There's been no shortage of worry and concern over the apparent number of vacant storefronts, businesses that have gone away, or others that are hanging on with or without a safety net. We had the uncertainty about the Roundabout hanging over the downtown core, not knowing whether or not that would prove a disruptive death knell or if it would work as well as advertised to clear up the traffic congestion of Malfunction Junction. On the retail front, the combination of online competition plus economic downturn spelled hard times for many local businesses, be they outlet chains or independent mom-and-pops.
In general, things seem to be stabilizing, although many will doubtless scoff at that take and point to one scenario or another that is still murky, or the number of people who can't the right jobs, or jobs, period. There's still a big hole to fill at the former Highridge Plaza, where several highly visible buildings remain vacant. There's another empty space on Main Street where the former headquarters of the Factory Point, now Berkshire Bank, sits waiting for new tenants. When those two situations are rectified, we'll know we're getting somewhere.
But meanwhile, it's fair to be feeling more than a little optimistic. With the Roundabout finished and creating a vastly more visually attractive downtown space, a new Chamber of Commerce Welcome Center and a new Park House, and now a new library on the way, there's a lot to celebrate and to feel good about regarding the town's future.
Both the Manchester Music Festival and the Dorset Theater Festival have just concluded strong summer seasons. There's reason to hope that the Southern Vermont Arts Center is also finding its bearings again after a rocky patch. The arts front is an important component of the overall dynamism of the town - other places have stores and attractive scenery, but few have that plus the cultural breath of what is available on our doorstep.
This past weekend saw a good example of the range of what makes Manchester and the Mountains a compelling place to live and visit. We saw roughly 1,000 people taking part in the Maple Leaf Half Marathon, a group of state governors meeting at the Equinox Resort, and a collection of artists painting "en plein air" around town. Plus, the town looked great. On a week that typically falls between the peaks of the summer season and the start of fall foliage - and the tops of Equinox are already starting to turn color - the town certainly put its best foot forward to welcome an unusual combination of visitors.
It's easy to focus on the shortcomings and see where lots of things could be better. One of the big ones, and it's not unique to Manchester, is trying to figure out how wages and salaries can finally start to move upwards and enable employers to pay their workers wages that allow them to do more than live paycheck to paycheck and begin to feel comfortable about spending money on both essentials and the small extras in life. That's a complicated and knotty economic problem that afflicts a large part of the industrialized world, but it's a real issue here in Vermont, where despite a relatively high level of employment compared to the national average, many, if not most people are getting by on a narrow margin.
We'll save that one for a later issue, and in the meanwhile, hope that all the rain earlier this summer translates into some vibrant fall foliage that wows the visitors and keeps them coming back for more.