Riverwalk becomes a topic in mayoral race

With less than two weeks before Manchester elects its next mayor, Alderman and mayoral candidate Patrick Arnold is gaining attention for his proposal to renew the Merrimack riverfront in Manchester. In a campaign video, Arnold stands on the graffiti-stained steps leading down to the Merrimack at Arms Park and declares:

We should promote opportunities for companies like Dyn and Silvertech, and visionaries like Dean Kamen to stay here, and create good paying jobs here. Instead of a dilapidated riverfront, imagine a world class Riverwalk or boardwalk promenade with shops, street vendors, and dining opportunities to rival similar projects in San Antonio, Providence, and Pittsburgh. A Riverwalk here would put our city on the map, not just regionally but nationally. We can realize these opportunities without using taxpayer dollars. Businesses and private investors will want to invest in projects like this because they believe in investing in Manchester’s future. The potential for our city is here, and it’s time for us to seize these opportunities.

The Riverwalk topic was then picked up at last week’s mayoral debate sponsored by the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce. Arnold’s proposal for a Riverwalk picks up on an idea that has been floating around Manchester for decades, but hasn’t gone anywhere, due in large part to a lack of vision and leadership from City Hall. At the debate, Arnold described a vision of Manchester ten years in the future in which a couple from Boston might drive (or take the commuter rail!) up to Manchester to stroll along the Riverwalk and enjoy dinner, then decide to look at houses in the city, by then known for its excellent school system. Mayor Ted Gatsas, running for re-election, retorted that “We also have taxpayers in this city. It’s about how to pay for it. The questions are easy; the answers are hard.”

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Manchester’s Riverwalk can be so much more than this – photo by Brad Danielson

But the issue is that the mayor hasn’t even been asking the crucial questions. Over the past eight years, during both the Gatsas and Guinta  administrations,  development in Manchester has largely occurred haphazardly without a guiding vision from City Hall. Mayor Gatsas is right to point out that the funding for a project like the Riverwalk needs to be a consideration, but the problem is that he’s not even considering it. Forget the answers, he’s not even asking the questions: what is Manchester’s future? how great of a city can Manchester be? how can Manchester attract and retain its young people? how can it find innovative ways to fund a Riverwalk that could revitalize the city?

Arnold, in his video, suggests that a Riverwalk project could be funded without raising local taxes, presumably by funding it at least in part through private dollars, grants and other mechanisms, and that such a development could lead to further renewal along the riverfront and economic growth for the city. It could be a game-changer in terms of making Manchester a destination and a more a desirable place to live, work, study and visit. It’s certainly a better fit for the city than the suburban-style grocery stores (important but poorly planned) and donut shops that have passed for major development during the last four years.

People gathering along the riverwalk in Providence – photo by spablab

After the closer-than-expected mayoral primary last month, this year has the potential to be a shakeup like we saw in 2005 when incumbent Mayor Robert Baines (for the record, LivableMHT’s favorite Queen City mayor) unexpectedly and narrowly lost his bid for a fourth term. Not coincidentally, it’s been about eight years now since Manchester has had any sort of visionary leadership from City Hall to guide development and revitalization projects. That’s not to say that Mayor Gatsas could not start providing greater vision in a potential third term, but his response to the vision laid out by Alderman Arnold is not promising.

LivableMHT is not in the position of endorsing specific candidates, but voters should carefully consider their vision for Manchester’s future when they step into the voting booth on November 5. Cities from Boston to Providence, from Portland to Portsmouth, and from Burlington to Concord, are capitalizing on the fact that more and more Americans are choosing to live in urban neighborhoods and cities. They’re making sure to provide the amenities and attractions to draw people–residents, workers, visitors and students–to their cities and making them stronger, more prosperous, more competitive and more livable. Manchester can join them, but only with a strong, visionary leadership from City Hall.

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