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, eventually acquiring seven big block buildings with a dream of turning Franklin into a model city focused on permaculture, or self-sustaining practices that emphasize safe drinking water, renewable energy and local food supplies.
He founded PermaCityLife to take the lead in structuring public-private financing opportunities and partnerships to advance the city’s resurgence. As a nonprofit, PermaCityLife could apply for grants and loans that would not be available otherwise, and Franklin Savings Bank was among the first to step up to the plate, lending money for both building acquisitions and property improvements.
“We took a leap of faith to do it, but we also recognized that the real estate component was critically important,” says Magoon. When the NH Community Development Finance Authority awarded the Franklin Business and Development Corporation $400,000 in tax credits last August, the bank purchased $100,000 of them, allowing PermaCityLife to make facade improvements, “so anyone doubting the success of this revitalization would be satisfied to see the downtown looking a lot better.” The bank also donated $250,000 toward establishing the whitewater park.
It only seems fitting that a city battered by rough economic tides is finding safe harbor in the churn of the river. The park is the dream of longtime whitewater enthusiast Marty Parichand, who “wanted to see if the sport I loved the most could make a positive impact on a community.”
When a whitewater project he was working on elsewhere fell through, he turned to Andrea O’Brien of the NH Small Business Development Center, and Carmen Lorentz, then of the NH Division of Economic Development, and both suggested he seek out Workman. It was an instant “click.”
“The first day I walked in, he had poster boards already explaining a park concept and had done a lot of work on his own,” Parichand says of that first meeting with Workman in 2015. “I didn’t have to explain it to him or prove to him it was a good idea.”
The plan centers on a 1.25-mile stretch of the Winnipesaukee River beginning at Cross Mill Road and flowing into the middle of downtown at Trestle View Park, where Parichand envisions a “world-class whitewater park and outdoor center” that will appeal to both users and spectators year-round.
“Mill City Park will be a community land-based park, open to the public 99.9 percent of the year with a couple of special events and an overnight accommodations setup that will create a revenue stream so we can keep and maintain the park,” Parichand says.
“It will create an iconic business, bring in people and visitors and rebrand the city as an outdoor destination,” he adds. “This will be an urban park rather than a White Mountains park or a Bear Brook State Park. It has the city’s history at the forefront.”
In addition to the whitewater activities, mountain bike pump track and community garden, plans for the park also include event space and picnic area. Because it sits at the end of the downtown business district and has high water flow year-round, “Franklin has all the ingredients for a world-class whitewater park,” says Mike Harvey of Recreation Engineering and Planning, a firm specializing in whitewater park design, in a video about the project.
Milner notes that studies have shown 80 percent of visitors to whitewater parks don’t actually go into the water but come to watch, picnic, hike or otherwise enjoy the outdoors. With the park so close to the downtown, other businesses like restaurants and shops could also realize increased business, and the historic Franklin Opera House at City Hall could see a boost in visitors.
How much the park will cost remains uncertain, as engineers are still studying the plans and terrain. Parichand says cost estimates will be available within a year. Meanwhile, fundraising continues.
So far, according to Parichand, $35,000 has been raised for a feasibility study. The project has also landed an $175,000 federal Economic Development Administration grant, a $6,000 contribution from Service Credit Union, and $5,000 from the nonprofit Capital Regional Development Council (CRDC) for development of a master plan. A $400,000 grant application has also been submitted to the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, and park planners expect to hear by August whether it has been approved.
“Putting (Franklin) up against other applications, it brought to light for us the momentum that is gaining in Franklin for economic development projects,” says Chris Wellington, project management officer for CRDC, of his agency’s grants of $5,000 each to Mill City Park and PermaCityLife. Their applications, he says, “were not just for a study or short-term projects but for long-term visioning that would create huge advancement for the community, both from a tax base and job opportunity standpoint.” The grant to PermaCityLife will help support a project to convert three downtown block buildings into eight commercial and five residential units.
The plan also dovetails with downtown revitalization. One of PermaCityLife’s seven buildings houses Outdoor New England, Parichand’s outfitter shop offering flatwater and whitewater activities and instruction.
PermaCityLife also operates from one of the properties, which include mixed-use storefronts and apartments. One of its buildings, called Toad Hall, will soon house a music venue as well as a first-floor combination art gallery and restaurant.
“Franklin is now open for business,” says Jenisha Shrestha, PermaCityLife’s associate director and a former Colby-Sawyer student who joined the company in 2016. “The image of Franklin is slowly changing. It’s welcoming new business.”
The initial investments by PermaCityLife have spurred other ventures downtown.
The departure of the mills in the 1970s left a highly visible, 186,000-square-foot building, the former J.P. Stevens Mill, standing vacant and falling into disrepair for years.
“One of our goals from the beginning was to find a reputable investor/developer to turn that building around,” says Jim Aberg, executive director of the Franklin Business and Industrial Development Corporation. “We were lucky enough to get Chinburg Builders to come in to rehab it into rental and professional units. It was just purchased in December and the planning and design phase will probably go through in the fall. It will probably be around 15 months before contracts are awarded and two years before it’s completed.” Project cost is estimated at $18 million to $20 million, according to Aberg.
Another decaying building in the heart of downtown is now a renovated 45-unit affordable CATCH housing project that sits riverside. (CATCH is a nonprofit that owns and manages 325 affordable rental apartments across Merrimack County.) The $12 million project was supported by grants and financing from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the state Community Development Finance Authority, NH Housing Finance Authority, Franklin Savings Bank and others.
Aberg says CRDC is in the process of lending the city $200,000 to acquire another derelict downtown building so it can be demolished. “You cobble together these grants from various sources to put these projects together—it really takes all of them,” he says. “It takes input from the planning department, city administration, private businesses—they’re all pretty intense undertakings.”
Almost all of the projects are within the boundaries of the city’s TIF (tax increment financing) district, which is a way of raising funds for infrastructure improvements that support new development.
Colby-Sawyer College has also made an investment in the downtown, partnering with PermaCityLife to have 280 students over the past few years work directly with local businesses and organizations on a variety of projects for college credit, including developing logos, parking plans, permaculture designs and conducting aquatic research. The home base for its Franklin field office is the PermaCityLife headquarters at 357 Central St.
Not all the economic news coming out of Franklin is rosy. Advanced Kiosks, a manufacturer of interactive kiosk technology, has been growing at its location at 20 Canal St. But it has outgrown that space and announced in May it is relocating to a new 7,500-square-foot manufacturing facility in Concord. That city’s gain is Franklin’s loss. Advanced Kiosks founder and President Howard Horn explains the move to Concord allows the company to expand its manufacturing capacity and gives it access to a larger talent pool in Southern NH and Boston.
Bringing Players Together
Franklin remains focused on its future. Magoon says a critical difference between the current revitalization effort and those of the past is that “everybody who should be at the table, is there.”
“We meet biweekly to discuss projects downtown,” says City Manger Milner, who notes that the group usually includes herself, Workman, Parichand, Aberg, downtown coordinator Neil Cannon and Planning and Zoning Administrator Dick Lewis, as well as a representative from the NH Department of Business and Economic Affairs. “With all those minds at the table and everyone focused on the same thing, making Franklin great, we’re doing it.”
“Franklin for a Lifetime” has been the city’s motto for two years now, she adds.
City officials say the Workman and Parichand ventures were the spark for the revitalization effort. “They are the cornerstones,” says Aberg. “PermaCityLife was the first to take steps in downtown Franklin. Both (PermaCityLife and Mill City Park) are nonprofits. I really feel like they were the catalyst for this economic push in Franklin.”
But catalysts stimulate activity beyond themselves. His role, says Workman, “was just getting the ball rolling and getting some investors. The City of Franklin brought in Neil and all of a sudden it went from not just PermaCityLife but Cannon, Chinburg Properties, Colby-Sawyer College—the team has just grown. The big story is, we’re now just one piece of the puzzle.”
Workman adds that PermaCityLife’s revitalization work could not have proceeded without the support of Franklin Savings Bank. “They have done things that go well beyond the norm,” he says. “Same for the team at CDFA [the state Community Development Finance Authority], which has believed in our vision and given us tremendous support to do facade improvements. We’re now starting to work with CRDC [Capital Regional Development Council]. And we wouldn’t have money to come to work if it weren’t for James Key-Wallace, director of the New Hampshire Business Finance Authority, which financed our ting budget.”
But the success of the revitalization effort is about more than money. “It’s because it started at the grassroots level,” says Michael Bergeron, senior business development manager for the NH Department of Business and Economic Affairs. “Because the people at the city level were committed to make this work and because it was initiated by business people, it had more strength.” Bergeron adds that Franklin could be a model for other communities seeking to rebuild. “Every city has a unique asset that might be developed,” he says. “For Franklin it is the river and the way the downtown is designed, and that was the foundation. They also have been very good at finding partners to help them move forward and very good at not giving up.”
Parichand is one of those believers. “People need to understand there’s a movement in Franklin,” he says. “If they have an idea or a business, they should consider Franklin. There’s creative thinking here.
There’s positive influences. When you come, you’re attaching yourself to everyone before you, and everyone becomes a stakeholder in your business. We need more people like that, looking at where we’re going rather than where we’ve been.”