November was a head-spinning month for anyone following the Manchester Community Center.
Indeed, when residents left Manchester’s Special Town Meeting on November 13, it seemed cooler heads had prevailed after voters overwhelmingly approved an article empowering the Town of Manchester to negotiate a 10-year lease to save the Manchester Community Center (MCC) after its lease was terminated by the Harbor’s Point Condominium Association.
In fact, feelings on Town Meeting floor were so good that the MCC pulled a separate article it sponsored asking voters to force a taking by eminent domain of land it leased from Harbor’s Point. All seemed right for the future of the 47-year-old organization.
Now, a mere three weeks later, that “kumbaya moment” may be in the rear-view mirror after the MCC last Wednesday formally notified Harbor’s Point that, as per its lease agreement, it would be moving its building, an historic former railway cargo hold, entirely from the site.
The MCC’s decision now leaves the town in limbo, having been empowered to negotiate a new lease directly with Harbor’s Point that would have preserved the MCC building and its programming.
The MCC, which organizes many of Manchester’s most popular public events, including this weekend’s Jingle Bell Walk at Masconomo Park, has until February 10th to complete the move. It’s not yet clear where the organization plans to move the 2,141-sqft 1920s structure.
A long and local history
The MCC was formed in 1976 after an automotive dealership owner from Essex, Augustus “Gus” Means, donated the old train cargo building at the Manchester train station to serve as a youth center.
But Means excluded the land the building sits on from the gift, and that issue lay quietly ticking for decades until 2017 when, after allowing the MCC to operate rent-free for more than 30 years, Harbor’s Point asked the organization to sign a new lease.
This request prompted tenuous negotiations, with the MCC asking for a long-term lease and balking at the idea of paying rent. In 2021, the MCC relented and signed a year-to-year lease that gave the organization a year’s free rent, followed by a monthly rent of $200. At the same time, Kim Kaner, MCC’s executive director, explored moving the building. She met with Manchester officials about possible town-owned sites.
The town was generally supportive of the MCC’s position, but officials faced their own challenges finding sites for critical municipal projects, including a new public safety building, a DPW headquarters, downtown public restrooms, a harbormaster’s office, and a Council on Aging senior center. Asking taxpayers to underwrite a new home for a private local non-profit, however well-intentioned, would be a stretch and would require approval at Town Meeting. Kaner and the MCC board continued their search without success.
Not so fast …
In December 2022, amid speculation that the town was considering the site for a new senior center, Harbor’s Point terminated the MCC’s lease and offered the MCC a new 60-day tenant-at-will agreement. The MCC accepted the new deal, but on September 12, Harbor’s Point sent the 60-day notice terminating the lease.
Then, at the MCC’s request, town officials stepped in as something of a white knight. The town’s proposal? Take over the lease relationship with the HPCA that would allow the MCC to run its programming from the building while also using the space for a temporary COA senior center, add needed public restrooms and a temporary Harbormaster office.
Harbor’s Point was warm to the concept. So was the MCC. On November 13, Special Town Meeting voters agreed, seeing a potential lease as a win-win-win.
But in the afterglow of town meeting, the MCC met with town officials and introduced a new twist. They wanted the town to insert a two-year window into its lease with Harbor’s Point, enabling the MCC to take back the building at any time. Given that the town would be investing taxpayer money to upgrade the building for a public purpose, town officials said giving a private community organization the right to move a renovated structure would complicate matters and need further discussions with all parties. HPA was skeptical of entering into a new lease with the town with such a provision.
Even as of last Monday, Raquel Przesiek, co-president, maintained the MCC’s future was entirely in the town’s hands. She wrote that “the town is still working out the finer details” of the deal, and the MCC would respectfully wait before speaking publicly. Przesiek's assertion didn’t jibe with Town Administrator Gregory Federspiel’s update to the Select Board that same day. When asked, he said lease negotiations would have to wait. The ball, he said, was firmly in the MCC’s court, not the town’s.
Two days later, Federspiel was proven correct. On Wednesday, the MCC triggered the clause in its lease, declaring it would go it alone and remove the building by the February 10 deadline. The town learned about it from Harbor’s Point.
In an online post, Patrick Meehan, MCC’s other co-president, wrote that the MCC had “tried valiantly to work with both parties” on three different versions of the lease proposals. “No version of the deal would protect the historic building,” Meehan wrote.
In fact, all the lease proposal variations would have preserved the historic building.
Without details from the MCC, it’s unclear if the building can be successfully moved. And it faces considerable hurdles in doing so. First, the MCC will have to secure a required special Massachusetts MBTA approval to move the building. And it’s likely the structure’s destination will require local zoning approvals as well. Another challenge is financial. Does an organization with $187,139 in the bank as of 2021 have the wherewithal to plan, permit and then move the historic structure? And finally, can all this happen by February 10?
For its part, Harbor’s Point has said it still hopes to negotiate a town lease and would offer the MCC the right to purchase the building for $1 if it ever decides to demolish it and give the MCC up to seven months to complete the removal when the time comes.
It doesn’t appear this was enough, and in the meantime, the town may now be on the outside looking in. And the MCC may already be in touch with another “white knight.”