Next act for Club Liquid: Sink-hole or Downtown oasis?

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Greetings, blog friends.

This space has offered to look at key community properties via the 360 Opportunity Assessment process, to do an out-loud “what if.” We reported on 400 Bedford Street recently, and had several more of your suggestions queued-up.

But 23 Amherst Street just butted in line, for good reason. It is the former Rex Theatre, and more recently Club Liquid bar-pit. The City of Manchester – via the affiliated Manchester Development Corporation (MDC) – has issued a Request For Proposals (RFP) to buy-develop the site. The MDC did a good thing to acquire the property and offer it for redevelopment, or else it may have deteriorated indefinitely, as it is definitely a “challenging” property. We’ll revisit the queued line of your suggestions in another installment. Promise.

360 Opportunity Assessments look wholistically at a project (hence “360” as in degrees) by looking simultaneously at four inclusive factors: Money, Market, People and Place.

While all are important, the Place drives many other considerations, and will be the focus of this edition of Better Than Ever.

Old Rex Theatre: The city is looking for someone with a vision for this vacancy at 23 Amherst St.
Considering the potential of the old Rex Theatre, 23 Amherst St.

First, consider its location. It is located on the cusp of lovely Hanover Street with its new upscale apartments and retail, and DMZ territory on Amherst Street. The transition is dramatic, and means that the site could either help push good things from Hanover toward Amherst and north and east (toward the Court House and city parking garage), or it could be a landmine for any re-development in its direction; hence the MDC investment.

The site itself is very limited, with no land – zip – for parking, pedestrian pathways, or shelter. So if ever re-developed – and that’s a big if – it needs to rely on public parking and retail uses nearby. That’s good as an economic driver, if that re-use is positive.

The building is basically a big and mostly uninteresting box. It has high ceilings from its former theater days, but thankfully a flat floor, as the ascending seating was removed. But the high height cannot be used for a second floor without crazy-big investments, and what would otherwise make good high-ceiling storage space is unlikely due to no ability to load-unload at any truck docks. And who wants a warehouse there?

So it either needs to have a re-use that fits a big, tall box, or should be demolished, as the space has value perhaps more than the space with the building on it.

How so?

At a minimum, it could provide private parking spaces for the nearby apartments and retail uses, spaces that would be reserved, and closer than the city garage. But then again, who wants another private-purpose parking lot?

Manchester Ink Link has reported on the possible use of the site as a music and education venue as proposed by Old Sol Music Hall. Recently, I had the chance to visit the site with Matt Wilhelm of Old Sol and learn more about his plans.

Stu Arnett, center, cats inside 23 Amherst St. with William Kanteres of Kanteres Real Estate, and Matt Wilhelm, right, of Old Sol Music Hall.
Stu Arnett, center, chats inside the old Rex Theatre at 23 Amherst St. with William Kanteres of Kanteres Real Estate, and Matt Wilhelm, right, of Old Sol Music Hall.

While this blog will not comment on his plans due to the upcoming bid process, (other than to say I liked the concept, by the way), it is fair that this is the type of very specialized re-use the building requires to become viable again. Otherwise the site eventually becomes either a parking lot, or the site for a new, smaller structure.

Limited blog space here means I’ll leave People and Market for later, but let’s talk Money.

It’ll need a lot. First to renovate, and then more to finance new-to-market activities. It is high-risk. To be successful – or even have a shot at success – it will need public support through grants, loans, tax-deferrals and whatever other alphabet-soup programs that can be applied.

This is a great example of the public policy decision to invest, or not. My guess is that any re-use of the site for entertainment (not another bar) will require extensive renovations, and it will still be a high-risk venture. Will another venue add to – or cannibalize – Manchester’s nascent live-music culture? Does the City want to see cash now, or take a calculated risk that getting less now means maybe much more in economic-cultural activity later. How much risk – if any – will the MDC share with a re-developer?

Tough choices.

Stay tuned as the bids are submitted by March 15 and the MDC considers these hard choices. Regardless, congrats to the MDC for its leadership taking on this very “challenging” site for the long-term good of downtown Manchester.

But I’ve got a good feeling about this…

Stuart Arnett

Stuart Arnett redevelop hometowns through his company Arnett Development Group in Concord, NH, and is a founding member of the Better Future Alliance L3C, and has served as New Hampshire’s Director of Economic Development. He is the youngest of five sugar-fed boomers. You can reach him with your suggestions for city sites in need of remedy here.

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