August 6, 2018

Manchester tapping its many roads to growth

HBJ Photo | Steve Laschever
HBJ Photo | Steve Laschever
Gary Anderson, Manchester's director of planning and economic development, stands on the town's Main Street corridor, thriving with local shops, restaurants, even a town-owned “coworking” space, he says enhance its small-town charm.
Photos | Contributed
(From left) Manchesterís older Main Street structures are a draw for shops like Silk City Coffee. (Far right) Silk City co-owners Rob and Sarah May (left), and Tammy and Glenn Gerhard.

Manchester restaurateur Tammy Gerhard and her husband teamed with another couple nearly two years ago to open their Silk City Coffee establishment on Manchester's historic Main Street.

Taking the nickname for a community once renowned for weaving silk into fabric, the Gerhards so far have found their retail venture lucrative and are already plotting an on-site expansion.

Along the way, Gerhard says her family came to adore Manchester so much, they sold their South Windsor home and relocated to one in town, two minutes from their cafe.

"We wanted to more fully be a part of the community that we love to serve,'' Gerhard said.

This community of about 59,000 residents east of the Connecticut River may find more families resettling within its borders before long. Manchester's mayor and its top economic-development official cite a MetroHartford Alliance session during which a presenter forecast Manchester as Greater Hartford's most populous suburb by 2030, supplanting West Hartford.

"We have very affordable housing,'' said Mayor Jay Moran. "We have families that used to live in Manchester, moved away to Tolland and South Windsor. But their kids can't afford those communities, so they're moving back to Manchester."

The median home sales price in Manchester was about $187,800 vs. $236,400 in Hartford County from 2011 to 2015, according to data produced by the CT Data Collaborative. The median household income in town is $63,158 vs. $70,331 statewide.

While West Hartford and Farmington Valley communities west of the river enjoyed reputations as havens for homebuyers, corporate headquarters, diners and shoppers, Manchester over the years has stuck to its small-town knitting, Moran said. It focused on incrementally expanding its economic diversity while hanging onto many of its older houses and buildings that locals say lend it an air of charm.

But that charm preservation has not slowed commercial redevelopment in a town that is among Greater Hartford's leading employment hubs, with 15 major employers accounting for more than 5,200 full- and part-time jobs.

That count is likely to grow, with chic grocer Trader Joe's recently announcing plans for its first store east of the Connecticut River. Furniture dealer Raymour & Flanagan is asking Manchester for permission to expand its distribution center, said Gary Anderson, Manchester's director of planning and economic development.

Unlike many of its suburban Hartford neighbors, Manchester has a hospital and is home to Manchester Community College. It also is headquarters for Bob's Discount Furniture, the home-furnishings chain that several years ago erected a new headquarters building visible from I-84. Its industrial area in the Progress Drive corridor is home to several Pratt & Whitney aeroparts suppliers, among them Spartan Aerospace LLC and ACMT Inc.

Manchester, too, benefits from having as its neighbor East Hartford, home to Pratt & Whitney and the United Technologies Research Center, which are underway hiring thousands of engineers, technologists and other skilled workers. Many of them could choose to live or play in Manchester, Anderson said.

Recently, Massachusetts landlord-developer Winstanley Enterprises Co. announced its $70 million purchase and pending redevelopment of the massive J. C. Penny regional distribution center in town, in the shadow of The Shoppes at Buckland Hills mall. The mall recently underwent an extensive facelift.

Winstanley, owner of the Plaza At Burr Corners shopping center near Buckland mall, proposes to carve most of the Penny facility's 1.9 million square feet into smaller manufacturing and distribution suites. Doing so would likely increase employment well beyond the 400 or so workers Penny currently employs there.

That would mean more demand for houses and apartments. The Buckland mall and the roster of surrounding clothing, furniture, electronics and other retail stores, along with the town's Main Street strip of local merchants, would see even more shoppers, Anderson said.

Safety concerns

The Connecticut Economic Research Council (CERC), retained by Manchester to assist in refining its economic-development strategy, conducted a focus-group session with residents who admitted they really like their town, especially its diversity of people and businesses.

"We found overwhelming feedback that residents like the [road] access to and from the town; its affordability for living there and starting a business,'' said Courtney Hendricson, a CERC vice president.

The only insecurities focus-group participants voiced was about going into downtown Manchester at night, Hendricson said.

The mayor said he is aware of those safety concerns and that the town has responded with improved lighting on Main Street. It also adopted an ordinance giving local police authority to corral overly aggressive panhandlers.

"I don't have a problem going downtown at night,'' Moran said.

The crime rate per 100,000 residents in town was 2,931 vs. 2,167 statewide in 2014. Manchester's poverty rate — 11.8 percent — is on par with Hartford County's average, but above the 10.5 percent statewide average, CT Data Collaborative data show.

Beyond that, Manchester benefits, Moran said, now and into the future from its proximity to UConn's Storrs main campus and the thousands of students, faculty and staff who are at the same time potential visitors and residents. Manchester Community College is also home to a significant number of pupils and staff.

It's largely because of UConn that Manchester, Anderson said, has been urging state transportation authorities to expand the CTfastrak busway system to include their town and other points east of the river.

Manchester's proximity to I-84 and the I-384 connector have been business magnets for the community. Moran recalls asking at the opening of Dover Saddlery in Burr Corners, 1153 Tolland Turnpike, why the Littleton, Mass., retailer of equestrian gear and apparel chose a town with not many horses.

The answer, Moran said, was that Manchester's access to I-84 made it an ideal stopover for motorists traveling between Boston and New York to eat, shop and refuel. Outdoor retailer Cabela's had a similar idea with its East Hartford location, also just off I-84.

Retail worries

Retail-space broker Mark D'Addabbo, founder/president of New England Retail Properties in Wethersfield, has watched Manchester's evolution the past two decades, brokering retail leases that first brought Outback Steakhouse and Carrabba's Italian Grill, among others, to the town's Buckland Hills retail district. D'Addabbo's firm brokered the lease for Joey Garlic's Pizzeria's newest Hartford area restaurant that recently opened with as many as 80 staffers in the former Carrabba's space.

As the mall district grew, Manchester's quaint Main Street retail zone suffered, said D'Addabbo, whose mother-in-law is a town resident. He sees storm clouds hovering over the Buckland mall, as major tenants Sears, Macy's and J. C. Penny remain locked in a dire struggle with online competitors.

"Should some or all of these stores close it would result in some extremely large vacancies,'' D'Addabbo said.

To counter that possibility, Moran said Manchester aspires to marshal more funding and other resources to stake and help grow its small-business community.

Town officials are asking, "What can we do to help business owners get started … ?" he said.

One way is through the town's offering of the Main Street coworking space. A popular amenity sprouting in downtown Hartford and more of its suburbs, entrepreneurs and startups share the cost of office space, furniture, copiers, fax machines and Wi-Fi.

Moreover, these coworking tenants "are learning from each other," Moran said.

"We're improving every day,'' the mayor said. "We're not perfect. But we're trying to accommodate small business as well as corporate business.''

CORRECTION: An earlier version misidentified the agency involved in assisting the town with its economic-development strategy.

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