A panel discussion about the state of economic development in Amherst was held at the Old Chapel on the UMass campus on May 29, 2019. The discussion, hosted by the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, Bobrowski and Vickery, LLC, and UMass included UMass AES Instructor of Creative Economy and Placemaking, John Delconte. After opening remarks by the town economic development officer, Geoff Kravitz, and Executive Director of UMass External Relations, Tony Maroulis, Chamber President Peter Vickery asked, “what is the key asset that the town has to offer?” The most common answer was perhaps the most obvious—the five colleges infuse the town with an abundance of talent and creativity. Sarah la Cour, outgoing Executive Director of the Amherst Business Improvement District, agreed with that, but extended the idea, saying, it is really the combination of the colleges and the natural beauty of the area that make the place special. John accused Sarah of reading off his notes at that point, because that was the main point he was going to make! John, who researches creative placemaking, has been holding focus groups and interviews in the Pioneer Valley to research what makes places vibrant, and has heard several residents echo that very same idea. The area is vibrant because of the “pockets” of cultural hubs throughout the Valley set within fantastic vistas of open green space and opportunities for outdoor recreational activities. The cultural activity is largely a result of the presence of the academic community. On that basis, Amherst might be considered the hub of the Valley. The colleges and universities make up most of the jobs in the town—over 10,000. Comparatively, the arts employ about 500 people.
The panel discussed ways of keeping “home-grown” talent in the Valley. John said that “One of the ways to do this is to look for opportunities to build social cohesion, and, there is no better way to do that than to foster the arts. Art naturally brings people together in activities that are meaningful and emotional, which is a perfect recipe for building social bonds. These social bonds are a form of capital, just like financial capital.” He believes that if we want to talk about community wealth creation, we should make sure that we check our inventory of all community capitals. “The Community Capitals Framework counts seven of them. We already mentioned human capital (intellectual talent and creativity), social capital (bonds between people), financial capital (money), cultural capital (art, customs, and history), and natural capital (green space, parks, and natural resources). There is also built capital (buildings and infrastructure) and political capital (power and influence). These capitals flow around communities and cause other capitals to either spiral up or down.” It was evident that the panel recognized the need for Amherst to look at all her assets and to see how they can work together. John said the arts could serve as a key driver for economic development.
To find out more about the Arts Extension Service’s course offerings click here. Read the course description for Creative Economy and Placemaking, taught by John Delconte in the spring semester, here.