Pathways to the future

Those who prefer to look at life as a glass half full rather than half empty have reason to cheer this week. Two events within walking distance of each other along Main Street are taking place that should boost civic pride and a sense that the town is doing what it can to prepare for a future whose outlines are beginning to emerge.

We refer in part to the Solstice Party planned for Friday evening that will serve as sort of a bookend to the start of the Roundabout construction project last spring. It's hard to believe that about a year ago streets were being torn up, dust flying and traffic detoured. Now that it's done, the consensus of opinion has certainly been overwhelmingly positive. There are a few nagging issues- motorists approaching the "button" rotary at the intersection of Bonnet and Main Streets need to be hyper-aware of traffic coming in all directions, plus the pedestrian walkway in front of the Baptist Church. That's a lot to process at once, particularly for drivers unfamiliar with the town. But all in all, the new configuration is a dramatic improvement over what we had before, and those responsible for seeing the project through, from the folks at Schultz Construction to town officials, deserve credit for that outcome. It could easily have gone differently, but it didn't, and that's a reflection of a lot of hard work and careful planning.

Shortly before the start of the Solstice Party, which will feature some fun-sounding entertainment and street food, the town's new, yet-to-be-built library will have its official groundbreaking ceremony a short distance up the street near the corner of Cemetery Avenue. The importance of this project should not be underestimated. While many people probably still think of libraries as simply a place to obtain books on a short-term loan, like every other institution or business affected by the sea change in communications ushered in by the digital era, libraries are evolving with the times, or trying to. Just by offering public access to computers for job searchers or to help people who otherwise would not the ability to tap into the online universe, libraries play a vital and expanding role. The new Manchester Community Library that will replace the old Mark Skinner building at some point next year will have a lot of modern day electronic bells and whistles that will put it at the forefront of what contemporary libraries can do and offer. We may be able to download eBooks and carry around virtual libraries on portable devices undreamed of even a decade or two ago, but the value of having a physical building containing the tools and resources to access knowledge and information remains relevant. The new library will also serve as a useful community meeting space for events and organizations as well.

There are similarities and differences to both the Roundabout and library projects worth noting. The Roundabout is a pretty good example, we think, of how public investment in infrastructure, when done right, pays off. There has been much talk over the past five years or so - and well before that - about the nation's "crumbling infrastructure." Roads, bridges, tunnels, airports and rail lines built decades ago are now wearing out and need replacement or refurbishment. Neglecting these improvements has exacted an economic price and is something we ignore at our peril. So it's good to see that, contrary to what some may think, investments of public dollars can translate into fixing a problem and provide a few jobs along the way as well.

The library, on the other hand, is an example of privately raised philanthropic capital. Taxpayers are not being asked to fork over a penny for its construction. That money is separate from the funds voted through at Town Meeting to support the library's operations budget, which at roughly 50 percent, is on the low end statewide. In addition to raising about half the revenue needed to finance its day-to-day operations (paying the heating bill, paying employee salaries, etc.), the library's officials are raising the funds for its construction - some $6.6 million, including an endowment fund - from private sources. That's more than it cost to build the Roundabout, to put it in some sort perspective.

Manchester has long benefited enormously from the presence of several individuals who come from fortunate economic circumstances but who nevertheless see important community projects like the library - or skating rink, or an arts venue, or educational facilities - as crucial to making their community a better place to live. Not every community has been as fortunate as Manchester to have such a core of philanthropically inclined residents. It's made a huge difference in the quality of life in this community, and while we hopefully don't take that for granted, it's worth reminding ourselves that either taxes would be much higher, or facilities far fewer, without that presence.

As one project ends, another begins - although the actual construction of the new library is in many ways the culmination of many years of previous hard work and planning. The 21st century is shaping up as one that will be significantly different from the one most of us remember and are familiar with. The pace of technological change, and the opportunities and pitfalls that presents, is enormous. The Roundabout and the library represent different ways in which our community is attempting to adapt to those changes.

So let the party begin, and here's hoping for a great summer season. At the very least, we know it won't be quite as dusty.


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