Studies of downtown Manchester area presented
By Annie Gentile - ReminderNews
Manchester - posted Fri., Jan. 27, 2012
Manchester has seen a lot of changes in the last 20 years - particularly in the Downtown Special Services District - so when First Niagara Bank offered to do a comprehensive market study, it was an offer the District couldn’t refuse.
On Jan. 26, before a large crowd, the Downtown Manchester Special Services District hosted a presentation of the recently-completed market study at the Elks Club on Bissell Street.
“The impetus for the study came when New Alliance Bank was bought by First Niagara,” said Downtown District Manager Tana Parseliti. “That was the chrysalis of change. We knew there would be a loss of our employment base and we knew we needed to reposition the Downtown. [First Niagara Bank] stepped up and provided the money for the market study,” she said.
A five-month effort, the Downtown Market Study was completed by three Connecticut firms - AMS Consulting, LLC, which led the effort, The Center for Research, and Zared Architecture - each of whom presented their findings at the presentation.
Michael Vigeant, president of the Center for Research, provided ample statistical research, reporting that there is plenty of good news to share about the Downtown, the stretch of Main Street and adjoining side streets that runs from Center Street down to Charter Oak Street. Vigeant surveyed a random sampling of residents proportional to their demographics from Manchester, as well as the neighboring communities of Glastonbury, Vernon, East Hartford, South Windsor and Bolton.
“An important finding was that the overall perception of the Downtown was 72 percent positive for non-residents and 81.2 percent positive for residents,” said Vigeant. “They like it. They feel safe. They have few parking or safety concerns. We found that as people know more about the area, their rating goes up and they are willing to visit more often.”
Vigeant said he found few barriers to people wanting to visit the Downtown with a growing number looking to eschew the mall experience for a more walkable community experience with a sense of place. What they would like to find, however, is more things to do in Downtown, particularly with respect to restaurants and bars, movies, art galleries and entertainment, Vigeant said.
Regina Winters, president of Zared Architecture, reported similar positive findings. “Manchester is an urban designer’s dream… a diamond in the rough,” she said. Winters found the SSD’s exquisite architecture from a variety of styles and several buildings on the National Historic Register, attractive lighting, signage, streetscapes and shared parking appealing to those looking to get back to a pedestrian-friendly shopping experience.
A challenge for local property owners will be to update their buildings, Winters said. “More work needs to be done with emergency access and accessibility to upper floors. Many of the upstairs spaces were empty and in need of an elevator,” she said, adding that her firm could provide information on grants and financing sources to assist business owners with upgrades.
“There’s been a seismic shift in the business base in the last 20 to 30 years [in the Downtown],” said Lawrence Kenney, senior vice president of AMS Consulting. Once heavily populated by independent retail outlets like Marlows, House and Hale, and Arthur’s Drug Store, the Downtown has lost 29 percent of its retail base since 1997, shifting to become more of a service hub for Manchester and the region.
While that shift is not necessarily a bad change, what has been lost, Kenney said, is a sense of identity and place.
“Retail is a vital piece, but it doesn’t have a strong base here,” Kenney said, adding that in order to spur growth, the town needs to build its economy on a five-legged stool of niche retail, support of its existing service base, upgraded housing with a target market of young, recent college graduates with busy social lives, food establishments, and a destination-driven arts and entertainment base.
To meet that challenge, he found the SSD to have several positives on its side, including strong traffic counts and good traffic linkages, ample parking, fairly low real estate costs and an historical character.
Parseliti said that moving forward, with the help of AMS Consulting, the SSD will need to do some re-branding and recruitment for retail growth, and to that end will be working with the District and key partners to put together an implementation plan.
For more information and for a copy of the Downtown Market Study, visit www.downtownmanchester.org.