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UMass ‘villages’ raise concerns

AMHERST — The idea of using state land at the University of Massachusetts Amherst to support private enterprises employing workers not affiliated with the university is raising concerns for unions representing campus employees.

A consultant recently presented preliminary recommendations to the Town-Gown Steering Committee that include creating student villages on campus featuring a combination of housing and commercial development on state-owned land. However, representatives of two UMass unions are advising caution in proceeding with these ventures designed to strengthen the Amherst tax base and increase the amount of housing for students.

Joseph Malinowski, president of the AFSCME Local 1776 that represents nearly 1,000 campus workers, said the worry about such private developments is having workers who are not as invested in the community as union members.

“If they decide they want to build these things, local unions should get to put forward their employees to staff these,” Malinowski said. “We would hope the university would want to staff them with our tradespeople and our maintainers.”

During a meeting of the Town-Gown Steering Committee last week, U3 Advisors of Philadelphia, the consultant for the $60,000 study that is being paid for equally by the town and UMass, offered four concepts for development, primarily on university property. The plans would reduce the impact of student rentals on Amherst neighborhoods and promote economic development, but would also require public-private partnerships that would likely need approval from the Legislature, according to the consultants.

Linda Hillenbrand, vice president of the University Staff Association that comprises 1,000 clerical, technical and administrative employees, said she has concerns with these preliminary recommendations. Private developments could have a potential impact on employment at UMass and changes to the campus infrastructure could reduce available parking, she said.

“The retail space proposed should not be in direct conflict with anything that UMass currently provides, whether it be coffee or printing services,” Hillenbrand said. “We’ve seen good people lose jobs to privatization.”

Hillenbrand described the nearly 6,500 UMass employees as being a vital part of local economy and said the university should strive for more union jobs that pay a living wage. About 24 percent, or 1,567, of the 6,397 employees at UMass currently live in Amherst.

When privatization occurs, Malinowski said jobs tend to be lower paid and employees have less pride and commitment to the town. “Obviously, we don’t see it as a great thing,” he added.

Two of the possible plans show developments on parking lots, one on Massachusetts Avenue across from the Whitmore Administration Building, the other on University Drive opposite the Southwest high-rise dormitories.

Hillenbrand said the Massachusetts Avenue plan would displace parking for hundreds of employees. The study, she said, needs to provide an alternative for these lost parking spaces, which cannot be made up downtown.

“While I’m sure some employees can and do take advantage of public transportation, the majority of the surrounding towns do not offer public transportation to Amherst,” Hillenbrand said.

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