Residents, planners weigh future

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MANCHESTER — The exercise was nicknamed "Pinterest in the public interest."

On Thursday, a Hampton Inn and Suites conference room full of area residents and urban planners from throughout Northern New England dove into the piles of photos, logos, labels and markers.

The 40 or so people in the room were assembled as part of a two-day planning charrette aimed at creating a vision for Manchester's future. They sat at five tables as part of a branding workshop, and each group created an oversized poster representing what's great about Manchester, what's not so great about town, what they would like the town's future to look like, and what future they'd like to avoid.

The branding session was one of four activities led by consultant Juli Beth Hinds of Orion Planning + Design, all of which were open to the public and attendees in town for the Northern New England chapter of the American Planning Association's annual conference.

Combining the two events turned out to be valuable for the town and the conference, Hinds and town planner Janet Hurley said.

"I'm getting all kinds of positive feedback," Hinds said Thursday during a pause in the branding workshop. "It is a really innovative thing the town and the chapter chose to do. There's some very experienced planning leadership embedded at these tables."

"I would say that the participation from the townspeople was great," Hurley said. "Certainly from the conference attendees' point of view, seeing [the charette] as a laboratory was really successful across the board."

Hurley plans to post materials from the charrette at the town offices, and public comments are still welcome. In the meantime, Orion Planning + Design will assemble its findings and then present them to the town planning commission, which in turn forward the report to the Select Board.

In addition to the branding workshop, the charrette included gatherings at the Manchester Community Library and Factory Point Bank building and a walking tour of Manchester Center, from the Factory Point Town Green to the Green Mountain Power substation at the corner of Depot Street and Center Hill Road.

Alternatives for the substation -- including moving it for an estimated $4 million, or hiding it behind architectural elements or art for about $300,000 -- were a topic of discussion. So were prospects for the Manchester Riverwalk and a pedestrian bridge the organization wants to install from the Factory Point Town Green to the Main Street side of the West Branch.

On Thursday night at the Factory Point Bank building, a series of renderings of potential solutions for the substation were displayed, and attendees were encouraged to comment on the concepts with Post-It notes.

Renderings of a brick wall around the substation were not popular. "Looks like a jail yard," read one comment. "NO. Too harsh," read another. A third suggested a "green wall" of plantings to hide the electrical equipment.

But the rendering of a park where the substation now stands -- the most expensive option -- drew a "Yes!" note with a smiley face.

Another recurring theme during the presentations was creating a nightlife for Manchester that could dovetail with its arts and culture offerings -- and help attract the younger professionals that many feel are vital to the town's long-term future.

"Whoever in here owns a cafe, bar or restaurant you might want to stay open past 9," said Michael Ellenbogen, co-owner of the Village Picture Shows movie theater on Depot Street. "A lot of times when we get out of work we can't find a place to eat. What we're talking about here is a little lifestyle change."

Art gallery owner Lisa Helmholz-Adams said she's lived here 30 years and used to enjoy having places where she could go out and dance.

Lacking that nightlife, she said, "doesn't really make it fun for people going out and having a good time."

From Hinds' perspective, while Manchester is dealing with unique issues connected to the national downturn in retail, it is also facing many of the same challenges as communities elsewhere in Vermont and across the nation.

"Workforce housing is an enormous issue all over," Hinds said. "Conventional zoning and conventional housing finance have not met that need. It's a market failure, but I see this town really working to address it proactively."

Hurley had hoped that the the out-of-town planners attending the sessions would have observations to share with area residents about their town and its potential, and they did.

"You have pride in your community, most definitely," Carol Eyerman of Topsham, Maine, said after the branding exercise. "In an obviously changing environment everyone at this table is very engaged in that and excited by it."

"So much of the imagery and words they identified are in the strengths and aspirations," Mark Kane of Burlington said of the poster produced by his table. "What it seems to suggest is community assets as they exist today are powerful things that need to be preserved to maintain the character of this community — and if you look at what they considered weaknesses or threats, those were things that undermined the essential character."

Reach Journal editor Greg Sukiennik at 802-490-6000.

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