Amherst accused of inequitable distribution of rescue funds

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 01-02-2023 11:25 AM

AMHERST — For a dozen years, Yasmin Brandford has owned and operated Amherst Extensions and Beauty Salon, specializing in maintenance and care for African American hair.

But Brandford says she didn’t seek American Rescue Plan Act money to grow her 460 West St. business once she learned about strings attached to filing an application, including how she could spend the money and a financial match she might have to make.

“I love my town, but this whole thing was a debacle,” Brandford said of the ARPA application process.

Pat Ononibaku, who founded the town’s Black Business Association, contends other businesspeople weren’t notified about the opportunity to request ARPA money, and that this process illustrates how access to financial support remains problematic for Black and Indigenous people and people of color. Black-owned businesses remain invisible and these businesses continue to be shortchanged, despite being the most in need, she said.

“Way too little was given to businesses that are struggling,” Ononibaku said of the town’s ARPA funding initiatives. “I do have a problem that a lot of Black-owned businesses and BIPOC businesses were shut out.”

Town officials contend otherwise and say the record shows that equity was a key factor in how ARPA funds were distributed to businesses.

Ononibaku recently raised her concerns publicly at meetings of the Community Safety and Social Justice Committee, arguing that some businesses were not informed in person or via emails due to a lack of cultural competency. She also alleges some decisions were made in secret, though all spending has been tracked quarterly on the town website.

“The public has a right to know how tax dollars are spent,” Ononibaku said.

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In a process that got underway in fall 2021, the town set aside $750,000 out of the $11.9 million received for economic development. Other projects included $1 million to homeless initiatives and $1 million to affordable housing projects.

With respect to economic development, $100,000 was targeted to assist new and existing businesses.

A memo furnished by Town Manager Paul Bockelman, Finance Director Sean Mangano and Gabrielle Gould, executive director of the Business Improvement District, shows that of the 16 grants recommended in the first round, 15 were offered to businesses owned by a marginalized group, including LGBTQ and women, and seven were offered to BIPOC-owned businesses. Those identities were self-reported on the application form.

Bockelman said that a contract with the Amherst BID was clear that half of the grants would be awarded to BIPOC-, LGBTQ- and women-owned businesses, and that an equity lens would be brought to how the funds were disbursed.

“I want to emphasize that the town has centered support for BIPOC and marginalized groups in its deployment of American Rescue Plan Act funds,” Bockelman wrote.

Bockelman added that how Amherst handled awarding money was likely as successful in meeting equity goals as any community in the state.

Separate pots

The money was divided into three areas, with $40,000 for small business grants, for startup new businesses, with recipients including Big Basket Market and Lao Hu Tong restaurant, $25,000 in growth grants for existing businesses, with Mexcalito and Pita Pockets restaurants among those earning that money, and $35,000 for technical assistance for new businesses, with White Lion and Carefree Cakery receiving those grants.

An additional $350,000 was set aside for economic empowerment, though that project has been placed on pause due to the departure of the person hired to lead the initiative. The work should resume in the new year. Its purpose will include supporting entrepreneurs, promoting economic opportunities for artists and cultural organizations and building stronger economic partnerships with the University of Massachusetts and Amherst and Hampshire colleges.

Gould sent a memo to the Town Council elaborating on the work her organization has done under contract with the town, emphasizing that it has followed the town’s guidance and outreach to businesses.

Beyond the small businesses that Ononibaku said should have gotten more money due to being most impacted by the pandemic, she is concerned that The Drake performance venue, which opened last spring, was awarded $300,000, in part because it was seen as a spur for business.

That decision-making process, she said, shows a concentration of power. Bockelman serves on the BID board, though in an unpaid role, and he receives no financial compensation.

The Drake, Ononibaku contends, has not helped the business climate in town

“It has had absolutely no impact,” she said. “Those businesses are still struggling.”

Bockelman, though, said all decisions have been made in the open, and those who serve on the BID board are closest to the business community and understand what the needs are among shop owners and restaurateurs.

‘A model not-for-profit’

The Drake is run by the Downtown Amherst Foundation, for which Gould serves as unpaid executive director, and over its eight months has seen 138 events featuring professional musicians, poets, and actors. Of those, 38 evenings featured Black artists. Bockelman said a large portion of the money that went to The Drake was to pay performers.

The Downtown Amherst Foundation was also the creator and administrator of a fund for allocating over $250,000 in grants during the pandemic to small Amherst-wide businesses. Out of the 62 businesses given grants, 19 were identified as BIPOC and 23 as marginalized businesses. That was separate from federal programs such as the paycheck protection program and the federal CARES Act.

Gould said with an average of 100 people in audience each night, around 15,000 people have come to downtown to support businesses open during the evening, and The Drake has also put Amherst center on the map as a destination for people seeking a night out for live performances, supplementing a venue such as the Amherst Cinema.

“If we are looking at The Drake specifically through the eyes of diversity, equity, and inclusion I can without any hesitation say The Drake is a model not-for-profit in ensuring DEI is not just recognized but is absolutely at the forefront of who we are and what we program,” Gould said. “This model is the only way any arts and culture organization has a future.”

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