MANCHESTER — The Board of Mayor and Aldermen approved a plan to place economic development under the umbrella of the mayor’s office, amid concerns from some aldermen that the move could “politicize” such activity.
The plan — approved 11-2 — gives more permanence to the situation that has evolved since November, when the chief of the economic development office, Jay Minkarah, resigned. Most of the functions of the office have been shifted over to the mayor’s office, including management of the ongoing Small Business Week.
The plan approved Tuesday was formulated largely by Ward 3 Alderman Pat Long. It calls for making economic development a division of the mayor’s office, with two positions, an economic development coordinator and a marketing and retention specialist.
Members of the joint committee on human resources and administration proposed several changes to the proposal earlier in the day, including that the economic development staff be located physically outside the mayor’s office and that they provide regular reports to an aldermanic committee.
The plan was criticized by Ward 12 Alderman and mayoral candidate Patrick Arnold, who had made the mayor’s handling of economic development matters an issue in his bid for the office.
“Manchester is an intensely political place, and the process for someone opening a new business or expanding an existing business is already more complicated than it should be,” he said. “When we had an economic development director, he was the one who we would call. Under this proposal, I believe that would fall under the control of the mayor’s office. How this could not make the process more political is beyond me.”
Gatsas responded that he made a point of always including aldermen when developers proposed projects in their wards.
“I have a history I can point to that shows I’ve never been political, whether as mayor, alderman or senator,” he said, with anger in his voice.
Alderman-At-Large Joe Kelly Levasseur told Gatsas that he shouldn’t take the concerns about the economic office personally.
“Alderman Arnold never said Mayor Gatsas, but you went off on a nut rage, and made it about you,” he said.
Levasseur said he supported consolidating the office, but he insisted the employees be in a separate location in City Hall.
“We have to be careful about the appearance of things,” he said during the earlier committee meeting. “I’ve believed from the beginning it would make a great deal of sense to put the office in the planning board.”
Gatsas said he supported placing the employees in a separate office.
“There’s not enough space in mine,” he said.
Long originally proposed that “the employees physical location be in the Mayor’s Office. This will maximize efficiencies and budget opportunities.”
In the earlier committee meeting, Long said, “I believe this is an important office, and I believe we need to send that message to the business community and developers, that we are interested in development and we are there to help them.”
At the board meeting, Alderman Garth Corriveau noted that leaders of the Manchester Chamber of Commerce, the Manchester Development Corporation and Amoskeag Industries, in a presentation earlier this year, all argued that the city needed to maintain an economic development director position, calling it a liaison to the aldermen and business community.
“I personally concur with the business community, that having that liaison is still important.”
Under the proposal, the mayor would have control over hiring and firing the economic development coordinator, which raised concerns about a lack of continuity from one administration to the next.
Gatsas said he would be willing to have the employees serve in other departments. He questioned the heads of the solicitor, clerk and finance offices whether they wanted the new employees. They each shook their heads ‘no.’
“At the end of the day, the individuals we put in these positions will have to prove themselves to the city and the board,” Gatsas said. “I hope they do because this board is not going to sit back let things go in the direction they’ve gone in.”.
As part of his proposal, Long presented a comparison to other selected cities in the region that showed Nashua, Concord, Portsmouth and Portland, Maine, have economic development divisions within the mayor or city manager’s offices. In seven other cities on the list, economic development was handled outside the mayor’s office.
Only Aldermen Corriveau and Arnold voted against the proposal.