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June 14. 2013 11:14AM

InTown Manchester: City living is making a big comeback

MANCHESTER ­— When the Intown Manchester organization hosted a Downtown Home Tour last week, more than 200 participants plunked down $5 to visit six different "urban living spaces" for a taste of downtown life.

The turnout inspired Intown Manchester Executive Director Stephanie Lewry and affirmed her belief that city living is making a big comeback. Ensuring that Manchester capitalizes on the trend is key to the continued revitalization of the city, she told participants in the Next Steps Summit, gathered Thursday evening at the World Sports Grille function room.

It was the second gathering of the group of downtown stakeholders and volunteers, which convened for the first time in February to hear from economists, developers, planners and many other experts on the trends, big and small, affecting the future of Elm Street, the Millyard and surrounding neighborhoods.

After their February briefing, the crowd of more than 100 broke up into work groups to address the summit's fundamental question: What areas must be addressed to create a vibrant future for downtown Manchester?

The answers to emerge from those discussions were unveiled Thursday night in a 16-page report that focused on the need to develop more inner-city housing, create a more pedestrian-friendly environment, develop special events and marketing campaigns to attract a diverse population, and support high-tech businesses and the arts.

The recurring theme was that interest is growing in living in downtown Manchester, but the residential units just aren't available.

"With the growth of residential density, retail will return," the report states. "Increase the variety of market-rate housing in the downtown area to include some which is smaller in size and more affordable for young professionals, empty nesters and college students."

Bob Mackenzie, former planning director for the city, told the group that Manchester has a great foundation to become a pedestrian- and bike-friendly destination because it was built up as a dense and compact industrial powerhouse with residential and commercial development clustered around the Millyard.

It wasn't until the 1930s that most of the city rights of way were given over to the automobile, and the time has come to reverse the trend, he said. Creating pedestrian walkways from Elm Street to the Millyard and completing the Riverwalk are among the possibilities.

He suggested a growing system of trails along the river and railroad tracks, bike lanes on Elm Street, and pedestrian or bike crossings at Bridge Street would go a long way to changing the face of the city.

"One thousand new dwelling units downtown would prompt a major shift," he said.

Sara Beaudry, director of marketing and events for Intown Manchester, described the kind of marketing initiatives that could bring more vitality to downtown, while Lewry discussed the need to build an urban culture that supports high-tech entrepreneurs and artists.

"Our goal is to create task forces for each of the four next steps," said Lewry. "They'll meet over the summer and into the fall to develop solid action plans that will help get these initiatives into place and moving forward."

The elected leadership of the city will be included and their participation is certainly welcomed and needed, she said, but the Next Steps program is fundamentally a private-sector initiative.

"We have to figure out how to make this work ourselves," she told the group. "We aren't going to ask the city to pay for this. We are going to identify and rely on our own resources."

Anyone interested in obtaining a copy of the full Next Steps report or participating in one of the task force groups is encouraged to contact Intown Manchester at 645-6285.dsolomon@unionleader.com

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