October 12, 2006

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Manchester Publisher's Note: Stalled in city government
By†Jody Reese

Government is infamous for taking one step forward and two steps back. Unfortunately, Manchesterís city government is no different.

In 2004, city government bought the former Jac Pac land for $3.5 million with ideas that it would become a performing arts center, shopping mall or office park. Almost two years later nothing has been done with the land.

Last week, the Board of Mayor and Aldermen got around to authorizing the development folks to put out an official request for proposals for the land.

Some on the board have suggested that the land be sold outright to anyone who wants to buy it. That would be a mistake.

True, city government has dropped the ball with this one, but that doesnít mean the game has to be over.

With declining property values and rising commercial vacancies, now is the perfect time to reinvigorate our local economy with a new development, even though it looks like the development around the baseball park will be smaller than originally planned. Sometimes itís easier for a place like Manchester to recruit companies during sluggish times because they are more price-conscious, meaning Manchesterís cheaper commercial lease rates are more attractive.

The Jac Pac property would be perfect for a performing arts center, especially one partnered with a performing arts magnet high school that would attract kids from all over the region, reinforcing Manchester as the hub of southern New Hampshire.

Good education is among the main attractions for high-tech and creative businesses. Too often places such as Manchester lose out to places like Boston or San Fransisco in recruiting these types of businesses, for good reason. In a downtown those companies are more open to price considerations, but they still want a place that offers good schools, safe neighborhoods and cultural and arts offerings. Manchester should have all this.

Itís a roundabout way to develop a local economy, but it has proven to work. Companies are run by people and those people with their spouses decide where to move.

If a performing arts center is politically unattainable, the land could be used for specialty retail. An outlet mall would work great. The land is close to the highway and only 20 minutes from the Massachusetts border. The outlet would bring people into the city who would fan out to sports events, eat at local restaurants and shop at other stores. A large specialty department store would draw from around the region. Ikea, the Swedish furniture retailer, would be a great big-box for the local economy.

Whether the Jac Pac land becomes a school or a specialty retailer, we should not let it be used to simply replace a big-box retailer we already have at the Mall or on South Willow Street. Thatís why itís not a good idea to sell it to the highest bidder.

It was a good idea to buy the land back in 2004; itís still a good idea today. Our city government now needs to put it to good use and fast.