Concord Monitor | Elodie Reed | January 9, 2016
Franklin has formally decided to incorporate the Winnipesaukee River into the city’s economic future. City councilors voted last week to amend the 2008 “Franklin Falls Mixed Use Tax Increment Finance District” to include a large chunk of city-owned land along the river banks. The district, now just over 99 acres, already covers Franklin’s dense downtown area on Central Street and the property where shuttered mill buildings still sit.
In a tax increment finance (TIF) district, property taxes on future assessed value are set aside for redevelopment projects within that area. Because the city owns the riverbank land, however, that property isn’t taxable and doesn’t bring in additional money.
At least one city councilor said for that reason, the area shouldn’t be included in the district.
But as the city looks for more public-private partnership projects to boost its downtown, the river is the site for one of its promising efforts: a whitewater play park.
Outdoor New England whitewater retail and service business owner Marty Parichand came up with the idea. Over the summer, he proposed taking the 9.3-acre overgrown former mill site and installing whitewater paddling amenities there.
He’s also hoping to build a bike pump track, historic mill ruins trails, a community garden, and an event space as part of the “Mill City Park at Franklin Falls.”
Parichand has promoted the project as a way to help the city as a whole. A New Hampshire Department of Resources and Economic Development impact analysis shows a facility like that could bring to Franklin $6.8 million in direct spending on an annual basis.
In addition to drawing in visitors to eat, stay and spend money in Franklin, Parichand said the sports themselves – whitewater rafting and mountain biking – are opportunities for vulnerable children to have positive experiences.
“Anyone with a kayak and a bike and pair of legs would be able to enjoy this land,” he said.
Parichand noted kids are also positively impacted by the economic growth aspect, which could create more tax dollars for education – something Franklin desperately needs. The school district there had to enact a budget freeze in the fall and consistently struggles to fully fund its education costs.
“In other locations whitewater parks have been so successful . . . they’ve opened new schools and they’ve named them after the whitewater park,” Parichand said.
At this point, Parichand recognizes he has a big project on his hands. But it seems to fit well with the place he’s trying to do it in.
“I think the first master plan I saw . . . it said, ‘the city needs to connect people to the river,’ ” he said. “I see this project fulfilling an item that’s been on their master plan for decades.”
Elizabeth Dragon, the city manager, sees it that way, too.
“The river has always been important to the city,” she said. But, she added, “We haven’t really had a good focus until Marty came along.”
With the suggestion of both restoring and reusing the river, plus redeveloping the old mill sites, Dragon said there seems to be a coming together between Parichand’s whitewater vision, PermaCityLife’s downtown development efforts, and the community’s vision of what it could be.
City officials have become more organized in responding to development ideas in the process and have had regular “economic development” meetings in recent years, too.
“We feel we’re building a lot of momentum with these private and public partnerships,” Dragon said. “We’re really trying to hone things in.”
For the whitewater project, the city approved an application for $12,000 in Community Development Finance Authority planning study money in October. That application has since been withdrawn due to engineering work having already begun on the site, but Dragon said Franklin is looking for funds elsewhere.
If worse came to worse, she added, the city could re-apply for the same money during the next round.
In the meantime, Parichand is in the last steps of forming a nonprofit for the project. He is also learning how Mill City Park can be accomplished in phases – a suggestion from Franklin officials.
“We’re in the process of getting a better understanding of the construction of all these pieces,” Parichand said.
Parichand said he has met twice with various state and federal agencies to make sure historical materials, the environment and the city’s land are all used appropriately.
When those studies are done, he added, the next task will be cleaning up.
“Earth has really taken the land,” Parichand said.
City Councilor Jim Wells was the lone voice last week saying that land should be left to the earth.
He was the only “no” vote on the TIF district update.
“The water – the river – is all city property. It pays no taxes,” Wells said. “It will not pay any taxes. I did not feel it was fair to taxpayers who have buildings in the downtown to have that money diverted to a non-taxable property.”
In addition to Franklin having other pockets that could benefit from TIF funds – the upper part of Central street between the downtown and the Tilton line, for example – Wells said he didn’t think the whitewater park was feasible.
“I don’t think that they can put that project in there and meet all the requirements,” he said. Wells said he was concerned that the historical mill remnants as well as environmental considerations could act as barriers.
“I’m not opposed to economic development in any form,” he said. “However, that is delicate property. It’s a very steep slope; it’s historic property on the edge of the river. To me, leave it alone.”
Wells said he also couldn’t see where exactly people visiting would spend money, since there aren’t many motels or restaurants left in Franklin.
“There’s not even any parking for these people,” Wells said, indicating the rural, back road in Northfield where most paddlers hop into the river for a whitewater run.
But Parichand argues that because the project is a non-traditional development, that could make it successful – with a lot of help.
“Innovators always look for disruptive technology,” he said. “However, it needs community partnerships. The nonprofit has to work with PermaCityLife and the city and the city council and community members to make this a reality.”
(Elodie Reed can be reached at 369-3306, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @elodie_reed.)