with West Street on the right at Main Street; to the left is the long-closed St. Mary’s Church. 

Fog rolls in over downtown Northampton looking from above College Hall on the Smith College campus Tuesday afternoon. Elm Street on the left joins with West Street on the right at Main Street; to the left is the long-closed St. Mary’s Church.  STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Fog rolls in over College Hall on the Smith College campus Tuesday afternoon in Northampton.

Fog rolls in over College Hall on the Smith College campus Tuesday afternoon in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Traffic streams through downtown Northampton looking through the gates of Smith College campus Tuesday afternoon.

Traffic streams through downtown Northampton looking through the gates of Smith College campus Tuesday afternoon. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

By MAX ACENOWR,DIANA ZAMUDIOand BEX CONNOR

For the Gazette

Published: 12-29-2023 5:39 PM

Modified: 01-02-2024 3:51 PM


NORTHAMPTON — Smith College and the city of Northampton are heavily intertwined and have been since Smith’s founding in 1871. The college’s Grecourt Gates stand tall atop the rolling hill of Main Street Northampton, overlooking the city’s vibrant downtown.

Smith’s visitors, students and staff can take a short stroll downtown to shop and eat. Northampton residents and visitors can walk Smith’s open campus to enjoy the gardens, hike trails, or visit the art museum — which alone receives 35,000 visitors each year. Beyond tourism, 35% of Smith’s employees live in Northampton or the surrounding towns.

Indeed, Smith’s annual impact on the economy of western Massachusetts is $465 million, according to the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts.

Despite its tax-exempt status as a private college, Smith is the largest taxpayer in Northampton on its $500 million worth of non-institutional properties throughout the city, according to David DeSwert, the college’s vice president for finance and administration.

But as budget constraints have hampered many communities over the years, including Northampton, some question why private colleges don’t contribute more to the communities where they are based. It’s been a topic of discussion for years in Paradise City, where eight years ago, then-mayor David Narkewicz’s attempt to implement a payment in lieu of taxes, or PILOT, program for the city’s nonprofits failed to materialize.

Most recently, a state bill put forward this year, H.2824, proposed a 2.5% tax on higher education institutions with endowments over $1 billion. That would include three of the five colleges in this region — Smith, Amherst and Mount Holyoke. The funds collected would be redistributed to local low- and middle-income families to support more educational opportunities for those most in need.

 Smith’s giving andeconomic programs

For years, Smith officials have made the case that they contribute plenty to its host city already.

For example, Smith has donated $300,000 over three years starting in 2016 directly to Northampton and an additional $500,000 between 2021 and 2023. Smith has also contributed to various local organizations, including $550,000 to Valley Community Development, a corporation that develops affordable housing in the Pioneer Valley; and $250,000 to Cooley Dickinson Hospital.

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Carolyn McDaniel, director of media relations, noted that Smith’s location downtown makes the relationship between the city and the school unique.

“Smith is so close to the downtown that we must maintain synergy,” said McDaniel. “When people think of Northampton, I hope they think of Smith College and vice versa.”

Then there are other contributions that are more difficult to track.

Hannah Gates, a 2022 Smith College alum, is currently working with The Jandon Center for Community Engagement at Smith College to help students contribute to the local community and economy by connecting them to local and national nonprofit organizations, such as the Food Rescue Network and Habitat for Humanity.

“When our Jandon volunteers go and commit human hours, even though it’s not money, it’s like kind of setting the stage for members of the Northampton community to be in a really healthy place physically, emotionally, financially, so that everyone has an opportunity to participate in the economy,” Gates said.

Jim Gray, Smith’s representative on the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce board of directors, said that in terms of economics, Smith has a symbiotic relationship with Northampton. He believes that the “town-gown” relationship between Smith and Northampton “is just about as good as it gets.”

He highlights the $200,000 Smith donated to support the Community Resilience Hub as one of the best examples of Smith’s financial involvement in the community. The Hub is focused on serving communities in need in Northampton, such as the unhoused population and families in poverty.

Vince Jackson, executive director of the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce, said it is “universally accepted that Northampton would not be the strong, thriving economy it is [without Smith].” He points to Smith’s participation in the Northampton gift card program, which enables purchases at over a hundred locations in the area and contributes around $250,000 to the local economy annually.

Under the program, Smith buys $10 Northampton gift cards to give to prospective students attending admitted students week, and the Smith College Museum of Art recently began accepting the gift cards at its museum store, Jackson said.

Spending downtown

Smith students, faculty, staff and families play a role in Northampton’s economy. Gray said Northampton’s downtown is unique, with a “high concentration of locally owned businesses,” meaning that money spent downtown often goes directly into the pockets of Northampton business owners and workers. With many local cafes and boutiques, downtown Northampton is an attractive place for students to spend money.

In an online survey of 27 Smith College students, three out of five reported that they spent money on things other than basic living expenses, such as at bars and restaurants or shopping and clothing.

Data gathered from the U.S. Census Bureau from 2017 to 2021 and a report by The New York Times show that Smith students come from wealthier families than the median Northampton resident — on average, these families make $40,000 more a year. Having parental assistance in financing college lessens the financial burden on students, allowing them to devote less time to working and more of the money they earn outside of class to recreational spending.

The Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts estimates Smith’s ancillary spending — which is defined as rent, transportation, food and entertainment paid for by Smith students, employees and visitors — at around $18 million annually. While the association’s data focuses on Smith’s economic impact on the entire western Massachusetts region, it also suggests that Smith has an enormous impact on the local economy.

Can Smith do more?

As Northampton stares down the possibility of another general Proposition 2½ override for fiscal 2024 — Mayor Gina-Louis Sciarra began warning of this possibility during the last budget season — the question of why Smith College doesn’t pay more in taxes will likely be asked again, just as it was in 2020 the last time residents were asked to approve an override.

As of June 30, Smith College had an endowment of $2.5 billion, making the endowment-to-student ratio nearly $1 million per student. In comparison, 74,000 students are enrolled in the five colleges that make up the University of Massachusetts system, and the UMass endowment is half of Smith’s. The extent of Smith’s wealth has led many to question whether Smith is doing enough to support the larger off-campus community.

Narkewicz tried to tap into that sentiment in 2015 when he endorsed a PILOT program that would have asked nonprofits exempt from property taxes to pay the city 25% of what their property taxes would have been if they had not been granted tax-exempt status.

Proponents at the time said the program was long overdue and simply asked nonprofits to pay their fair share for basic municipal services on which they rely. But critics said the initiative would take money away from organizations that provide community services — often stepping in, they said, where government falls short.

Kathleen McCartney, who was president of Smith at the time, responded to Narkewicz’s proposal in a 2015 letter to the Daily Hampshire Gazette, stating that “identifying funds to pay a PILOT would likely require trade-offs in other areas of community support.”

While the PILOT program was never implemented, calls for institutions to contribute more have continued. Last month, members of the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts (PHENOM) and Massachusetts legislators gathered at Amherst College to discuss “An Act to support educational opportunity for all” (H.2824/S.1834). State Reps. Mindy Domb of Amherst and Lindsay Sabadosa of Northampton were among those who petitioned for the bill.

Sabadosa said the legislation, which calls for a 2.5% tax on higher education institutions with endowments over $1 billion, would “redistribute some of the wealth accumulated from schools that have relied on legacy admissions and large donors over the years.”

At a hearing of the Joint Committee on Revenue, bill sponsor Rep. Natalie Higgins, D-Leominster, said the tax would bring in $2 billion in revenue.

In addition to area legislators, students from across the Pioneer Valley spoke out in support of the bill, including Isabelle Anderson, a junior at Amherst College and leader of Amherst College’s chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists of America.

Anderson stated, “Not everything is about us. I encourage our campus population to push our institution to provide more for our needs, while also contributing to an important cause much greater than ourselves.”

This article was written as a collaboration between the Gazette and Smith College students in a journalism course taught by Naila Moreira, with guidance from journalist Lauren Katz. The students engaged in a local crowdsourced-reporting project in which they asked the 18,000-member Northampton Facebook group what topics  area residents would like to see reported in the media. Students voted on and reported out selected ideas as teams.