In January Manchester witnessed the passing of Jim Sparkman; a man who dedicated much of his life to ensuring that the vision of one man would never become a reality. Two months later that visionary, Ben Hauben, also passed. Within weeks of Ben's passing the Manchester Chamber of Commerce also died.
Like many Manchester residents I, too, was caught up in the ruckus of what was back then known as rapid development. I first met Ben in 1984 when he invited me to a meeting to show me what he intended to do with the corner of Routes 7 & 11/30 he had recently purchased from Barry Wall. My grandmother worked as a nanny for the Wall kids. Ben was going to take down the former Horton's Hardware Store where my grandfather had his first job. Was it sad to think about those old buildings leaving? Sure. But they were in deplorable shape; more of a fire hazard than anything. It was time for them to go.
Ironically, Ben's plans for the corner were a series of 1,500 sf buildings/shops, plus a public skating rink out back. Although it was sad to think of the huge building on the corner gone, it was exciting to think about what his vision would look like and do for the town.
Ben's plans were thwarted immediately. Modifications to his plans were also thwarted. What we ended up with was a "renovation" of the old hardware store; a new building dubbed the Crystal Palace. It set the tone for the next 20, acrimonious years.
The Town looked to limit any new building footprint to only 1,500 sf in an attempt to discourage Ben from bringing in more outlets. I served on the panel to examine this initiative. It's seemed obvious to me that drastically reducing the size of the building would increase the square footage cost and result in an increase in rent. We settled on a footprint of 3,000 sf which was still quite small. We ended up with a large inventory of small buildings mostly rented by factory outlets paying high rent. It's hard to say where we'd be had we simply left things alone and let the visionary simply move forward.
Ben was a long-view player. He lived here. After he began his work we saw the rise of those who wanted to ride Ben's coattails. These were people who were the exploiters. We're stuck with their work even today. Ben's concern was that these kind of developers would undermine his vision; a vision guided by quality. Turned out his was right.
The efforts to thwart Ben were not without some success. Yes, Manchester ended up with outlets, but as a result of the polarization many other opportunities were lost. I've often wondered what the town would be like today had we all come together and worked together to travel down the road that Ben saw instead of fighting every step of the way.
Saddened as I am at the loss of an old friend I am glad that he passed before learning of the demise of our Chamber. He would be heartbroken to learn of the strife they're going through. A town like Manchester just can't be without a Chamber.
I learned a lot from Ben Hauben. He was a man who never wanted conflict yet was a fighter. Yes, he had a business and wanted to make money, but he genuinely cared for our town. Some might take issue with this but it's true.
We have lost the main players of the past. Manchester must figure out on its own what it wants and where it's going. We no longer have a driver of our bus. It appears as though we no longer even have a bus. We have much work to do.
Perhaps now is the time to forget the past and focus on what's next.
Bob Stannard is a resident of Manchester.
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