GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

June 24, 2013

Manchester wrestles with 10-acre land gift

By James Niedzinski
Staff Writer

---- — MANCHESTER — For years, land purchase and use negotiations have ebbed and flowed between the town and the owner of the Manchester Athletic Club.

Now, residents may be a step closer to someday playing ball on the parcel off Atwater Avenue.

John Donovan, owner of the Manchester Athletic Club, says he has now decided to give about 10 acres of land to the town to be used for playing fields, including a baseball diamond, multipurpose field and surrounding track.

Donovan, who left the tech industry to take over the club, was recently awarded the Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce award for small business owner of the year for the town of Manchester. However, he’s also been diagnosed with adrenal cancer, which he described as “aggressive and unforgiving;” he recently had invasive surgery, and the bad news plays some part in his offer to the town, he said.

”You realize you might not have a lot of time to make the impact you’d like to make,” he said. “(Health issues) helped cyrstalize this and bring it to the forefront of my mind.”

A proponent of physical fitness, Donovan purchased the club in 2002, he said it serves an important place in town, it helped him better connect with the community.

“There are way better investments than an athletic club,” he joked. “You have to get a reward from it another way.”

The deal would come with a handful of stipulations.

The town would have to act in a timely manner to start progress on the playing fields if the land is accepted, Donovan said. He said the time frame is still to be determined, but estimated the town would have to act within 12 to 18 months of accepting the land.

In addition, Donovan would have the right to name the fields and the Board of Selectmen would help act as the bridge between the land and town; he made his initial presentation to the board last week.

“The goal is to try to help the community, a place that has been meaningful to me,” he said. “And in ensure it gets done.”

Town officials are glad the deal is finally moving forward.

”We’ve been working on this for years,” Community Preservation Committee Chairman Charles Kelly said.

Kelly said the gift was generous, but the committee needs to hear all the options and opinions at their next meeting.

The town would be responsible for the cost of building the fields and some steps — such as accepting the land and allocating money to build on it — would have to be approved at town meeting.

“We’re a long way from the town deciding we can handle it,” Kelly said.

The CPC is set to deliver a presentation on the land to the Planning Board tonight at 7 at Town Hall.

Donovan and others say they have recognized the shortage of real estate that could be used for a baseball diamond, track, or multipurpose field.

Greg Blagden, one of the chairs for the Manchester Essex Playing Fields Committee, said the committee came back with a survey about three years ago that pointed to Donovan’s property as the ideal spot for fields. But, there was never a cost assessment to see how much building on the plot of land would cost.

”It’s an incredibly generous offer on John’s part,” Blagden said.

While his generosity is recognized by officials, he cited a recent letter from the Planning Board which brought up questions and concerns about equipment and material being stored on the land.

Donovan said those were used to help get the land level, as he anticipated the fields being built on the land years ago.

The entire 72-acre parcel was once put up for sale at more than $5 million, when there was talk of commercial development and affordable housing units on the property.

Donavan described the business atmosphere in Manchester as “less than friendly.”

Years ago, he had planned to have a windmill in back of the athletic club. He had came to town officials with an outline of what he had hoped a windmill zoning bylaw might look like, since at the time there was no regulation for a windmill or turbine.

However, the town developed a bylaw that was ultimately too burdensome for the project and would not have made the windmill viable.

“Town Hall has been extremely difficult to deal with,” he said. “It’s challenging to do business in Manchester, it’s frustrating.”

Nevertheless, he remains hopeful the town will accept the gift and said he reminded himself the land is for the whole community.

“It’s been a pleasure to be in Manchester,” he said.

James Niedzinski can be reached at 978-283-7000, x 3455 or at jniedzinski@gloucestertimes.com.