Mayor Joyce Craig wants the city to take back ownership of what is left of the Northwest Business Park, and resuscitate plans for a shining glass and granite corporate park atop a hill.
She should get ready for years of “For Sale or Lease” signs, lawsuits, political fights, squabbling businessmen, even a dead moose.
In a nutshell, that is what has played out over the last 20 years as the city hyped but then slowly downgraded its vision of Silicon Valley grandeur for the far northwestern corner of Manchester.
Later this month, the city will likely take possession of eight landlocked parcels off Hackett Hill Road. You can only reach them on a crumbling road. But now you can’t even get to the road without trespassing on private property.
Even worse, the city has an inventor/entrepreneur – the kind of person that officials should have in their corner as they try to cultivate a high-tech image – sour over his dealings with the city.
“You don’t want to publish this if you care about Manchester,” said Jeff Sercel, who opened JPSA Laser at what would have been the park entrance in 2006. “This place is not interested in business. They’re looking for a warm body to leech off of.”
Two things eat at Sercel, whom the New Hampshire High Tech Council has twice named Entrepreneur of the Year.
First, he invested millions and opened the only high-tech business – in fact the only business – at the Northwest Park. He expected the city to deliver on its promise to build a corporate research park alongside his business.
But the city never invested what was necessary to build and market a high-tech park, he said.
Second, Sercel had to sue the city and the developer who acquired the land from the city, former state Sen. Richard Danais. In the suit and interviews, Sercel complained about an unpermitted granite crushing operation that Danais allowed on the hilltop.
Multi-ton trucks filled with stone made thousands of trips up and down the hill. The traffic vibrated his sensitive manufacturing equipment and narrowly missed his workers as they tried to get to work. One truck hit and killed a moose, according to the lawsuit.
Represented by the Shaheen & Gordon law firm, Sercel sued the city in October 2015. Several rulings went against the city, and in May the city withdrew a Supreme Court appeal and agreed to most of Sercel’s terms.
Former Mayor Ted Gatsas and Danais said they realize that Sercel is unhappy, and it became obvious over time that a corporate research park wasn’t going to happen.
Danais, who took over the land in 2012, said he only agreed to do so if the city allowed him to market it for traditional industrial park uses. At one point, he even flirted with the idea of a privately operated prison.
But traditional industry wasn’t interested, and in 2014 the city rezoned the best lots – lots with frontage on Hackett Hill Road – for townhouse-style apartments.
By my rough calculations – based on property records, Danais’ statements and previous articles – Danais pocketed about $500,000 in the deal by selling off the Northwest Park land for townhouses. Danais admits he made out well, but doesn’t have an exact amount.
“I have no complaints. We worked hard at it. It’s been a good investment; I never said it wasn’t,” Danais said.
Things are at a standstill now. The city is repossessing the remaining eight acres of the Northwest Park from Danais, who made interest-only payments on the mortgage for four years, then passed up the chance to buy the land when the mortgage became due this spring.
He thinks the land is best suited for townhouses and senior living; Craig wants a research park and is cool to further rezoning.
Meanwhile, the city will have to find a new access road if it wants to reach the land from Hackett Hill Road. Part of the agreement to drop the Sercel lawsuit requires the city to find another entrance to the road that leads to the hilltop.
Some of the dealing with Danais involved divided votes among aldermen earlier this decade. Often Craig, then an alderman, and Gatsas were on different sides.
To Bill Cashin, a former alderman, the problem was Gatsas.
“Gatsas, in his imagination, thought he could do better than anyone else. He took it over, he screwed it up,” said Cashin, who is also a former member of the Manchester Housing and Redevelopment Authority, which actually owned the land.
Gatsas said the city was spending money trying to market the land and nothing was happening.
“Everybody tried,” Gatsas said. If a credible business went to the city and wanted to build on Hackett Hill, the city would have paid to upgrade the road, he said.
“I don’t think anybody would say ‘No, we’re not selling,’” Gatsas said.
He said some good things have happened, including the fire station at Hackett Hill.
Now as an executive councilor, Gatsas said he can focus on a plan to redraw interchanges on Interstate 293 to allow direct highway access to Hackett Hill. Gatsas said Sercel didn’t get a raw deal; several companies vied for the building, the old UNH French Hall, which Sercel bought.
Sercel ended up selling his laser company, and the new owner moved production elsewhere. He still owns the building and leases it to Astronics, which manufactures electronic equipment for the aerospace industry.
The city has to get its act together, he said.
While the Millyard is great for offices, it isn’t suitable for the HEPA clean rooms and vibration free environments necessary for production of high-technology products, he said.
He thinks the best thing going for Manchester right now is the expansion of Southern New Hampshire University into engineering with its rescue of the defunct Daniel Webster College two years ago. (He sits on a SNHU advisory board).
All tech companies want, he said, is an environment with no favors, no kickbacks and no corruption.
“Of course there is potential there,” Sercel said about Hackett Hill, “but you’ve got to get the idiocy out of the way.”