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Visionaries Are Bringing Back The Mill City

InDepthNH.org | Thomas P. Caldwell | July 7, 2021


Groundbreaking for the first surf wave in Mill City Park is scheduled for July 12. This phase of the project creates a kayak feature off Trestle View Park, with stadium seating to allow spectators to watch the action on the water.

By Thomas P. Caldwell, InDepthNH.org


The city of Franklin has been struggling to redefine itself since the last of the mills that drove the local economy closed a half-century ago. Twenty-five years later, leaders were looking to the past as a way of revitalizing the city: Passenger rail and a renovated opera house were supposed to provide the catalyst for Franklin’s rebirth. Today, it is a vision of the future that finally promises to pull the Three Rivers City out of its doldrums.


A groundbreaking ceremony on July 12 will kick off the construction of a surf wave for kayakers, part of an ambitious Mill City Park project that will make the Winnipesaukee River — the water body that first attracted millers to the area — the focus of Franklin’s identity.


The project already is creating a splash. A June fundraiser known as Winni River Days attracted an estimated 2,000 people, including visitors from Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and other New England states. The event featured three live bands, a beer garden featuring Kettlehead and Vulgar brewing companies, and some 40 vendors.


“It was interesting to see,” said Marty Parichand, the man who has led the effort to create Mill City Park. “You have kind of all the paddlers coming for the whitewater release, but then there’s so much to do for everybody else.”


That is exactly what Mill City Park is intended to do. In Parichand’s words, the whitewater park can be “the centerpiece of the largest adaptive reuse effort in Franklin’s history, turning the downtown into a vibrant micro-urban centerpiece.” He is working with the city to refurbish the train trestle that spans the river, create a multi-use trail on the eastern side of the river as a complement to the existing Winnipesaukee River Trail, build a park pavilion and public bathrooms, create additional off-street parking, picnic areas, and community gardens, and provide other amenities to promote hiking, climbing, mountain biking, and camping.


The master plan for Mill City Park envisions a number of amenities for both water enthusiasts and spectators.

Plans also call for improvements to the city’s unique sulphite bridge — known as the “upside-down bridge” — as part of an educational component of the park that explains the history of the mills that once used the river for power and whose remnants still exist.


The section of river between the Cross Mill bridge and Franklin’s railroad trestle has a steep descent averaging 77 feet per mile, which is what attracted the factories and, in recent years, has brought whitewater kayakers to the river. It is those Class IV rapids that attracted Parichand, owner of the Central Street business Outdoor New England.


Parichand looked to Salida, Colorado, for inspiration. Salida’s business district had developed around its railroad depot at the side of the Arkansas River, but had been languishing since the trains stopped running in 1997. The community got together to create a whitewater park along 1,200 feet of the waterway in downtown Salida, leading to an economic renaissance as businesses grew up around the riverfront activities.


City officials and the Franklin business community quickly embraced Parichand’s idea of creating the first whitewater park in the Northeast on the Winnipesaukee River, and they hired Mike Harvey, the man who designed Salida’s attraction, to design the Franklin project. Peter Walker of VHB in Bedford assisted in project planning, which included reconfiguring portions of the river to provide a better flow for recreational use and the designing of surf wave “features” in the riverbed.


Parichand explained that man-made features on the riverbed utilize river currents to provide stationary waves that allow a paddler or surfer to work out while remaining at one section of the river.


The New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services frowns upon the alteration of rivers, but it has supported Mill City Park’s plans to create the man-made features, in part because the project includes removing debris left over from the old mills. Parichand pointed out that, with remnants of the mills’ demolition or collapse strewn along the Winnipesaukee, “There’s nothing natural about that river.”


Outdoor New England sells kayaks from its Central Street storefront in Franklin. Its owner, Marty Parichand, has spearheaded the Mill City Park project, part of a larger effort at revitalization of the city. THOMAS CALDWELL photo

Permaculture


Parichand’s proposal might not have been embraced as quickly without the groundwork laid by another Franklin visionary, Todd Workman. The founder of PermaCityLife, Workman had been purchasing downtown properties that had suffered from deferred maintenance — or no maintenance at all — with the aim of refurbishing them. His idea was to make Franklin a model city for permaculture — self-sustaining practices that focus on safe drinking water, renewable energy, and locally sourced foods.


As a nonprofit entity, PermaCityLife’s premise was to create public-private partnerships that could lead to a downtown renaissance. Entities such as Franklin Savings Bank, the Franklin Business and Industrial Development Corporation, and Franklin Developments kicked in money to support the ventures, leading to additional support from the New Hampshire Community Development Finance Authority. The Franklin City Council also was supportive of his efforts.


Seeing those buildings renovated and new tenants become interested in establishing businesses in the city began to give Franklin a more positive image outside the city.


Among the new businesses was Outdoor New England, and Parichand quickly established himself as another visionary with an eye toward the future, rather than the past. He admits that people in the Northeast still have trouble understanding what a whitewater park is — they envision a Whale’s Tale-type water park — but the word is getting out.


City Manager Judie Milner said there has been an increased interest in residential property, as well as new housing projects. Workman’s renovation of the Odd Fellows building on Central Street into high-end condominiums is well underway, and Chinburg Builders plans to convert the former J.P. Stevens Mill into 142 market-rate units — studios and one-bedroom apartments — beginning this fall.


“Stevens Mill is currently assessed at $2 million,” Milner said. “This is a $32 million project, so it will have an assessed value of at least $20 million as people start to move in, so there’s a lot of [property] value coming onto the city’s books.”


Because Franklin has been a “property-poor” city living under a tax cap, the city and school budgets have traditionally been very tight, but the recent interest in real estate has increased property tax revenues to allow for more spending.


David Liberatore of White Water Realty Group observed, “I’ve been working in the real estate business for 29 years now, so it’s a really nice thing” to see what is happening.


Liberatore said that, after the Boston Globe ran a story on Mill City Park in May, “we started seeing a lot of investors that are coming in and buying our multi-family properties at outrageous prices. We were selling properties at probably $80,000 to $90,000 per unit, and now we’re seeing them in the $125,000 per unit range. They’re buying that sight unseen, waiving inspections, and so on, and making improvements as they see necessary, so that’s really good for some of these older homes.”


He also has seen interest from investors looking at properties for the short-term rentals they anticipate needing once the park opens. “We’re seeing a large influx of that kind of market,” Liberatore said. “Once people start coming here and seeing the beauty of the city and everything else that comes along with this area, I think we’re going to see a large increase in people moving here to actually live here.”


Even before that, Jim Aberg of the Franklin Business & Industrial Development Corporation said, “You can have as many as 160,000 visitors a year coming through the area, so there’s going to be a huge economic impact. And there’s a lot of things that haven’t happened yet.”



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