Redevelopment effort breathes new life into the city
New Hampshire Business Review | Article by Liisa Rajala | Photos by Allegra Boverman
Slowly but surely, the city of Franklin is undergoing a transformation. The goal: to become a tourist destination for outdoor enthusiasts and a home to millennials looking to make an impact on their community.
Renovations are in the works to turn the former art gallery Toad Hall into a restaurant by this summer. Just last fall, a team of engineers inspected the future site of a whitewater park. CATCH Neighborhood Housing is in the midst of renovating a foreclosed mill building into 45 affordable apartment units. And that’s just naming a few of the happenings occurring in the city of approximately 8,400.
For decades, Franklin has made efforts to rewrite its history as a failing mill town, but this movement is even more crucial. With significant revenue shortfalls in recent years, the city must draw in new income or else face an even more dire future.
“We can’t tax our way out of our problems,” says City Manager Elizabeth Dragon, who has to find out-of-the-box solutions to balance the budget. “We need to find a way to generate new revenue, and we need to focus on economic development and tourism, attracting those new net dollars.”
It’s an all-hands-on-deck effort, with regular biweekly stakeholder meetings, a team of students from Colby-Sawyer College in New London and a number of active residents stepping in to volunteer their time and energy.
Integral to the effort are seven properties owned by PermaCityLife, a nonprofit founded by Todd Workman. Raised in Gilford and having worked in the financial services industry in New York and across New England, Workman initially returned to the area to tend to his grandparents. He was browsing real estate properties in New Hampshire when he came across Franklin and started purchasing buildings along Central Street in 2014.
Workman envisions Franklin as a sustainable community – protecting drinking water, creating renewable energy, ensuring local food supplies and implementing zero-waste measures – with a vibrant micro-urban centerpiece.
During the summer of 2015, Workman met Marty Parichand, a whitewater rafting guide and former avionic systems programming specialist who envisioned opening the first whitewater park in New England.
Parichand envisions a walkway along the river that will lead passerbys underneath the bridge from Trestle View Park to Mill City Park and a pathway of trails.
Parichand, who is from Epsom, had been setting his sights on Concord, but immediately saw potential in Franklin.
“The concept is new for New England, but there are 30 of them in Colorado, 280 across the country,” says Parichand. He was surprised at how knowledgeable Workman was about the whitewater paddling industry.
“This is all stuff I’ve been passionate about and I’ve been a paddler for a long time. I don’t often meet a paddler who knows these things,” says Parichand. “He already believed in it wholeheartedly. We began to bond around that idea.”
Parichand then started his nonprofit, Mill City Park. He wants to use a tract of city-owned land along the Winnipesaukee River for a launching spot as well as create a mountain bike pump track, a community garden and an eco-village-style campsite.
In 2015, Parichand worked with the state Department of Resources and Economic Development on a report that found Mill City Park would bring in $6.8 million of direct spending in the region.
“We have many challenges here in Franklin, and we believe this whitewater park is our second identity,” he says.
In one of PermaCityLife’s buildings, Parichand opened up an outdoor recreation shop, called Outdoor New England. Like many of the buildings, it had been condemned. Parichand says he removed 12,000 pounds of trash and demolition debris, and paid out of pocket for the mechanical and electrical systems.
Today, you wouldn’t know of the building’s grim past. The shop has a charming look from the reclaimed wood and old cabinetry.
Next door is a volunteer-run coffee shop, led by Jo Brown. Brown approached Workman with the idea. She brought in family and friends to clear out the space – a labor of love. The quaint shop is run mainly by retirees who are happy to take on a four-hour shift. Its success led to a wall being knocked out to allow for a gift shop all of whose offerings are products made in New Hampshire, a majority of which are created by local artisans.
Jo Brown and her sister, Carol Protzman, at The Franklin Studio, a volunteer-run coffee shop on Central Street that also has a gift shop with local-made products.
On one Saturday, the shop has a healthy bustling of customers. Sitting in his usual spot is Mike Mullavey, the treasurer of PermaCityLife. “You wouldn’t believe the skepticism in the beginning, but they’ve really come around,” he says about other community members. “You can get that feeling back, that people want to be in town and a part of the town.”
Across the street is Toad Hall, Take Root Coworking – a shared coworking space with a fiber connection providing faster Internet than Franklin Savings Bank, it proudly proclaims – Franklin Clothing Company and Colby-Sawyer’s satellite campus, where Workman will also operate PermaCityLife from.
Last fall, Colby-Sawyer launched a three-year degree in community-based sustainability with a focus on gaining real-world experience through working with PermaCityLife, Mill City Park and the city of Franklin.
“Students learn about sustainability, and not just how that applies to communities, but also to organizations and nonprofits,” says Jennifer White, sustainability coordinator for the college and assistant professor in the environmental services department.
It’s not just students in the degree program who have the opportunity to work with Franklin. In 2015, Colby-Sawyer launched a Sustainable Learning Initiative, giving all of its students the opportunity to pair with individuals in Franklin to complete a to-do list of sustainable revitalization efforts.
“We’re really interested in walking alongside the residents of Franklin to help them achieve their goals,” says White. “We get to see progress in the downtown area as some of these projects come into fruition and the students get to see their benefits to the community members.”
One graphic design student created the logo for Mill City Park. He’s now working as an apprentice with CATCH to develop an identity for the future apartment complex.
When asked whether student involvement could make students interested in staying in the community, White thought it was a possibility. While on winter break, a group of students in the degree program attended a city council meeting of their own accord.
“A lot of the pieces we do are progressive ideas or outdoor recreation initiatives that resonate with young people, with millennials,” says Parichand. “We’re always able to ask students questions about what kind of community they want to live in.”
“It’s a great example of a local community taking it upon themselves to do something different and stick with it,” says Michael Bergeron, business development manager for DRED. The agency has helped organize various state players, including connecting Parichand with the state Department of Environmental Services to discuss dam releases that affect the Winnipesaukee River in Franklin.
“By attracting a young demographic who want to whitewater raft and do mountain biking, they will change the character of that community and make a difference long term,” says Bergeron.
Vital to Franklin’s revitalization are the variety of financing options.
In 2015, the city was awarded a grant from UNH Cooperative Extension that created a steering committee to bring in several speakers to the city to talk about revitalization efforts and form a realistic to-do list in a series called “Franklin for a Lifetime.”
“I think after that point, we had a better understanding of each other in terms of what the city can and cannot do legally – the are constraints on the city – and what PermaCityLife could do and was able to do in terms of economic development,” says Dragon. “Once everyone understood their roles we found creative ways to work together and momentum started to build.”
Through the “Franklin for a Lifetime” series, the city learned about USDA Rural Development grants. It received a $50,000 Rural Business Enterprise grant the city used to hire downtown coordinator Niel Cannon to work with the steering committee to find and carry out projects that help low and moderate income families.
CATCH Neighborhood Housing is renovating the former Franklin Light and Power Mill to provide 45 affordable apartment units. The mill was erected in 1895, the same year Franklin was incorporated.
The city also received a $500,000 Community Development Block Grant for CATCH Neighborhood Housing’s mill renovations – a small piece of the $12 million project – and $400,000 in Community Development Finance Authority tax credits, a quarter of which Franklin Savings Bank purchased, which will be used to make façade improvements on PermaCityLife-owned buildings.
Franklin recently incorporated the land intended for Mill City Park as part of its TIF (tax investment financing) district. The city created the district – which comprises much of downtown – in 2008. If a building within the district is renovated and taxes increase, a portion of the increase is reinvested to projects in the same district.
“It’s very unique. Every community with TIF districts has to say what the projects are, how much of the new incremental value will be reinvested in that area of the community, and they have an advisory board to oversee and goes back to the city council for approval,” says Dragon.
Meanwhile, the city has seen significant changes with the opening of eight new businesses in downtown Franklin over the past year.
“Certainly, things are the most favorable they’ve ever been now as opposed to two years ago,” says Parichand. “There obviously was kind of a rocky start in the beginning, but, to put it in perspective, the first day I started renovating Outdoor New England, I had four to five people from Franklin that I had never met offer to help. Through that process I’ve made great friends. So I think, there’s some people who don’t think it will happen certainly, but I think that group becomes smaller and smaller every day. We’re still here doing what we’re doing and continuing to move forward.”