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Can we move toward the 18-hour economy?

For Alan S. Manoian, the town's first economic development coordinator, Arlington's future is now -- or at least soon -- and that future will include the past.

In a lengthy interview, the voluble 50-year-old sketched an outline for changes that aim to enliven parts of Arlington for shoppers, walkers and diners.

"Arlington is an exceptional community that has done a magnificent job of protecting its heritage," he said in his Town Hall office in the Planning Department.

To begin selling its "incredible talent pool," with venture capital nearby, it's "time for Arlington to maximize and fully take advantage" of these opportunities.

Seeks better link to state arts group

Alan S. Manoian, who coordinates the town's economic development, aims to improve the connection with the state Cultural Council, as he met this week with its staff.

One hope is to establish a cultural district program described in this recent Boston Globe story >>

The issue was raised in June at a well-attended workshop in Arlington seeking ways to make the town a cultural destination, reported here >> 

Stephanie Marlin-Curiel, cochair of the Arlington Cultural Council, has reported that a full report of "Arlington Alive!" is online >>  

 Arlington assessed its development postential: What did it find?

Entrepreneur at Town Hall

Calling himself "the entrepreneurial side of municipal government," Manoian said that changing awareness about Arlington's value means:

-- Bringing to the Heights, Center and East (Capitol Square) a sidewalk scene with improved walkability; and

-- Ways to attract people so they linger, as opposed to the all-too-current habit of going to a spot for a single item and parking right in front of where you want to be so you don't have to walk.

Such a scene would to include places where you can have "spontaneous encounters."

18-hour econony

The pitch for hip includes making Arlington an 18-hour economy. Now, after 6 p.m., the town "wraps up." Manoian wants to see a 6 p.m.-to-midnight culture. "This is when we really enjoy life," he said.

To move in this direction, he ticked off areas where he wants to focus first:

-- The Broadway Plaza and Medford Street is to be a "model block," with the aim of making it more unified and a "learning laboratory" for other town blocks;

-- The Russell Common lot, now the repository for parked cars and the Arlington Farmers' Market on Wednesdays from June through October; and

-- An envisioned "Millbrook Promenade," a beautiful walkway at an as-yet-undefined location along the waterway with retail shops and the hope of creating a regional destination.

No details at this point

Manoian offered no details about these projects yet, as the town is launching a major effort to update its five-year master plan, with public input requested in October

At this point, he is exploring -- and pushing for – ideas. "Property owners have to see the municipal effort first," he said.

"We don't need more studies," he said, referring to those produced by Larry Koff & Associates of Brookline in 2010 and those in 2008.

Manoian said his job is "not marketing space -- I'm marketing a place."

Town's connection to water

That place has long been associated with water. Before Arlington became Menotomy, in 1635, water defined it (the name is an Algonquian word meaning "swift running water"). The lake and pond we know so well shaped life for native Americans. The Mill Brook meandered down the area's spine and drove early commerce, Capt. George Cooke's mill, and later six others, including the Old Schwamb.

Could water be an economic force again? Manoian thinks so.

His vision of a promenade, reflected in San Antonio's Riverwalk, echoes his own background, in Lowell.

As a youth leader in the city's chapter of the U.S. Youth Conservation Corp in 1979 and '80, he was among those who engaged in some of the earliest heritage-preservation work in the streets, waterways, canalways and neighborhoods of the then-down-in-the-mouth mill town.

The city we see today, when we visit the annual folk festival or Jack Kerouac's memorial, is much altered from what it was a mere 35 years ago, and Manoian was part of the change.

At age 28, he was on the board of the Lowell Parks & Conservation Trust and, two years later, was its first executive director. Back when he had hair, he was involved in planning the city's folk fest, which began in 1987 and has become a national draw for multicultural talent.

Challenges here loom large

To bring about the changes he seeks in Arlington, challenges facing Manoian in his $65,439-a-year position are significant -- and well known.

The suburban town of 42,000 people covers about 6 square miles. Some of that is open space; most is residential. Businesses account for about 4 percent of the tax base. The imbalance contributes to a structural deficit -- documented in the town's fiscal 2013 budget message -- that leads to periodic tax-override votes.

To address these issues, town officials, including then-manager Brian Sullivan in 2009, began discussing creating a position dedicated to trying to repair the town's economic health.

Manoian, with 20 years of such experience on his resume, came on board in May.

A look at our history

Immediately, he began digging into the town's history to see how the Arlington we know came to be.

History taught him how the town turned dry in the late 19th century, how its farms turned profits in the early 20th before the automobile helped sew up the straitjacket of Mass. Ave. The 1990s saw alcohol restrictions loosened and accommodations for cyclists.

In the present, he found a new challenge -- an excess of available space nearby. Kendall Square, Waltham, Woburn, Hanscom and Burlington have "millions of square feet of class-A office space," Manoian said, adding it would take seven to 10 years to absorb this glut. Conclusion: No reason to build an office here.

Transporting Davis Square?

So how do we bring a bit of Davis Square here?

He is testing and inviting ideas from business owners, of course, and, among others, he has met with Superintendent Kathy Bodie. He sees a "rising generation" of young talent here, nurtured by its "most valuable resource," the town’s public schools.

"I have to prove myself every day," he said. "I am not a regulatory official. I am not proposing anything that anyone is required to do."

All he proposes must be done with persuasion.

This story was published Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2012.

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