The goal of the meeting was to enable the planning commission to see how this project conforms to the requirements of the town plan. Bill Drunsic, who at the time of the meeting was the chairman of the planning commission, has since asked for a leave of absence from the board. On a recording of the meeting by GNAT-TV, Drunsic opened the floor for public comment, following a presentation led by Kirk Moore, of BMA Associates, which designed the Hampton Inn project. It is intended to be located on the former High Ridge Plaza on Main Street. The development includes three 7,000 square-foot retail buildings along with a 98-room hotel,
Pat Barnett, the owner and innkeeper of The Manchester View, a lodging establishment on Route 7A, wanted to know how the town's workforce would be able to support more hourly workers in the hospitality industry. She said it is already hard to find and keep good employees.
Russell Mills, a Manchester resident who was attending the meeting, said he seeks out Hampton Inns when he travels.
"I respect the B&Bs, I respect the Inns. But as a business traveler and an aggressive tourist, I seek out the Hampton Inn," he said on the recording. "I truly believe the Hampton Inn in town will bring about more business.
On more than one occasion, Stratton Mountain and its resort came up. Multiple individuals mentioned that on a Friday night during ski season, many cars with out of state plates can be seen getting off the highway and turning right towards the mountain, not heading to Manchester. They argued a Hampton Inn and Suites could be a good draw for more skiers to stay in town.
Steve Bauer, innkeeper at the Inn at Willow Pond has been an outspoken opponent of the Hampton Inn and Suites project since it was first presented to The Development Review Board. This meeting was no different. He said Hampton Inn will go after the existing customers of local establishments and all the independent B&Bs and hotels in town will close as a result.
"It's their model. To take a percentage of existing business, basically make it go away...anywhere from 20 to 55 percent is going away," he said. As the meeting went on, things got heated between Bauer and Skip King, another town resident, forcing Drunsic at one point to stand between the two, who were shouting at each other.
Chris Ams, a former executive director of Riley Rink spoke in favor of the project, from the prospective of the father of three children who played travel hockey and from his experience at the Rink.
"When we did have them [hockey tournaments] Rutland and Bennington [locations with Hampton Inns] absorbed most of the people," he said. Ams said when he was the executive director at Hunter Park, where Riley Rink is located, on more than one occasion when a tournament was coming to the Rink he spoke to local hotels and inns and they either told him they did not want a team staying at the location or that they couldn't offer a group discount.
During his opening presentation, Kirk Moore gave a site overview, similar to what he previously presented to the DRB. When going into details though, this time he went through the town plan and explained why this project lines up with the requirements in the document.
Drunsic, former chairman of the board, said the purpose of the meeting was not to discuss individual zoning bylaws.
"Our job here is to determine whether this project complies with the town plan and if it doesn't, why it doesn't," he said.
Throughout his presentation, Moore said that because the zoning bylaws were updated to reflect the town plan and since the project was granted a zoning permit, it therefore is in compliance with the town plan. The project would be beneficial, he said, bringing a hotel to the town's core and redeveloping the site.
"What we want to do is create something really special," Moore said. "This [the town plan] doesn't say non-locally owned business can't come to Manchester...it doesn't say they're prohibited."
After the board heard the presentation, they asked their own questions and made comments. Drunsic said just because the project has received a zoning permit from the DRB, does not mean the planning commission has to concur with that decision. It is an independent review, and in the past, improvements have been made to large projects after such a review.
Greg Boshart, a member of the planning commission, said he was happy to see how the project worked with abutting property owners to accommodate their concerns and privacy needs. However, a while later in the meeting, he brought up that this project was not truly a mixed use project.
"In terms of mixed use, I think the intent in the town plan is mixed use in a building," he said. "Not mixed use necessarily on a site."
"Mixed use" is planing and zoning terminology that typically refers to a combination of uses, where different types of commercial purposes, or a mixture of commercial and residential uses, may be encouraged under municipal zoning ordinances.
While the front three buildings will most likely be used exclusively for retail, Moore said they were open to discussion and the possibility of office space on the top floor as well.
Economic development was a topic of discussion that was broached throughout the evening. Moore said the Hampton Inn will help bring business to other retailers and restaurants through out town. There will also be a boost in tax revenue in the area, coming in at almost $1.4 million a year. Moore said he was "floored" when he got that number.
Drunsic did not necessarily see that calculation as a positive for Manchester.
"That's assumes there's no loss anywhere else," he said. "Wal-Mart is famous for making those kinds of statements and then downtowns dry up." As the very long meeting came to a close, Kevin Mullaney, vice-president of Mullaney Hospitality Group, said he does not see this project as an "us versus them" project.
"I can honestly look you in the face and say we're not going to take your customers from you," he said. "It's not an 'us versus them'. And this has been very carefully planned with a lot of input from the town and residents and neighbors and I think that this is a good project for the site."
John O'Keefe, town manager, was seated at the planning commission's table to provide municipal staffing assistance at the meeting. According to Allison Hopkins, the town's zoning administrator and planning director, she had staffed the Development Review Board meeting on the topic previously. O'Keefe replaced Hopkins to avoid any perceived or apparent conflict of interest, since Hopkins had already provided technical support to the DRB.
A special meeting of the planning commission has been called for Friday at 11 a.m. at the town hall to study further the compliance of the Hampton Inn project with the town plan.