Manchester Connects invites you to help reimagine a city divided by a mighty river

Manchester Connects next public meeting is set for May 16 at UNH Manchester in the old Pandora Mill building – pizza and drinks will be served. Kids are welcome.

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Cliff Hurst of Manchester Connects: “Water has always been central to my life.” Photo/Carol Robidoux

MANCHESTER, NH – Cliff Hurst first laid eyes on the Merrimack River when he was 12. He visited the “big city” with his dad in 1953, and vividly remembers the four-hour drive to Manchester from his tiny hometown of Wolcott, VT. He never forgot the majesty of the river.

Manchester Connects Study Area. CivicMoxie

“I went by the river and I stood there, in awe. I was amazed. I’d never been to a city before,” says Hurst.

In hindsight it’s clear that his life has been a fateful journey, looping him back to the city that left him awestruck as a boy. Now he’s helping to revive a plan first imagined by former Mayor Ray Wiczorek, one designed to connect a city divided by a mighty river.

Manchester Connects is a community think tank, and has been working with Southern New Hampshire Planning Commission and urban design firm CivicMoxie in earnest for the past year, to reinvent the way the heart of the city beats – to be more in tune with the rhythm of the rushing Merrimack.

Their next Manchester Connects public meeting is set for May 16 at UNH Manchester in the old Pandora Mill building – pizza and drinks will be served. Kids are welcome. The more the merrier, says Hurst, who takes great care to personally welcome new followers to the Manchester Connects Facebook page, currently numbering 2,219 members and growing.

Central to the plan is creating a sense of place around the river, and deciding how to best help people circulate on foot, by bike, car, bus, and (someday, the group imagines) train. Also on the agenda: parking, programming, river access and activities, all connected in some fashion within a specific radius around the river.

Key to moving forward with the plan was a Department of Transportation grant awarded last year, allowing the group to put out bids for an urban planner. They found Susan Silberberg, founder of CivicMoxie LLC, who specializes in “placemaking,” which in simplest terms is the strategic planning, design and management of public spaces.

CivicMoxie Founder Susan Silberberg

“No question Susan was the one for this project,” says Hurst. “We took her around to meet people like Mayor Gatsas, Dick Anagnost, Arthur Sullivan – and when Dean Kamen found out what we were doing, he invited us in for a meeting – a lot of key people want to see this happen.” 

Hurst is no slouch in the mover and shaker department, either – a former vice chair of the NH GOP and co-chair of five Republican presidential campaigns, he’s also served on many civic boards, and is a current member of the city’s Water Commission.

Descended on his father’s side from the Onandaga Nation, part of the Iroquois Confederation, Hurst supposes he’s genetically predisposed to harboring a humble respect for life-giving water, a trait that served him well growing up in rural Vermont.  

“As a child we were very poor, and we lived by a brook. We used pails and had to go 10-feet down the bank to drop the pail into the pond for water. We filled two cream cans with water every morning and sometimes every night, even in winter. Of course, we also swam and fished in the brook,” says Hurst. “To me, waterways are life.”

Hurst counts himself among the fortunate few of his generation to complete high school and leave his tiny home town for college, thanks to the guidance and benevolence of caring adults in his life. He studied education, psychology and anthropology at Eastern Nazarene College, and was drafted into the Army the same month President Kennedy was shot.

Again, good fortune followed Hurst, who was diverted from Vietnam. 

He recalls arriving at Fort Dix and being shuffled into a room with other new recruits. 

“Someone said, ‘If you don’t want to be an officer, you can leave.’ I had no interest in that, so I left,” says Hurst.

Slide from the July 2016 Manchester Connects public presentation (see link to full presentation below).

“As things turned out, as a private when we got our orders, 90 percent of us were sent to APO San Francisco, and from there, to Vietnam. The other 10 percent, including myself, were sent to  APO New York – which meant I was sent to Germany to work for one of the commanders,” says Hurst.

In short order, Hurst again found himself following an unexpected path – due to a shortage of chaplains, his commanding officer discharged him to Switzerland to be trained in the ministry.

“He said ‘Hurst, all our chaplains are going to Vietnam. You’d make a great chaplain,” and he gave me a European discharge. So my wife and I loaded a trunk under our Volkswagen and headed off to the Rhine Falls in Switzerland,” says Hurst. “While everyone else was going to Vietnam. I was going to Switzerland to study theology.”

By 1966, the General called him back to Germany, saying they were in dire need of chaplains. Hurst told him he wasn’t ready – he hadn’t finished seminary yet. 

“He insisted I was ready, so I went back. I felt sick all the way there,” says Hurst, who gave sermons, handled marriages, weddings and funerals, as needed. During this time he and his wife also were able to travel around Europe on the military’s dime. Hurst again felt awestruck by the world he’d never imagined could exist beyond his boyhood home – the majesty of the Sistine Chapel, the thrill of the Mona Lisa, the spiritual communion of classical music. 

“I cried the first time I heard a symphony. I’d never heard anything like it in my life,” Hurst says. “I could have never afforded such a trip, or such experiences, otherwise.”

Ministering to the troops during Vietnam was a difficult calling. 

“The morale of the troops was so bad. I think they felt guilty being there – they were soldiers without a war,” says Hurst, who has come to realize that without every leg of his unexpected life-journey, he would not have ended up where he is today – or benefitted from the spiritual lessons learned along the way.

“One day we invited this lady to sing in the chapel, and she sang Mahalia Jackson’s ‘If I Can Help Somebody,’ which goes in part, ‘…if I can help somebody as I pass along, then my living will not be in vain,’ and in that moment I realized our main purpose in life is helping each other. It really made an impression on me,” says Hurst. “That’s how I try to live my life.”

The great divide: Manchester Connects wants to make the river the centerpiece to a city connected by a sense of place. Photo/Carol Robidoux

He eventually made his way back to the U.S. following his discharge from the military in 1974, and was invited to take a job as a church pastor in Massachusetts.

“But I realized I didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life,” says Hurst, who instead worked for many years under his mentor and friend, John Pallazi, for Pallazi Construction – the company that built most of this state’s major highways – before shifting gears and taking a sales job with Merrimack Street Volvo, where he still works.

Hurst believes it is a matter of destiny that he’s returned, full circle, to the city by the river. It’s a gift, and a fulfillment of his childhood dream to be here now, and serve as an integral part of the effort to honor the river and its true potential, through Manchester Connects.

“Every day I feel like how could I be so lucky? I was able to return to Manchester, which was my goal, because I always remembered the river. Water has always been central to my life, and I feel blessed to be doing what I’m doing with so many amazing people,” Hurst says. “Wonderful, cooperative people who share a vision for our city.”

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NEXT MEETING DETAILS: The May 16 Manchester Connects meeting will be held at UNH Manchester, 88 Commercial St., 2nd Floor, from 5:30 – 7 p.m. On the agenda: The planning team will present an update on the Manchester Connects planning process, including reports from the various working groups formed since the last meeting tasked with creating better connections to the Millyard and riverfront from Downtown, and to identify placemaking opportunities in the Millyard and riverfront. The planning team will inform the community of Manchester Connects’s next steps and upcoming actions. All are welcome.

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Longtime NH journalist and publisher of Loves R&B, German beer, and the Queen City!