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Amherst, Mass.—where only the H is silent

Brianna Sunryd ’08, ’20MPPA on what’s changed and what’s stayed the same in the middle of the Happy Valley

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Aerial shot of downtown Amherst

Courtesy of the Town of Amherst

Before Brianna Sunryd ’08, ’20MPPA began her work-study gig with the Town of Amherst in 2007, her plan was to get enough experience to start a career in the federal government. But, after 11 months as a special events coordinator in the Leisure Services and Supplemental Education (LSSE) department, her trajectory changed. “My UMass experience is how I got into local government,” says Sunryd. “I had never even thought about it … back then, you never really saw local government as an option after graduation. A lot has changed since then.”

Sunryd moved to Amherst in 2004 for her undergraduate studies and never left. “I was planning on only being out here for four years,” she says. “But now Amherst is home.” Her experience over the past two decades has allowed her to view the evolution of our town both as an outsider and as a very entrenched insider.

A change in structure

The most significant change she’s seen, or at least the most official, came four years ago when Amherst’s governing structure shifted from a representative town meeting format to a city format. “We’re technically now ‘The City Known as the Town of Amherst,’” Sunryd says, laughing.

Previously, Amherst’s leadership consisted of a town manager, a small selectboard, and some 270 people who acted as representatives, holding meetings twice per year so town members could vote on various legislative articles. Now a city, Amherst has a city council with 13 elected officials from the different districts who meet every two weeks to decide on new pieces of legislation. There is still a town manager, who acts as a counterbalance to the council. The shift to becoming a city has “really changed the way that we operate,” says Sunryd. “We’ve been building a new government basically from scratch over the past few years.”

Ever the optimists, Sunryd and her colleagues have taken the restructure as an opportunity to change their approach and reinvigorate their mission to take Amherst from a college town to a destination. In the past five years, a team focused on supporting small businesses has kicked their efforts into high gear. With the aim of livening up spaces downtown, the group has invested critical resources into local museums and dining options, and has invited the community to create more cultural and live music events.

Sunryd has seen another change that has bolstered those efforts: a shift in demographics. “We see a lot more community members coming from international locations … which is incredible!” says Sunryd. “And you see that reflected in the local cultural events happening and what new restaurants are coming into town. It makes us a much more vibrant community.”

New neighbors

The UMass-town relationship has also evolved. “A lot of students [are] moving into neighborhoods and living off campus,” says Sunryd. “We’ve been creating more opportunities to collaborate with off-campus students and offer them resources as most of them start to live on their own for the first time. I think it has really made a positive impact as students become enmeshed in our neighborhoods.”

With more students living off campus, Sunryd sees an opportunity for them to work with the local community in new ways. Her ideal would be for members of the UMass student population to serve locally as volunteers, board members, or representatives at events. “In the town, we try not to focus on whether a community member is a long-term resident or a student,” she explains. “We offer the same resources either way. We want students to feel welcome, like this is their home even if it’s temporary. And we want them to get involved.” 

An active community

Sunryd counts herself as lucky to be in a place where residents can and do get involved. Though much has changed, one thing has remained the same. “The thing about Amherst is people here are highly passionate and participatory,” she says. “You can look back to the late 1800s and see the same spirit of debate and participation when they were trying to rebuild town hall. It’s just something special about the town.” 

Amherst is certainly a special place, where voices are truly heard. “We have a cheeky saying: ‘Amherst, where only the H is silent,’ and people are very proud of that,” she says.

Sunryd encourages anyone interested to check out the Stay Connected page on the town’s website and see how they can get involved. And she invites anyone passing through the town square to pop into her office and say hello.