Officials consider Manchester's economic future
By Patrick McArdle
STAFF WRITER | January 28,2013
Vyto Starinskas / Staff Photo
Officials meet for a talk in the Manchester Town offices earlier this month.
MANCHESTER — With the new roundabout all but finished, a poolhouse replacement project under way, a visitors center recently opened, and other projects improving the look of Manchester, community leaders are expecting good things in the town's future.
“When a town shows a very strong interest in investing in itself, its infrastructure, that's a message to me that says, 'That's where I want to make my investment.' ... I don't want to build a nice new building and then have a torn up sidewalk in front of me that you can't walk on, a street that's ratty (and) full of potholes. ... Unfortunately for a while, we were kind of getting there,” said William Drunsic, a business owner and planning board member.
Drunsic said he believed the roundabout project, which replaced what was once called “Malfunction Junction” and included other infrastructure improvements, has caused a renewed interest in Manchester from both potential investors and residents.
Lee Krohn, Manchester's planning director and zoning administrator, said there was a lot of positive momentum in the town which he saw manifested in ways like a business that bought the property it had been renting for three decades and the sale of another commercial property recently for $2.6 million.
“I can tell you there's a lot of interest in investment and reinvestment in this community. We wouldn't have that if people didn't have confidence in the future of this community and where it's going,” he said.
The Vermont Council on Rural Development is planning one of its “community visits” in Manchester this year. Council officials said one reason for the visit is Manchester's positive recent momentum.
Town Manager John O'Keefe said the town is already working on ways to bring new businesses to town, including a promotion, in cooperation with the Manchester and the Mountain Area Chamber of Commerce, to urge visitors with existing businesses to move to Manchester.
O'Keefe said he has been at the Stratton Ski Resort on a Sunday afternoon and heard the whole lodge buzzing with people complaining about their long commute home. He believes some of those businesses could be attracted to Manchester and its “quality of life” benefits.
Krohn and Pauline Moore, Manchester's economic development director, recently met with the owners of newer businesses. Moore said when asked why they wanted to come to Manchester, the answer was invariably quality of life and good schools.
Ivan Beattie, chairman of the Manchester Select Board, said he believes the town has a “magical draw” but said he's aware of criticisms that it's too reliant on the outlet stores.
“We typically seem to have our eggs in one basket but the good news is we have a basket. It hasn't necessarily been the same basket all these years,” he said.
The outlet stores have been stable but Beattie said he doesn't believe it will last forever.
There are several challenges to attracting new businesses. Moore said she knew houses were expensive and it was hard to attract younger people to the town.
“We have to decide who we are. We can't do everything so maybe we say, 'We want the people who are going to come back with their children' when the children are ready to go to high school and they've got a career,” she said.
Vermont also has a reputation for having high taxes and a complicated regulatory process, although O'Keefe and Krohn said many investors who did their due diligence found those ideas had been exaggerated.
Beattie said whatever the next steps would be, residents would probably see fewer physical changes in the near future.
“People are inspired right now by the projects we've done and how well they've been accomplished so there is a certain momentum there that people want to continue but there's a couple of good reasons to let the dust settle for a little bit,” he said.