Hitting the highlights: Amherst chamber, BID leaders show state Tourism & Travel director around town

Kate Fox, the executive director of the state Office of Travel & Tourism, looks at an exhibit at the Yiddish Book Center on Jan. 12 with David Mazower, bibliographer and editoral director, and state Rep. Mindy Domb.

Kate Fox, the executive director of the state Office of Travel & Tourism, looks at an exhibit at the Yiddish Book Center on Jan. 12 with David Mazower, bibliographer and editoral director, and state Rep. Mindy Domb. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 01-22-2024 10:41 AM

AMHERST — At Amherst Cinema’s four theaters, the month of December saw multiple sold-out screenings of movies, some of which were filmed in Massachusetts, and most of which have award-season buzz.

Nearby, at The Drake performance venue, a dozen acts played to capacity crowds during a run of 14 consecutive days before Christmas.

Both nonprofit institutions in Amherst center are among those helping to bring tourists downtown and to the region, with the cinema’s 5,000 members hailing from 28 states and more than two-thirds of The Drake’s audience coming from outside the Pioneer Valley.

But the leaders of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce and the Amherst Business Improvement District, which for the past 2½ years have used a $116,655 tourism recovery grant from the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism for its What’s Next campaign, say that the business community’s continued success will depend on ongoing support. In a town where the large majority of businesses are family-owned enterprises, many run by Black, Indigenous and people of color individuals, and some by those for whom English is not their main language, tourism attractions that draw people can only help.

Throughout the day Friday, Chamber Executive Director Claudia Pazmany and BID Executive Director Gabrielle Gould, toured the town with Kate Fox, executive director of the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism since June, and who brings some familiarity with Amherst, as her son is a sophomore at the University of Massachusetts.

“This is an opportunity to learn more about all the wonderful assets of Amherst,” Fox said, before being offered guided tours of the cinema, The Drake, the Yiddish Book Center on the Hampshire College campus and the Beneski Natural History Museum at Amherst College, as well as a lunch meeting at the Visitor Information Center with Amherst Town Council President Lynn Griesemer and Vice President Ana Devlin Gauthier.

Fox was a guest of state Rep. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst, whose invitation was made both because she represents the town in the Legislature, and as chairwoman of the Joint Committee on Tourism, Arts and Cultural Development. “Hopefully this will be just the first visit,” Domb said.

Previously executive director of Destination Salem, Fox explained that drawing tourists, universally defined as those who are coming to a place from 50 or more miles away or those who stay overnight, has to be done differently depending on the market or the audience.

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While Fox didn’t come with any new grant announcement, she encouraged the business organizations to get involved in the lead-up to the 250th anniversary of the United States in 2026 and the corresponding events in Massachusetts, which may have a theme of independence or revolution.

“I’d imagine in Amherst the theme of independence would really resonate,” Domb said.

Fox also offered to put local events and restaurants on the statewide calendar and enhanced website.

Pazmany explained that the tourism recovery grant allowed the chamber and BID to build upon the pre-pandemic Destination Amherst campaign to get people to town, paying for increased staffing at the Visitor Information Center and to envision a Greater Amherst. “The grant allowed us to think big,” Pazmany said, calling it an “amazing lifeline” that included video advertising outside the region.

What’s Next has focused on the area’s natural assets, such as mountains, hiking trails and cross country skiing places, the academic institutions, sites like the New England Peace Pagoda in Leverett, and the agricultural economy.

“I’m continually behind a truck that drops potatoes, a truck that drops squash,” Pazmany said. “When people say farm to table, we actually live it.”

Fox said one of her hopes is to bring Realtors into the conversation around tourism.

Even with a less than 3% vacancy rate for storefronts, more could be done. “We need to look at small businesses a lot different than we do,” Gould said.

The Drake, which opened in April 2022, brought 22,000 people to town in its first year, and in its first eight months helped increase revenues at local businesses by $352,000.

“This has really become a draw that has even exceeded our expectations,” Gould said, noting its place between Boston and New York. “They’re coming from a lot further than 50 miles, which is great,” Gould said.

Yasmin Eisenhauer, executive director of the Amherst Cinema, sees her nonprofit as an important economic multiplier, including using vendors that are Massachusetts-based.

But she credits local patrons for sustaining the cinema through the pandemic. “Our community lifts us up, and we are grateful to them,” Eisenhauer said.

Looking ahead, Gould said that projects are underway to make the town stronger. One is the renovation of the North Common in front of Town Hall. “This is a huge game-changer in the center of town that has been an eyesore for some time,” Gould said.

Pazmany said the North Common will be a place for people to walk and dine al fresco, as well as gatherings, both for events like the Merry Maple and the coming Fire & Ice Festival, as well as for serious causes. “This is a community that likes to protest,” Pazmany said.