MANCHESTER, NH – It takes more than a nor’easter to deter downtown business owners from gathering for a chance to air grievances and share ideas.
They came like a blizzard and deliberated like a bunch of bosses on March 7 as the snow was flying. They stayed for more than two hours, and covered lots of relevant territory with a promise that this was just the beginning.
Many business owners have been struggling to hire and retain employees due to the opioid crisis, and throughout the meeting, cited other chronic issues – lack of parking and the need for parking enforcement relief during dinner hours, panhandlers, no trash receptacles, dim lighting, poor signage, and not enough police visibility.
Many remarked that it was about time someone reached out to hear their concerns.
The forum was organized by Ward 3 Alderman Tim Baines and held in an open space owned by Palace Theatre (Penuche’s on Hanover’s old location). Every seat was filled by the time things got started, creating a standing-room only situation as shop owners trickled in throughout the two-hour meeting.
Baines invited Mayor Joyce Craig, several department heads, and members of Manchester Police Department’s Community Policing division, who all attended. Also there were Sen. Lou D’Allesandro and Sen. Kevin Cavanaugh, who also serves as Alderman for Ward 1.
How about a parking app?
Parking was the first topic raised by restaurateur Edward Aloise, who runs Republic and Campo Enoteca along with Claudia Rippee. Aloise said it feels to him as if the downtown has been used by the city as a “profit center” rather than viewed as a magnet for the area. He compared Manchester’s parking structure to that of Concord, where meters are free every day after 5 p.m. and all weekend.
Aloise also brought up the disruption to Elm Street businesses during scheduled races year-round by Millennium Running, which limits access to side roads and squeezes out potential customers from parking without delivering actual new customers to downtown businesses.
“The organizers think they’re bringing thousands into the downtown, but they’re not frequenting businesses, and businesses are suffering from the road closures,” Aloise said.
Ann Masterson, owner of Hooked and Ignite on Hanover Street, saw things differently.
“Having people downtown is a benefit to my business. They do get there – my employees are always late, for lack of parking, but to be honest, I think it’s great,” Masterson said.
Police Sgt. Chris Goodnow said he has been working closely with police and aldermen around public safety during events, but that there is only so much he can do in planning road closures, citing last year’s “March Madness,” when the annual St. Patrick’s day marathons and parade overlapped with the NCAA regional hockey tournament at the SNHU Arena.
“There are challenges to every race, and the half-marathon got crazy last year because we didn’t know about the 12,000 people showing up for hockey games. We had made a conscious effort to have a small footprint, and it seemed like a great idea until everyone got off the Amoskeag Bridge, creating a traffic problem,” Goodnow said.
Stephanie McLaughlin, of Savoir Faire Marketing, said more coordination of events would help.
“One thing I know is that, from 10 years on the St. Patrick’s Parade Committee, we sat mostly in our own silo. We didn’t know what was happening on other days,” McLaughlin said.
Melanie Sanuth, director of the city’s economic development department, said there were 176 events in 2017 that had more than 100 attendees, and that while the calendar on the city’s website can be helpful, it’s not the right vehicle for overall planning. Baines said that was an idea that could be developed and put into action.
Norri Oberlander of North End Properties wanted to know what the city was doing to bring in a parking app that could leverage private parking after hours.
“I own two parking lots. If the city had an app where people could find my parking lot, we could rent out these spaces that all these private businesses have,” Oberlander said.
The mayor, who attended the first half of the meeting, said she’s already working with the Chamber to do an analysis of where all the city parking spaces are, and agreed the city needs to be more customer friendly. She was interested in the app idea and said she’d have her staff look into it right away.
Palace Theatre CEO Peter Ramsay had three things to say.
“We need more police visibility at night when people are here, we need a coordinated sign system– which is critical – and we need to do a trolley – most tourism cities have a trolley system that run around for a dollar a ride. It would pay for itself in a year,” Ramsay said.
Reducing panhandling and vagrants
Jim Pliakos of The Shaskeen was joined by Robb Curry of Madear’s to ask what could be done to reduce the presence of vagrants, many of whom take up residence outside business, often with piles of belongings next to them.
Police Officer Anna Martin, who patrols the downtown beat, said police must work within the confines of the law.
“We can’t move people simply because they’re panhandling,” Martin said.
Baines told the group that panhandling is the No. 1 complaint he’s fielded from business owners downtown.
“Every single community that’s put an ordinance in place to allow the police force to remove them has been shot down in the courts,” Baines said. He mentioned an upcoming meeting with City Clerk Matt Normand and the city solicitor’s office to see if there are ways to word an ordinance that might be more successful, and include loitering.
Masterson was among many business owners who said having Martin on patrol makes a difference.
“Can we clone Anna? If we could have nine more Annas – on foot patrol, bike patrol, horses. How do we get police presence to be more consistent? Anna is only one person,” Masterson said. “What can we do as business owners to get more officers so our guests would be more comfortable?”
Baines said it was a matter of resources and manpower, but mentioned working on grants that might enhance downtown patrols.
Officer Martin told the group that the main issue is that the New Horizons homeless shelter is central to the downtown.
“It’s location. All our resources are there in the downtown. Until resources are relocated to another area we’re going to have this problem. You can’t move someone off the sidewalk. They have a right to be there on public sidewalks. I don’t know how that’s ever going to be achieved,” Officer Martin said.
Peter Macone, manager at Republic Cafe, said Manchester suffers from growing pains, part of the “big little city” syndrome.
“I still would like to know what we can do about the homeless – can we at least address the possessions as part of the law? However we attack this, the thing that’s blowing my mind is the man with the beard who sits outside Baked. He has his entire life’s possessions in a suitcase, a box, a bag, he has an ashtray, a box of half-eaten dinner. You don’t see this in other cities, like Portsmouth or even Boston.”
Chuck Kalantzas of Penuche’s Music Hall asked whether the shelters could extend their hours so that people don’t have to be locked in by 7 p.m.
“What I hear from people in the street is that the shelters close at 7 p.m., leaving them with no place to go, so they wander the alley ways and sit along the sidewalks,” Kalantzas said.
Officer Martin said that was an oversimplification of the problem.
“I know these people from a professional level. I know their names, their addictions. I’ve arrested them, and 95 percent of them are not allowed in the shelter because they won’t abide by the rules, whether they’re intoxicated, or on something, or have committed predatory sexual offenses. The soup kitchen is not open to them. That’s why they’re here,” Martin said. “The other part of the equation is they make $50-60 a day from panhandling that feeds their drug habit. Until we stop giving them money, they will be there.”
A voice from the back of the room said the complexities of the city’s homeless population include mental disorders, and he lauded Martin for “the tenderness” she extends to many of the city’s hardened street people.
Need to beautify, more city services east of Elm
Tom Puscarich of Restoration Cafe on Hanover Street raised several issues, including the city’s zoning practices, and what feels a bit like neglect for businesses that sit beyond the central business district, where sidewalks don’t drain and become a walking hazard in winter.
Robb Curry also mentioned the lack of street lights in that stretch of Hanover Street, and the absence of trash bins.
George Bruno, who said he owns property in the downtown, suggested the city needed more long-range planning and a strategy to become the kind of city it wants to be.
“We hear talk about commuter rail coming to Manchester. Maybe it’s time to look at where we’d place a rail and bus, and a multimodal transport center in the city. It’s unclear to me where something like that would be,” Bruno said. “When we talk about economic generators for our city, we have the SNHU Arena and the ballpark. An attractive transport center would do the same.”
Bruno also said he’d like to see more efforts to beautify the downtown, including cleaning up the extraneous signage. And he was among a few business owners who said it’s time for the city to do something about the empty tree holes that trip up pedestrians.
“On almost any street there’s an empty tree hole and a stump that’s been there for years and years. It’s time to do something about that,” Bruno said.
Time for boosting the master plan
Mike Skelton, CEO of Greater Manchester’s Chamber, said it’s important for business owners to remain engaged, and to show up at City Hall when issues that matter to the business community are on the agenda.
“What helps move the needle is a more cohesive strategy for downtown and the millyard, we’ve lacked that for some time. We’re coming up on an opportunity to redo our city’s master plan, and a big component of that is looking specifically at our downtown area,” Skelton said.
“I would ask us not to lose sight of the positive. We have many problems, but the problems we’re experiencing don’t happen to a place where no one goes. If on our meeting agenda was the fact that no one was coming to our city, we’d have a whole different problem.”
Matt Johnson, who works for the Monarchs, said he and his wife moved to Manchester from Philadelphia, and that he sees a lot of parallels between the progressive neighborhood he left, and the one he deliberately chose. The addition of restaurants and new businesses is the beginning of a renaissance, and he said that while he’s willing to ride it out, it’s time for the city to be less reactionary to problems as they arise.
“We need to get in front of problems, and that should be coming from our leaders. We live in the mills, but my wife won’t walk up from The Lofts to Elm Street by herself. How do we get ahead of the issues and map out a city plan for the next ten years, so we can get in front of the problems,” Johnson said.
Blight and absent landlords
Liz Hitchcock, co-owner of The Bookery, coming soon to Elm Street, said she has learned that a lot of blighted buildings downtown have past-due tax bills.
“What can we do to push these people with tax burdens not paid to do something,” she said.
Several other attendees raised the issue of absent landlords and downtown vacancies languishing – including the prominent Flatley holding, the Atrium at 955 Elm Street, which has been vacant for years.
“These meetings are good, but things change only when the people with money and power make a decision. I don’t know how many of us actually own a building, but when I was looking to move Republic downtown, Claudia and I looked at a number of places. None of them were owned by people who live here,” Aloise said.
“When a community wants something done, the homeowners get together because they have skin in the game. Landlords decide on rents, signage, curb appeal and what’s going on. They’re the people with the power. When you get those people in this room, things will change,” Aloise said.
Baines said the next steps will be to recap the issues that were raised with city leaders, and begin prioritizing the concerns, to be followed by future meetings to focus in on particular issues.