MANCHESTER, NH – Mayor Joyce Craig on Feb. 13 delivered her second “State of the City” address since taking office last year, and covered a lot of ground, highlighting the importance of strengthening the city’s school system as a major cog in the wheel of future progress. The event was hosted at Fratello’s and organized by the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce.
Craig spoke about multiple collaborative efforts that support not only improving city schools, such as Manchester Proud, but also public-private partnerships that will change the face of the city, including the Palace Theatre’s purchase of the former Rex Theatre, which was city-owned. The theater is currently under construction with the goal of opening its door in the fall as a community space for music, theater and meetings.
Following Craig’s prepared remarks [you can read them in full below] Greater Manchester Chamber President and CEO Mike Skelton engaged the mayor in a brief Q&A during which they went a little deeper on a variety of topics.
You can also watch the full State of the City address and Q&A via the Facebook Live link below:
Rundown of some of the key discussion points following the mayor’s address:
Craig spoke about how many of the city’s current and future innovations helped secure a contract with BAE Systems, which is relocating to Manchester and bringing up to 800 new high-paying jobs to the city.
“BAE was looking at Manchester and another community in Massachusetts,” Craig said. But in presenting the city’s tax incentives and also the growing number of amenities with appeal to a younger demographic, access to the Interstate and airport, BAE was “blown away,” by Manchester, Craig said.
Rex Theater Project
Although relatively small in the world of projects, Craig called the renovation of the Rex Theatre on Amherst Street a “neat partnership” between the Manchester Development Corporation and Palace Theatre, with potential for transformative impact on the downtown.
“For years that building has been an eyesore on a key [thoroughfare] to get downtown,” Craig said, noting that just removing the old facade and revealing the original brick has improved the outward appearance.
“Building a Manchester where young people want to be and stay is key – we we hear it day in and day out that they want more than restaurants, so this will provide a key place to go as well as a community venue,” Craig said.
Manchester Proud, a coalition of business leaders that have been engaging a broad cross-section of the community in strategic planning for the future of the Manchester School District, promises to be game-changer for the city, Craig said.
“They’re putting together a long-term strategic plan for the school district, something we would not be able to do otherwise – the school district doesn’t have the finances to do that,” Craig noted. Through its own private fundraising Manchester Proud has been above to hire 2Revolutions as a consultant, a company that has already engaged with city schools for projects including remaking Manchester School of Technology into a four-year high school and developing project-based learning at Parker Varney with a goal of expanding that initiative district-wide.
Although Superintendent of Schools Dr. Bolgen Vargas has resigned, having a strategic plan in place will provide a road map for the incoming school superintendent, Craig said.
Craig spoke of the success of Velcro University, a workforce development initiative within West High School and, based on that success, she announced a similar initiative will be launched in partnership with Eversource at Central High School.
The mayor also announced an initiative that will allow city high school students to ride MTA buses for free to and from school beginning in the fall of 2019, and also to and from any location around the city just by showing their student ID.
Craig said making sure there are affordable housing options in the downtown is critical to the future, and so the city is hoping to be accepted into a program with the National League of Cities to learn more about what other cities are doing to solve the issue, one of many initiatives in the works toward development of the downtown.
The mayor also is looking for ways to maximize use of underutilized areas of the city, such as the Armory, and is advocating with Gov. Chris Sununu to allow access to the property so it can be put out to big for the highest and best use.
Outreach to the Refugee Community
As mayor, it’s been possible to connect at a deeper level with various refugee community groups and learn first-hand what their specific needs are, Craig said. In the coming months, Craig will continue to help remove barriers that exist educationally and in terms of employment and opportunity through meaningful conversation and collaborative efforts.
Craig noted that new Airport Director Ted Kitchens was unable to attend the State of the City event because he’s meeting with an airline to bring more options to MHT.
“It’s a chicken-and-egg situation. If people go to Boston to fly a cheaper flight we can’t prove that there’s opportunity here in Manchester to serve that population,” Craig said. She urged those in the room who might forego MHT for a cheaper flight out of Logan to consider the value of their time.
“Ted has noted the importance of communicating that time starts ticking when you leave your door,” Craig said, referencing a recent article in the Boston Globe about the traffic nightmare of Boston. “Why would you deal with that to save $50? You have to consider the value of your time.”
Skelton added that the Globe article “will be gold for our economic development outreach, as the article also ranked Boston as having the worst rush-hour gridlock in the country, a comment that evoked some laughter from the crowd.
Now is the time to step forward on the issue of rail, said Craig, who is an advocate of expanding New Hampshire’s commuter and commercial rail options to Manchester. She noted pending legislation in Concord that is key, and said that once those pieces are in place it will then be time for the city to dig in. She could not say whether there is consensus among the Board of Aldermen that rail is a net positive for the city.
“The first step is advocating at the state level, which I’ve been doing. Rail would make a big difference in our city,” Craig said. “The best time to discuss it is when we have a solid plan, and the hope is that the legislation in Concord passes and then, with a timeline and plan, we can discuss it at the city level,” Craig said.
FY 2020 city budget
As another budget cycle begins, Craig said working within the tax cap always presents a challenge, but in particular, it will be a challenge to meet the needs of the school side – from unsettled teacher contracts to the need for textbooks, professional development and increasing special education costs.
Panhandling and homelessness
Craig said the issues, while not new, are more visible in the downtown for several reasons. However, as Families In Transition begins to put into play a strategic plan to end homelessness, it’s important that business owners and residents tune in to the messaging that goes along with those changes.
Supporting FIT/New Horizons as it improves conditions inside the shelter to make it a safe and welcoming place where those in need can find resources to get back on their feet is important to its success. A communication plan involving the Chamber and Intown Manchester, will help to inform the public about progress and action items – how to volunteer and contribute, and most importantly why giving out a dollar or two from a place of compassion actually undermines the shelter’s ability to draw in those who resist walking through the doors.
“Our community is so compassionate, and so if you want to help, the way to do that is to help organizations like Waypoint and FIT, instead of handing a dollar or two to someone,” Craig said.
Future of Manchester
As the tech and biotech industries expand, Craig said creating a city where young people want to stay after high school, attend college, find employment and raise their families depends first and foremost on improving the city’s school system.
“Having a school system that is second to none so young adults want to stay here is the key component to me,” Craig said.