MANCHESTER, N.H. – The next step toward the future of the former Hallsville Elementary School building was taken on Wednesday night as neighborhood residents and others interested in the fate of the building gathered in its gym for a community listening session.
Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig estimated that 75 people were in attendance at the meeting, which was co-hosted by Craig, Ward 3 Alderman and Board of Mayor and Alderman Vice Chair Pat Long and the Alderman that represented the neighborhood itself, Ward 7 Alderman Mary Sulliivan-Heath.
So far, the city has only received one proposal since the school closed its doors in June 2021.
That proposal, discussed by the Board of Mayor and Aldermen last month, is a collaborative project between Southern New Hampshire Services and the Granite State Children’s Alliance that would incorporate 20 units of affordable elderly housing an early child development center, continued use of the gymnasium for Manchester Department of Parks and Recreation programs and a new office for the Child Advocacy Center or CAC. The current office of the CAC on Auburn Street is now too small to serve the approximately 300 children and caregivers who have been impacted by sexual abuse, felony-level physical abuse or psychological abuse stemming from being witnesses to serious crimes like homicide or assault.
This proposal, submitted to the Board of Mayor and Aldermen in their March 15 meeting packet tentatively has Southern New Hampshire Services, has the two organizations dedicating themselves to $8 million in renovations to the building. In turn, Long said on Wednesday night that the two organizations would be tenants of the city, with a lease lasting for 50 years.
However, Long, Craig and others noted that any details to that proposal now are not written in stone and the city can put out a request for proposals (RFP) if they sought to designate the building as surplus and sell it to a developer or seek other tenants. However, Craig and Long also said that selling the property would limit the ability of the city to place restrictions on any new owners of the property, and excessive restrictions in an RFP could limit the number of interested applicants as well as reduce the asking price.
Southern New Hampshire Services Executive Director Donnalee Lozeau said that the site would be ideal for the needs of her organization, which has provided workforce development, fuel assistance programs and elderly housing among other programs in Manchester since 1965. However, she also said that she would be unable to fundraise the $8 million for renovations until she received clear guidance from the city that the project can move forward, something the city doesn’t want to do until it obtains consensus from the neighborhood.
“The thing about Manchester is that there isn’t a lot of land left, there isn’t a lot of places you can build things, and the cost of construction has doubled, “said Lozeau. “In order for someone to afford to build here, they’d need to get the money from somewhere.”
Neighbors expressed concern over traffic and parking at the site as well as a desire for any use to avoid jeopardizing public safety in the area. The general consensus from people speaking in the audience was that the Parks and Recreation programs in the gymnasium such as pickleball and indoor youth soccer were positive.
Another uniform point of consensus was that the city should not give ownership of the property as a gift in exchange for agreements from a developer to serve public needs, with Craig and several Aldermen in attendance stating they would oppose any such move.
Affordable housing for seniors proved to be more of a mixed issue however among the crowd. Some felt that the lack of affordable housing in the city meant that additional affordable housing should be open to all ages while others noted that climbing rents in the city have pushed seniors out of their homes.
Lisa Freeman expressed concerns over two state laws requiring local charter schools first access to any properties being deemed as surplus by school districts, but Craig said those concerns had been vetted with the city’s legal counsel and determined to not be an issue in this situation since the school is owned by the city, not the school district.
One of the neighborhood residents who spoke was Mary Roberge, who was pleased to hear so many ideas for the facility.
“It is an old building, my mother went here, I went here, my daughter went here, there’s a family history in this building,” said Roberge. “I would like to see it be used for something that’s worthwhile.”
Craig, like Roberge, hoped that whatever use is decided upon for the inside of the building that the historic nature of the building, built in 1891, can be preserved. Also, like Roberge, Craig appreciated the feedback on Wednesday.
“I was really pleased with the turnout this evening and happy that people felt comfortable sharing their concerns and thoughts about what we can do with the school,” she said. “It’s a historic school. There’s a lot of opportunity and I think we heard some consistent themes from folks that were here.”
Nick Lavallee, another resident of Ward 7, felt that not enough had been done to publicize the meeting, saying he only heard about it from Manchester Ink Link and Manchester Community Television. However, he was also in complete agreement with Roberge and Craig over the constructive atmosphere of the night.
Lavallee was also pleased with the impression that the city would not just give away the building.
“I’m glad this event happened. I think any public meeting that welcomes discourse is a great thing,” he said. “I don’t necessarily have an idea of how the building can be used, I just thought it would be important that ownership is retained by the City of Manchester. To me, anything that benefits the community at large one way or another is its best use.”
No timeline has been established on a decision for next steps on what to do with the property.