Laconia Daily Sun | Tom Caldwell
FRANKLIN — The Three Rivers City is poised for an economic revival through two major projects that will answer a longstanding need: attracting outsiders. PermaCity Life and Mill City Park have generated excitement and, more importantly, investment in the state’s smallest city.
“The city a while ago recognized that we need to increase our tax base in some way, through economic development,” said City Manager Judie Milner. “But our economic base can’t support a business on its own. We need to have something that will bring people in.”
Residents initially pinned their hopes on the revival of the Franklin Opera House, which brought entertainment and educational programming back to the building that also serves as City Hall. It has proven to be a big hit locally, but it has failed to bring large crowds from beyond the immediate area.
Along came Todd Workman with a different approach to revival: arranging for low-cost financing options that encourage business owners to purchase and invest in the old buildings, rather than to simply rent space. He created a nonprofit organization to facilitate the rehabilitation of downtown buildings and attract new businesses.
“At PermaCity Life, we recognize that encouraging property ownership as a redevelopment strategy is a unique approach which has many advantages,” Workman said.
That approach attracted the attention of the Franklin City Council, and Milner said they agreed to assist with grant-writing and other forms of funding to help Workman purchase and fix up some of the old buildings.
The Capital Regional Development Council recently awarded a $5,000 grant to PermaCity Life to help support a condominium conversion plan for three mill buildings, which will transform them into eight commercial and five residential units. The grant will allow the organization to prepare site plans, surveys, and legal documents to obtain planning board approval of the subdivision.
“We believe, with CRDC’s assistance through this grant funding, we can develop a plan that will create an ‘owner-operator’ which will create pride in ownership,” Workman said. “Favorable financing terms will likely yield debt service payments equal to or less than pro-forma rents. This will improve cash flow and encourage owners to invest in their business expansion. It's great for the business owner and great for Franklin.”
Mill City Park
Milner said that, when Marty Parichand approached the city with a proposal for a whitewater park in downtown Franklin, there was some skepticism about it. That evaporated when Parichand provided information about other successful whitewater parks and a study that showed such a park could boost Franklin’s economy by $5 to $6 million per year.
The first whitewater park was developed in Salida, Colorado, a city very much like Franklin. Instead of being a mill city, Salida was a major railroad city, with a switching yard and roundtable, before the rail industry disappeared, leaving that city in much the same shape as Franklin after its mills closed. Mike Harvey designed a whitewater park that revived Salida, and Milner said a restaurant at the water’s edge which had grossed between $400,000 and $500,000 a year is now making $4 million a year.
Parichand, owner of Outdoor New England on Central Street, said he was able to raise $35,000 for a feasibility study through crowdfunding, donations, signature events, the sale of T-shirts, mugs, and cozies, and a $10,000 grant from the Horne Foundation.
“After that, things started moving in a positive direction with the city,” he said.
With that partnership, Mill City Park was able to obtain a $170,000 grant from United States Economic Development Administration, a division of the Department of Commerce, and around the same time, Franklin Savings Bank made a two-year $250,000 commitment ($125,000 per year) as a donation toward the project’s success.
Service Credit Union followed with a $6,000 grant, and the Capital Regional Development Council gave $5,000.
Workman said, “With the enhancement of Mill City Park and plans for New England’s first water park, we believe this is perfect timing [for PermaCity Life] and no doubt we will attract sustainable, committed businesses to downtown Franklin.”
Parichand said he had other good news. Their application for a $400,000 Land and Water Conservation Fund matching grant cleared the state vetting process with the highest score of any New Hampshire application, and has been forwarded to Washington, D.C.
“Passing state approval is the hardest part of that grant,” Milner said, “and they’re generally funded then.”
Parichand agreed. “We’re hopeful for that grant,” he said. “We should be hearing from Washington by August.”
The grant would provide $200,000, with another $200,000 being a local match.
Making that local match will be a challenge, but Parichand is undaunted, asking for support wherever he can find it.
A recent boat festival raised $2,000, and they are gearing up for Winnipesaukee River Days on June 22-24, where there will be two days of live music, vendors, sponsors, a beer garden at Trestle View Park, and camping in Odell Park. Parichand said they have a conservative estimate of attracting 750 to 1,000 people, “but we could easily get more than that.”
“I think we’re getting some traction, and it’s more achievable now. We have a core team and support from state regulators, so the table is now set to put the project together and make an impact in the region.”
Harvey, who designed Salida’s whitewater park and now operates Recreation Engineering and Planning, has been retained to design the Franklin project, and Peter Walker of VHB in Bedford will assist in project planning. Milner said they met with officials of the state Department of Environmental Services last week to answer any concerns, and, “It looks like a go.”
The cost of the project has yet to be determined, based on the engineering requirements. Whitewater parks can cost between $4 million and $20 million, but Milner said, “We’re looking to do something less here.”
The project will involve removing debris from the mills and dams that once existed along the river, as well as putting in some man-made diversions to create challenges and control the water flow so there are areas for all skill levels.
“The features have to make it so my alligator raft doesn’t get sucked in,” Milner joked.
Park liability would be covered by a state statute that protects city parks from claims other than charges of gross negligence, Milner said.
She noted that the experience at similar parks is that 20 percent of the people they attract come for water activities, while 80 percent come to view what they’re doing. Associated features are walking trails, mountain biking, a pavilion, picnic areas, and historical landmarks with signs to inform people of the river’s history.
“Businesses are starting to look at that,” Milner said, noting that the city is offering development help through the establishment of tax increment financing, and some businesses are likely to offer financing for naming rights.
“The engineers are in the river now in dry suits, taking measurements, and we expect that, by the end of next year, we’ll see something to play on,” she said.