MANCHESTER — Local, state and federal officials pulled back the curtain Wednesday on a project they hope will “breathe new life” into a block in downtown Manchester, while creating office and housing units for service-driven organizations.
Manchester residents Matt and Jody Wilhelm, members of Make It Better LLC, purchased the vacant building at 99-101 Manchester St. — the former site of Serenity Place — last month, and Wednesday held a launch party of sorts to discuss the plan for the site, which includes new office space for City Year New Hampshire and dormitory-style housing for AmeriCorps members serving in Greater Manchester.
Matt Wilhelm, a Democratic state representative for Hillsborough, District 42, said he and Jody met in 2006 while both were AmeriCorps volunteers with City Year — he in New Hampshire, she in Massachusetts. Matt Wilhelm said Make It Better derives its name from the former slogan of the Timberland company, which provided uniforms for City Year AmeriCorps members serving across the country and which housed City Year New Hampshire’s offices out of the company’s global corporate headquarters in Stratham.
The couple had an investment property they renovated and sold. Then they secured a construction loan. The pair purchased the 8,743-square-foot commercial building on Manchester Street for $525,000, according to the Registry of Deeds.
“Instead of renting two apartments to AmeriCorps members, now we’re preparing to bring 15 affordable housing units online,” Matt Wilhelm said. “Plus, City Year — the organization that first brought us together — gets their new office on the first floor. It’s really a win-win-win for City Year New Hampshire, for national service and for Manchester. This needed to happen, and there was an opportunity to step up.”
“We’re grateful for this opportunity to help strengthen national service in Manchester,” said Jody Wilhelm. “We were finishing renovations on a multi-family home for the purpose of leasing it to AmeriCorps members when we received a call from Pawn (Nitichan) saying City Year was looking for new office space downtown. We found this great building on Manchester Street, sold the multi-family home, and secured a construction loan.”
City Year New Hampshire, which will move onto the first floor at 101 Manchester St., is an education nonprofit dedicated to helping prepare students with the skills and mindsets they need to thrive in school and in life. The program has teams of City Year AmeriCorps members working each day in nine Manchester schools, reaching 4,700 students.
“City Year is really excited to have an opportunity to continue to have our office in a downtown Manchester location,” said Nitichan, senior vice president and executive director of City Year New Hampshire. “We believe and have been told over the years that our members’ presence, in their red jackets, brings about a positive vibe to downtown aside from their full-time work in support of students in nine Manchester public schools.”
“Just as exciting is that this opportunity is made possible by City Year alumni,” Nitichan said. “It is truly amazing to get to witness both Matt and Jody’s continued commitment over more than a decade to City Year, national service and to being active and engaged members and leaders of our community.”
According to Matt Wilhelm, national service programs cite a lack of affordable housing as a top concern of young people considering a service year with AmeriCorps.
On Wednesday, Barbara Stewart, CEO of the Corporation for National & Community Service — the federal agency that oversees AmeriCorps — and Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig joined City Year and other AmeriCorps program staff and members at 99-101 Manchester St. for a hard hat tour of the site.
“AmeriCorps members are a critical resource to communities, but this work can’t be done without the support of the communities they serve,” said Stewart. “I’m pleased to see the innovative solutions being created here in Manchester to ensure that more young people have the opportunity to serve.”
When renovations are complete, AmeriCorps members from across programs in Greater Manchester will move into the second and third floors of 99 Manchester St., which will include laundry facilities and a community kitchen. Rent is expected to be around $600 per month, which includes all utilities, Wi-Fi and a parking pass at a nearby public lot.
“I’m grateful Matt and Jody are stepping up and filling a critical need in our community by renovating this vacant, dilapidated building and converting it to office space and affordable housing for City Year and AmeriCorps members,” said Craig. “Manchester AmeriCorps members’ commitment to partnering with our students, our teachers, and our community continues to make the Queen City a better place. This revitalization effort will add to the vibrancy of downtown and I’m hopeful it will inspire other property owners to evaluate the potential for underutilized spaces.”
“This project represents exactly the type of development activity we want to see in Manchester, a creative and unique redevelopment of an existing building that will bring more young people downtown,” said Mike Skelton, CEO and president of the Greater Manchester Chamber. “These redevelopment projects are not for the faint of heart, but there are so many inspiring examples of people in Manchester taking on projects like this because they have the passion and the belief in what they want to accomplish, and they believe in the city. From an economic development standpoint, I’m equally excited for what this will do for downtown, specifically Manchester Street. I think this is going to kick off the revitalization of Manchester Street. From an economic development role, we have been eyeing this street for years, wondering how can we jumpstart this, and I think this project will be the catalyst for that.”
Manchester-based firm Cornerstone Construction, which just wrapped up a $1.7 million renovation of The Rex Theatre, is leading the renovation work at 99-101 Manchester St., which is expected to be completed by the end of the year.