Beating the downtown blues

by Jody Reese

All the best things about Manchester were on display at last weekend’s Jazz & Blues Festival, as were some tell-tale signs about our city’s leadership.

Mayor Robert Baines was the festival’s master of ceremonies and constant companion, strolling around in shorts, t-shirt and cap, welcoming people to Manchester’s downtown.

Thousands joined him in the humidity to hear some of the best bands in jazz and blues around today. From New Orleans Preservation Hall Jazz Band to the Fabulous Thunderbirds, the music was not just enjoyable but downright fantastic. The crowd danced, foot-tapped, hummed and watched these great musicians play among the historic buildings of Hanover Street. The festival showed just how great a night out in Manchester can be.

More than that, the festival brought in enough money through ticket sales to guarantee a sixth annual Jazz & Blues Festival next year.

The festival is part of the growth and redevelopment of the city’s downtown. The importance of that growth and success cannot be understated.

A recent Boston Globe story talked about why Worcester has lagged in recent years and Providence has surged. The key is each city’s downtown. While Worcester’s is a mess, attracting no restaurants, cafes or nightlife, Providence is swimming in re-investment, from cafes to condos. The thriving downtown in Providence has led to growth throughout the city and an increasing number of 20- and 30-somethings. That’s important because it’s that age group that generally has the skills that attract new business to a city. These youngsters become the economic engine, driving the real estate market, small businesses and, yes, even civic involvement.

We see this here in Manchester. The number of young residents with college degrees has been growing steadily since 1990. Just look at the city’s young professional group and our own growth in nightlife, restaurants and the Jazz & Blues Festival. That’s good news for our city.

If it were not for the last two mayors, civic leaders from the Chamber of Commerce and a handful of city developers all working to improve the downtown core, Manchester could be more like Worcester than Providence.

Now in its fifth year, the Jazz & Blues Festival is an essential part of our downtown’s growth. I was disappointed not to see more aldermen, school board members, department heads and school administration management at the festival. City leaders need to be involved, supportive and knowledgeable about what a great place our city is and how far it has come.

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