MANCHESTER — There are arguments for and against moving the town offices from their current location on Main Street back to municipal property on Depot Street. But the issue is not as simple as whether having Town Hall downtown makes more sense, or how much it will cost.
That’s what town officials, planners and members of a working group studying proposals for the property had to say during a productive and wide-ranging discussion during Tuesday’s Manchester Select Board meeting.
The inclusion of town offices in the proposal, as a mixed-use option for three town buildings at 301 Depot St., would help plans to build 40 units of mixed-income housing at the rear of parcel, which stretches back to Center Hill Road, proponents and officials said. That project likely would be built with parking on the ground floor, to account for being set in the flood plain of the West Branch, and with mixed uses and housing in the retrofitted retail buildings.
Town planning officials said the inclusion of town offices would avoid a problem that’s affected a good deal of Depot Street the past few years — vacancy — and help the project pencil out financially. It would also clear the current town offices for use by public service organizations, most notably the Community Food Cupboard, which is in need of additional space. An affordable housing development in front of the building once the Main Street sewer extension is complete is another possibility.
But that was tempered by concerns about up-front costs, whether a move would spark economic activity as hoped and whether retrofitting the current town offices on Main Street would be a better option.
Planning Commission Chairman Greg Boshart said the debate is not about moving Town Hall, as much as “all the things that can benefit by that happening. ... I see this as a huge opportunity since the town owns the land.”
The move would not be a vanity project, Boshart said, but rather, “recognizing the importance of municipal government. It’s smart planning. ... It’s OK to recognize government is important to the community and should be in the heart of the community.”
Doug Kilburn said, although 40 units of housing would be “very good for this community,” the bottom line remains important — and a decision shouldn’t be made in haste. He said leaders should “listen to these folks and recognize what effort they put into trying to make the town a better place,” Kilburn said. But, “I always want the numbers first. I think we need to put more effort into getting you numbers prior to making a decision.”
Paul W. Carroccio was not convinced, however, saying the increasing use of technology makes the location of municipal offices less relevant. The money it would cost to build a new Town Hall — complete with a new vault for town records dating back to its founding — could be better used building housing units, he said.
“Let’s spend money on housing,” he said. “I think the town should not waste money moving this.”
Money is a factor, but so is time: Manchester Designer Outlets’ lease at 301 Depot St. expires on April 1, 2023. According to Town Manager John O’Keefe, the lease includes a “right of first refusal” clause, which expires at the same time as the lease. The retail developer leased the property from the town in the 1990s, when the town purchased the former Mount Laurel School on Main Street, moving town offices into the former school building and then constructing the public safety complex.
Of the three buildings, O’Keefe said, he would recommend choosing one of the two bookends, since they have elevators. But he noted that the town might need to find an alternative to the Kilburn Meeting Room, which is used for meetings and elections.
“Before we make improvements to campus, we need to figure out where we’re going to stay,” he said.
O’Keefe said the current town offices have served well and could get rehabbed to improve energy efficiency and accessibility standards for less than it would cost to retrofit the Depot Street buildings.
And O’Keefe, board Chairman Ivan Beattie and resident Sylvia Jolivette all said there are benefits to having the town offices on the same campus as the public safety complex.
Speakers including Boshart, Planning and Zoning Director Janet Hurley and Bennington County Regional Commission Assistant Director Bill Colvin said the long-term benefits of a Depot Street move would exceed the short-term cost of retrofitting one of the three retail buildings. Putting the offices downtown would drive foot traffic and spending, he said.
Hurley said a move should be looked at as “a piece of a puzzle — not just what’s going to cost more money.” She said it offered a choice between the status quo, or “engaging town government in solutions for our community and making mixed-use development work in that part of downtown.”
Hurley also spoke to the current vacancy rate on Depot Street, and to the benefit of making mixed-use development work there.
“When you look at Depot Street right now, it’s not thriving. There are a lot of former retail vacancies there,” Hurley said. “There’s been some some conversion around the periphery into housing by the Hauben group, and as they do, they’re leased before they’re even done.
“The only thing being talked about for new enterprise is marijuana right now,” Hurley added. “We’re not getting a lot of interest in getting those spaces filled.”
Colvin said the move provided Manchester with an opportunity to reorient its town center the way most towns would if they could choose — by putting its municipal offices in the center. That move will increase foot traffic to local businesses and restaurants, and reflect state urban planning principles suggesting a strong urban core surrounded by green space.
“When Town Hall originally moved, that was was a smart decision. The town benefited heavily,” Boshart said. “But that’s not the environment we live in anymore.”
Jolivette was also adamant that the offices remain where they are, and that residents have an opportunity to express their views on any potential move. She also expressed concern that multifamily housing would not reflect the town’s historic character.
“I’d like to see Manchester remain as a village community. I don’t want to see it become a city,” she said. “I don’t like comparisons to Bennington or Burlington or Middlebury or Springfield. Manchester is unique, and that is a big asset to our bringing people here.”