The school year is in full swing at UNH Manchester, NHIA, SNHU, St. Anselm and other Manchester colleges, and it’s hard to overstate the positive effects that those schools and their students have on the Queen City.
It has been estimated that there are roughly 10,000 students attending Manchester colleges and universities, and in recent years their presence has become more noticeable around the city and especially downtown. UNH Manchester will be moving into an expanded and more visible space at the Pandora Mill in the coming year, building on the astounding growth of NHIA over the past decade.
Ever since it became a degree-granting college in 1997, the New Hampshire Institute of Art has had a growing presence in downtown Manchester and the inner east side of the city. Growing from a single building as an art instruction school, NHIA’s student body now numbers more than 500 on a campus that dots the city center, with facilities ranging from a six-story dorm at 88 Lowell Street to a community arts center in the former St. Anne’s Church.
Manchester will never be a true “college town” like Durham or Hanover–as the state’s largest city, it will always be defined by more than that–but it can and should do more to harness the energy, cultural offerings and economic impact that students and colleges bring to the city. With nearly as many students as Durham and more students than Hanover, Plymouth or Keene, Manchester’s student population and area colleges should have a greater prominence in the wider community. Unlike traditional college towns, Manchester’s economy is not based on higher education and its largest schools (SNHU and St. Anselm) are on opposite edges of town. NHIA’s cluster of buildings around Victory Park are the closest Manchester comes to having a college district or neighborhood.
With news in August that a possible merger between NHIA and SNHU has been postponed, and that student housing could be built on the Pearl Street parking lot, Manchester is at a potential crossroads and should actively consider the role that colleges and students have in the city. Whether a merger between NHIA and SNHU is a good idea or not, greater cooperation and shared efforts by Manchester colleges would certainly be a good thing for the city, as would having many more students living downtown. The Pearl St student housing would be built privately, and presumably would be open to students from several area colleges, promoting more interaction of a diverse and currently far-flung student community.
But there is more that Manchester’s colleges could do to work together, and more that the City, businesses and community groups could do to help.
Currently, students from SNHU or St. Anselm who want to go downtown have to rely on driving, cabs or buses that run only once an hour and only during the daytime. A bus that ran more frequently and well into the night (at least on weekends) on a route connecting St. Anselm, SNHU and downtown–some combination of the current #5 and #6 MTA bus routes–could do wonders for bringing Manchester’s student population together, and bringing more business to Manchester’s downtown. It would also allow schools currently on the edge of the city to have a greater presence in the heart of downtown, whether by building remote dorms or academic centers in the city center, or simply linking their campuses to downtown’s cultural, entertainment, shopping and dining options. Manchester Community College, for one, opened a downtown outpost, MCC Downtown, earlier this year.
Better integrating the city’s colleges and students into the wider community, especially downtown, would lead to a more vibrant arts, entertainment, dining and retail scene downtown and in surrounding neighborhoods. That–plus things like connecting the Queen City to Boston via commuter rail–would make Manchester more attractive to both students and the young, skilled workers that companies like Dyn are attempting to attract. It would also help Manchester and New Hampshire retain more of its local talent, and make it easier to sell the city as an affordable, convenient but still urban alternative to places like Boston and Portsmouth.
Colleges are only one aspect of what makes Manchester great and what affords the city so much potential, but currently they’re an undervalued and underrepresented part of the city’s fabric. Manchester is widely regarded as the business capital of New Hampshire, but with a little effort, it could also be recognized as one of the urban education hubs of New England, with all the cultural and economic benefits that that entails.
This post is dedicated in memory of Lida Bellefeuille, a lifelong resident of the Manchester area and a 1943 graduate of West High School, who never missed an opportunity to impress upon family, friends and strangers the value of a good education.