Proposal for West Side community center clears first hurdle

Jul. 25—A proposal to build a nonprofit community center on Manchester's West Side has cleared its first hurdle, clearing the way for the site to be sold to developers, even as neighbors continue to voice concerns.

Aldermen determined it was in the best interest of the city to sell the land — located at Parkside Avenue and Blucher Street, near Gossler Park Elementary School and Parkside Middle School — for $600,000 to a group looking to build the proposed $17 million Mark Stebbins Community Center.

The land was deemed surplus on a voice vote, with only Ward 8 Alderman Ed Sapienza opposed. Ward 12's Erin George-Kelly recused herself from voting due to a conflict of interest.

"This an imperfect location, but a perfect project for the West Side," said Alderman Joe Kelly Levasseur. "I hope you will be as gentle as possible and work with the neighbors."

The vote followed more than an hour of public comment on the issue, both in favor and opposed to the center.

"I strongly support this," said school board vice chairman Jim O'Connell. "It seems to me that only in an alternative universe could you find a city of some 100,000 people, that is underfunded generally and lacks the ability to fund fully the requirements and increasing needs of its citizens, that would somehow look that gift horse in the mouth and find some convoluted set of rationales to find a way to refuse it. The need is great."

Neighbors of the proposed center continue to express concerns about the project, a few weeks after dozens spoke out at a neighborhood meeting on the building — expected to be between 30,000 and 40,000 square feet.

"That's a huge building in a normally quiet neighborhood," said Jill Thompson, whose family owns six properties at the end of Hevey Street. "Is this for anyone? Is it only for residents of the West Side? Could it end up hosting a homeless shelter or warming shelter? Could it end up hosting a needle exchange? These are all concerns the neighborhood has. The neighborhood isn't embracing it right now."

"What does community mean?" asked Carla Gericke. "In order for a 'community center' to be acceptable in a 'community,' surely the 'community' — the literal people who live there — should have a say. Why build a football field-sized building and parking lot in a quiet residential neighborhood, instead of closer to where the services are required?"

The center would be named after the late Mark Stebbins, CEO of the state's largest architectural construction firm, who died in June 2021 at 67. Stebbins and his wife Sally are well-known for their support of nonprofits in the Granite State, including the Boys & Girls Club of Manchester, Granite United Way, Easterseals, Manchester YMCA, The Mental Health Center of Greater Manchester and Waypoint.

Mark Stebbins was chairman and CEO of Procon, a large construction firm in Hooksett. He also owned XSS Hotels, Stebbins Commercial Properties, Monarch Communities and Coolcore.

Supporters say the Mark Stebbins Community Center would bring services for children and families in a central, walkable and easily accessible location. Several service providers will be located together in the community center.

Once the location for the center is acquired and a needs analysis completed, organizers will begin the design process, determine the nonprofit agencies that will be located there and raise funds.

Organizers behind the project have publicly vowed to work closely with neighbors as part of the planning process. The group says it has sought feedback since planning started in November.

"It has always been our intention to work closely with the local community and address any issues, now and in the future. We appreciate the honest candor area residents have expressed publicly and we are committed to working through all the feedback we have received," a statement from the group reads.

Organizers have promised "multiple avenues" for public and neighborhood input as they move forward with the planning, including workshops for programming, building and site design; creating a design review committee with representatives from the neighborhood, city, and those receiving services; and several opportunities for public input through meetings with city officials during the zoning and planning board process.