Steve Gates has run marathons. He’s run the Manchester Road Race 52 times. He knows the power of persistence.
Over a decade ago, Gates had an idea for a community indoor sports facility in Manchester similar to the Floyd Little Athletic Center in New Haven, which hosts indoor track meets, wrestling championships, basketball games and other high school and youth sports events.
Since then there have been plans drawn up, sites examined behind Manchester High School and also on a town-owned plot of land off Broad Street. There are plans with a track. Plans with a track and a soccer field. Plans with a track, a soccer field and a practice soccer field.
But there were other projects the town needed to finish. Gates, who served on the town’s Board of Directors from 2011-2019, retired from the board. Then the pandemic hit and many projects were shelved.
About a year ago, Gates, 68, started thinking about the indoor facility again and decided to revive the project.
“We did all this work and we were in agreement about the inadequacy of indoor facilities,” Gates said last week. “The need to provide youth programming options, adult recreation programming options as well as senior programming options for recreation was extremely important. This facility would give all of that a boost.”
Manchester Mayor Jay Moran is still interested.
“It’s on the back burner; it hasn’t been taken off the stove, so to speak, but Steve is trying to get it back on the front burner and get us to look at it again,” Moran said. “He is dedicated to this; he’s not going to give up.”
There is no indoor facility with a competition-level track in northern or central Connecticut that could host a large number of athletes or teams. In the winter, the track teams trek to New Haven to compete. The conference and CIAC state indoor meets are held at Floyd Little, which opened in 2002, as is the State Open wrestling tournament and state tournament basketball games.
“When a community has an opportunity to build a facility like that, it’s not only going to benefit the community in terms of programming for kids and adults, but it’s also going to impact opportunities for kids state-wide,” CIAC executive director Glenn Lungarini said of the project. “If you have a facility like that, especially if you have one in the center of the state, I think it will be easy to fill it and it will make a very positive impact on the Manchester community as well as student-athletes statewide.”
Gates ran his first Manchester Road Race as a junior at Manchester High in 1969 and went to Eastern Connecticut, where he became the first athlete to compete in the Division III national championship in cross country (1974) and track and field (1975). He is in the school’s sports Hall of Fame.
He initially had the idea for the facility in 2010 when the board of education ruled that the Manchester indoor track teams could no longer practice in the school’s hallways after school due to safety issues. At the time Gates was the president of the high school PTA.
“The hallways of Manchester High school were where I started to run as a sophomore in the late ‘60s,” he said. “They tried to use the gym or they’d go out in the back parking lot or in the streets of Manchester.
“I got together with [track coach] Thayer [Redman] and we were kind of concerned about the impact of that decision on the programs and the athletes. What’s the alternative? There weren’t any good alternatives. The more I spoke with coaches in the area, there weren’t really any venues in north central Connecticut where a team could go practice during the indoor season.”
He started looking into an indoor facility in town. He was elected to the Board of Directors in 2011.
A subcommittee was formed and in 2016, The Courant reported the Board of Directors saw conceptual plans for a 74,000-square foot community indoor sports facility that would cost $20 million, to be built on the grounds of Manchester High School. At the time, the town was prioritizing a $84.2 million school modernization project approved by voters in 2014.
“I don’t want to put it too far on the back burner because that price tag is not going to sit around at $20 million for too long,” Moran said in 2016.
The plan called for a six-lane, 200-meter indoor track, with court space for basketball, tennis, volleyball and pickleball in the middle of the track and seating for 1,200, but 3,000 could be accommodated for events such as graduations.
“It would be something used for a wide variety of physical activities,” Redman said. “In New England in the winter, it’s tough to be active or do any of the normal summer/spring activities, so that kind of was our goal.”
Tris Carta, the president of the Manchester Road Race, was also on the subcommittee.
“The problem we were thinking about when we started thinking about it was how do we limit it, to all the soccer teams and cheerleading competitions we could pull in from the whole state or New England,” Carta said. “We talked about semipro basketball we could bring in to play in there. Volleyball tournaments. The facility we came up with has so many different sports related avenues to bring young kids in the area to their dreams.”
The following year, a soccer program approached Gates and asked if a soccer field could be included in the design.
“They said, ‘We heard you might be doing this, we’re struggling for facility time around the state, if you guys are doing something, we’d love to participate, we’d love to figure out if we could be a major tenant or an investor of sorts,’” Gates said. “So we got back together with the consultant and redid the conceptual design to include a full soccer field as well as a practice field.
“The income that would come would more than defray the changes we made to the design. It would also more than cover the operating expenses of the building itself.”
The consultants had already determined that there was enough of a need for indoor facilities in the state, Gates said, that the operating costs would be almost covered by potential revenue sources.
“The initial estimate was somewhere in the $20 million range,” he said. “But to do it right, add the soccer component, it would be twice that. [The soccer group] was [going to pay for part of that]. But I haven’t had any conversations with them in a couple years. My intent is to reach out to the soccer folks, we’d love to have them back at the table.
“My hope is to meet with our state representatives and state senator. On some level, this becomes a regional facility.”
Gates would also like to see the building serve as a permanent home for Manchester Road Race memorabilia and the Manchester Sports Hall of Fame.
Cheri Eckbreth, a former minority leader of the Manchester Board of Directors who worked on the project, said she worked for 14 years as a director to help bring the schools up to 21st century standards and now it’s time to do the same with athletics and recreation in town.
“We loan out a lot of our sports time to bubbles and facilities in other towns,” Eckbreth said. “Our students are getting shortchanged. To have our own facility and have the ability for our students to play and practice in town is huge. We’re known nationally for this great road race and we don’t let our students run in facilities in our town.
“Manchester has always been a leader in recreation; there’s no reason we should be behind. None.”
Of course now, as Moran predicted, construction prices have risen. But there may be potential state funding that could be found to help keep down costs, Gates said. Eckbreth said private funding is still a possibility as well.
“I think there’s going to come a time where this is the right project and the timing is right,” Gates said. “The case can be made that it benefits a large swath of the community.
“Thayer and I still have the dream. There’s more people in the community that have a similar vision that I’ve identified throughout the years that say, ‘We’re on board with that, just get it to the ballot and we’ll vote for it.’ We’re really hopeful.”
Lori Riley can be reached at [email protected]