West side glory: Joint effort seeks to revitalize historic Manchester neighborhood

One of the largest neighborhood revitalization initiatives in the history of Manchester has been launched by the city, the Southern New Hampshire Planning Commission and St. Mary’s Bank.

The multimillion-dollar economic revitalization plan will focus on the Rimmon Heights neighborhood that surrounds Kelley Street on Manchester’s West Side. The plan, drafted by the city and the planning commission, calls for improvements in six categories: parks and green spaces; housing; business assistance; neighborhood identity and design; infrastructure; and security.

The Rimmon Heights target area for revitalization includes approximately 60 square blocks, bordered by Putnam Street on the south and Dexter Street on the north, and between Merrimack River on the east and Piscataquog River on the west. Kelley Street is the main commercial street on the West Side and runs through the heart of this area.

As the sole financial partner in this initiative, St. Mary’s will make available $12 million in home-improvement, first-time homebuyer and commercial loans at below-market interest rates.

The loan program will extend beyond the targeted zone to include commercial and residential properties in Manchester lying west of the Merrimack River. Of the $12 million program, $5.5 million will be targeted toward commercial loans for capital equipment needs and commercial and investment real estate repair and refurbishment. A $500,000 portion of the commercial loan allocation is provided by Amoskeag Industries in participation with St. Mary’s Bank, and designated specifically for the Rimmon Heights area. The remaining $6.5 million is allocated for home-improvement loans and first-time home buyers.

Rimmon Heights is the first neighborhood selected as part of the city’s goal to create healthy, vibrant neighborhoods throughout Manchester, said Robert Mackenzie, the city’s planning director.

“Our strategy is to take a comprehensive approach that requires not just city government, but the involvement of financial institutions, local businesses, civic institutions and the residents themselves,” he said.

David Preece, executive director of the Southern New Hampshire Planning Commission, said that when he first came to Manchester two years ago he immediately recognized the West Side as “ripe for revitalization. It’s the major western corridor that connects Manchester to Goffstown and the other communities to the west. This neighborhood has served as an economic engine for the rest of the city, with its immigrant population providing the labor for the mills, and it has never benefited from a large-scale revitalization effort before.”

The proposed revitalization, Preece said, “is a chance to acknowledge the West Side’s history and the contribution of its people to the city of Manchester. It’s time to give back to the neighborhood that has given to the city over the years.”

According to St. Mary’s President and CEO Ronald Rioux, “this area of the city was described to me as low- to moderate-income with increasing ethnic diversity. It immediately brought to my mind the original residents of this neighborhood, the Franco-American population that our credit union was founded to serve. These hard-working families banded together with community leaders to establish St. Mary’s Bank and the credit union movement in America a hundred years ago. So, for us to participate in revitalizing this neighborhood with today’s residents is our mission coming full circle.”

Highlights within the six strategic areas targeted for improvement include:

• Aesthetic enhancements and upgrades to the public spaces within the neighborhood, such as sidewalks, lighting, crosswalks, traffic flow and transit service. The plan also calls for improving existing parks, providing street trees, making connections to trails and encouraging neighborhood cleanups and “green teams.”

• Security improvements will come in the form of a proposed police substation, graffiti removal, improved lighting and neighborhood watch programs.

• Residential housing goals include improving opportunities for home ownership, rehabilitation of rental and owner-occupied properties, and special projects such as senior housing.

• Business assistance will come in the form of below-market interest rate commercial loans that will encourage the renovation or expansion of local businesses, including façade improvements and various activities and events that will strengthen the local business community. The goal is to preserve the local character of the commercial properties while insuring their economic health.

The plan also seeks to encourage pedestrian activity and strengthen the neighborhood’s overall identity by fashioning a more inviting streetscape that would likely include banners and gateway arches.

“It’s important to realize that we are not just talking about prettifying an historic section of Manchester,” said Mackenzie. “Our plan is comprehensive and well thought out, targeting the key economic, environmental and residential areas that can really enhance the quality of life for the citizens of the city’s West Side.”

Preece estimated that a full revitalization of the area will take at least five years, requiring the efforts of the private sector, the city and the people who live and work on the West Side. “We can introduce the programs, but it’s ultimately up to everyone to make it happen.”

Said Rioux, “To be able to help lift up the lives of the people in this neighborhood at the beginning of this century in the same way that as we did for the people at the beginning of the last century is gratifying for all of us.”

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