MANCHESTER, N.H. – Following a similar meeting earlier in the summer on the topic, community members and local non-profit leaders gathered at Parkside Middle School to share their thoughts at the proposed Mark Stebbins Community Center planned just a few hundred feet down the street.
Organizers of the group hoping to build the proposed community center have pledged to raise $17 million through donations from individuals and other organizations while also seeking out federal funding to build the facility, which aims to honor deceased Manchester businessman and philanthropist Mark Stebbins.
Tuesday’s meeting was the latest step in what has now been a nine-month process to build a community center on the city’s West Side. Supporters of the project repeated statements made throughout the process that the West Side is underserved when it comes to community resources and providing a location for children’s recreation and family health services that is easy for West Side families to reach would be a boon.
Currently, the facility is expected to house the Manchester Boys and Girls Club and Amoskeag Health, and is expected to be no more than slightly less than a third of the size of Parkside. Project organizers have also stated that they do not wish to displace the community garden that is currently on the site. However, additional details remain in flux as the organizers seek to gain input from members of the neighborhood.
Several of those neighborhood residents came to Tuesday’s meeting and voiced frustration with the organizers’ approach to the proposed community center, echoing frustration posed by several neighbors throughout the process.
Although no one was opposed to the efforts of the Manchester Boys and Girls Club or Amoskeag Health, there were concerns over the impact of construction on the facility to the neighborhood, how the facility might impact the community garden and cost overruns.
However, the most prevalent concern was the lack of communication early in the process between the organizing group and the neighbors, with several neighbors feeling that the building was pre-ordained and any claims of communication with the neighbors by the group organizers was disingenuous.
Carla Gericke, a local resident, felt that if the project went forward as it is now, it should not be a “community” center due to the group’s interactions with the community up to this point.
“No one wants to go to war here, right? But it’s important for people to understand where our frustration is coming from and we do not trust you,” Gericke said to the organizers. “You cannot build a community center when you literally ignore the community that lives here.”
Some neighbors felt that the lack of early outreach to neighbors left them ever willing to trust the organizers while others said they could be persuaded if the organizers apologized for the lack of direct communication so far and slowed down to talk with the residents rather than making the process seem like a foregone conclusion after the Board of Mayor and Aldermen agreed to sell the land for the purpose of the project.
There were some supporters of the community center who also empathized with the neighbors, such as Ward 10 resident Damond Ford.
Ford, a volunteer at Parker-Varney Elementary School and other local groups, believes that the community center will benefit the West Side and the city as a whole, but added that West Side residents such as himself are “spicy” and disrespectful behavior by the organizers will create additional opposition if not corrected.
“An apology is not difficult, you just have to mean it,” he said.
Hank Stebbins, Mark’s brother, did apologize to the neighbors later in the meeting and said he would be willing to meet individually or in smaller groups to listen to anyone looking to discuss the facility with him. He added that despite the decision by the Board of Mayor and Aldermen, the facility is by no means guaranteed to be built.
In response to some neighbors asking about other sites on the West Side, organizers said that using part of West High School was not feasible due to uncertainty over its use by the Manchester School District, with some other sites like Bass Island determined not to be feasible and some other sites like the area near the West Side Ice Arena not being considered initially.
Organizers also noted that part of the confusion over the early communication came from the fact that the process earlier this year was not at a point where direct communication to abutters would be required, as is the case with Planning Board or Zoning Board of Appeals requests. Organizers also said that the process did not meet the guidelines for a Request for Proposals from the city, which normally occurs when the city is looking to do something with a property, the opposite of what occurred in this case.
Concerns that the facility would negatively impact property values was also challenged by experts on the organizing boards that usually only “nuisance uses” harm property values and that adding a Boys and Girls Club and family health center run by Amoskeag Health would not cause a “nuisance” to anyone.
More information on the organizing group’s ideas for the facility can be found at markstebbinscommunitycenter.org.