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Franklin: From Troubled Waters to Whitewater Park

Business NH Magazine | Kathie Ragsdale

The churning waterways that helped give Franklin its nickname and powered its once-thriving mills are now helping to drive its rebirth.

Franklin has been dubbed the “The Three Rivers City” as it sits at the junction of the Pemigewasset and Winnipesaukee rivers where they form the Merrimack River. That location has inspired another powerful convergence—a unique combination of city officials, nonprofits, businesses, a college and local citizens united to revitalize this former mill city.

“The momentum is just rolling here,” says City Manager Judie Milner.

The linchpin of this effort is a planned nine-acre Mill City Park along the Winnipesaukee River that would be home to New England’s first whitewater park. The proposed park would include a mountain bike pump track, a community garden, as well as a whitewater park and outdoor center for kayakers. The center has the potential to generate $6.83 million in new visitor spending and $4.68 million in peripheral revenue, according to the NH Department of Business and Economic Affairs.

The park is also expected to bring more business to the downtown, which has undergone a major facelift through facade improvements and retrofits of storefronts and old mill buildings. It all comes as good news for the state’s smallest and poorest city, which is home to 8,400 people with 29 percent at or below the poverty level and 60 percent of  students receiving free or reduced-fee lunch, according to Milner. Because the city also has a tax cap and has faced revenue shortfalls, “Our only way to raise money is economic development,” she says.

Numerous revitalization efforts have been made since the mills closed in the 1970s and the city slipped into decline. And several charrettes were held over the last few decades resulting in suggestions for improvement. But nothing took hold.

A Man With A Vision

Enter Todd Workman. “Three or four years ago, an individual came in who realized revitalization had to be about more than the buildings, but about vision,” says Ronald L. Magoon, president and CEO of Franklin Savings Bank, which has invested heavily in the renewal efforts. “It was Todd Workman.”

Workman, who grew up in Gilford, had longstanding ties to the city and has owned property in and around Franklin for 15 years. His father graduated from Franklin High, and Workman had worked on conservation efforts along Webster Lake in Franklin, where he also owned a home.

“Like a lot of folks in 2010 to 2012, you’d notice downtown Franklin was in a downward spiral with a lot of blight,” Workman says. “But coming in to City Hall and meeting folks, you start to see it differently.

There was a flat, well-developed downtown book-ended by two bridges, all this incredible architecture that needs repair, these great mill buildings that survived urban renewal, and it was in the middle of the state. It really is a planner’s dream.” So Workman started buying downtown properties,