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Amherst preparing to update its comprehensive development plan

The Town of Amherst’s efforts to expand and diversify its business base over the last 15 years have succeeded beyond expectations, its lead planners said Friday, as officials prepare to approve changes to the town’s comprehensive plan to maintain that momentum.

A series of updates to the town’s Bicentennial Comprehensive Plan are pending before the Town Board, after the Amherst Planning Board approved them in November. The changes were developed by town and Amherst Industrial Development Agency officials.

The goal is to modernize the plan for changing needs, economic circumstances and opportunities, but the plan already appears to have paid off. Measured by number of employees working in the town, as well by as average worker income, the town is already well ahead of projections in the 12-year-old document.

“We’ve had a lot of success in this community,” Amherst Planning Director Eric Gillert told the IDA board Friday. More people work in Amherst in a wider variety of jobs, earning higher incomes and generating higher tax revenues from both the employees and the employers.

The town is now the second-largest employment center in the region, behind the City of Buffalo. And there’s newfound attention on smart growth that focuses on quality of life, vibrant and walkable neighborhoods, high-paying jobs, and flexibility in regulation.

Written in 2003 and accepted by the Town Board in 2004, the current plan was fully adopted in 2007, providing clear guidance to town officials on the nature of zoning, planning and economic development matters. At that time, jobs were mostly in the service sector, such as retail, dry cleaning and fast-food restaurants, but the 1975 plan began the process of reshaping the town with the development of coordinated office and industrial parks, such as Audubon, Wehrle, Centerpointe, Northpointe and CrossPoint.

“In order to diversify the tax base, we had to go after other types of jobs,” said James Allen, the IDA’s executive director. “It wasn’t certain what those other jobs would be, but we did have the notion that they should be and probably would be tied to the university and we’ve been very successful in doing that.”

The current plan put more emphasis on quality and redevelopment, and on making sure that commercial projects fit in with the neighborhoods around them. It’s already been updated twice before. And with new attention on technology firms that tend to employ younger workers, that also means ensuring the community will be attractive to both the employer and the employees.“The community has to look like the kind of community they want to live in and work in. it has to be that type of community,” said deputy planning director Gary Black. “The quality of development matters. The quality of the community matters. The quality of community services matter.”

The changes since 1975 have been dramatic, of course, but they have only accelerated in the last 12 years, with a host of new financial services, back-office, healthcare and technology-oriented employers. Consider:

• The plan estimated Amherst’s employment base in 2000 at 75,625, and projected the town would have 103,844 employees working in the Amherst by 2020.

In reality, by 2003, the town already had 97,558 workers, and hit 105,570 in 2011. That means it was already about 1,700 employees ahead four years ago, with nine years to go.

• Back in 2003, Amherst had 77,748 workers coming into the town from other municipalities for jobs and 35,070 leaving the town each day for jobs. Another 19,810 residents stayed in town for work.

By 2011, the outflow was little changed, at 35,721, and those that remained held steady, at 18,265. But another 10,000 people were coming into Amherst each day to work, for 87,305.

“That says something about how we’ve been able to perform in terms of encouraging economic activity here in the Town of Amherst, and specifically the effectiveness of the economic development program we have here in the town,” Gillert said.

• Median household income in 2000 was $55,427. Ten years later, it had risen to $65,439

• Total commercial floorspace in town was forecast to reach 6.9 million square feet by 2020. As of last year, it was already 6.5 million, with six years to go.

“The plans and shared vision that the plan represents do have a profound long-term economic impact on a communty,” Black said. “Each individual decision may not be completely consistent with the plan, but collectively if everyone shares that vision and tries to work toward that vision, the net effect is that we get where we want to go.”

Now officials are starting a process of updating that plan with revised forecasts that are “more in line with what we’re seeing in terms of performance,” Gillert said.

Officials are also rewriting the town’s zoning code over the next 12 to 18 months.

The aim is to provide the town with more flexibility and “tools” to accommodate new economic development projects, in part by focusing the code more on the outside appearance of buildings and less on what goes on inside. The project should start in the spring.