Written by Zoe Chapin
On a recent overcast spring day in Franklin, New Hampshire, Concord Monitor journalist Elodie Reed visited retired teacher and new business owner George Mansfield as he sat outside his bookstore. Mansfield recently closed his bookstore in Tilton, NH and opted to set up shop in Franklin instead. Surveying Central Street, he said, “I think it’s starting on an upward trend, downtown here especially.”
Mansfield isn’t the only resident to notice the positive changes that have been sweeping the small, 8,000 person town of Franklin. In June, citizens gathered for a walking tour to celebrate one year of momentum and engagement, following the Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design™ Franklin for a Lifetime workshop. Last year’s convening at the workshop brought Franklin to a shared vision: a town that is a welcoming and supportive place for people of all ages. Key action items Franklin for a Lifetime project outlined were: create affordable and accessible housing for all ages, create more quality public spaces, clean up the riverfront, coordinate downtown improvement, and encourage new, diverse businesses to open.
Since then, five action groups (volunteerism, recreation and community events, arts and culture, marketing, and housing and economic development) have met through the course of the year to implement ideas and projects generated by the workshop.
The results of these coordinated community efforts are astounding. An impressive twenty-eight participants from the workshop reported new leadership roles and opportunities undertaken in Franklin. More than $82,000 of grants and resources have been leveraged by the community, including a $50,000 USDA Rural Development Grant.
This USDA grant has successfully funded a new economic development expert, Concord-based development consultant Niel Cannon, to further economic revitalization in the downtown. Cannon continues to consult with downtown business owners, while also working with prominent local developer Todd Workman, who has acquired several Franklin properties with the intention of attracting tech firms, and spurring brownfield redevelopment of old industrial buildings.
Another $7,000 from the Franklin Savings Bank contributed to the establishment of the Franklin Studio, a recently opened local coffee shop and arts space that sells local New Hampshire wares. Even better, Franklin Studio is undergoing an expansion to its space and will reopen in August. Additionally, $21,000 from the Franklin Savings Bank went towards helping community partners, PermaCityLife, Franklin Business and Industrial Development Corporation, and the Franklin Industrial Park cover closing costs and administrative fees.
So far, three new businesses have already been created, and two existing businesses are currently expanding into larger spaces. A new outdoor outfitter is restoring unused space in a historic building to open as retail space. The store will sell rafts, kayaks, bikes and other outdoor equipment, and will also offer guided tours, to take advantage of Franklin’s rivers and existing bike and walking trails. A new bookstore and an art gallery and music venue, Toad Hall, recently opened their doors—both on Central Street. Moreover, a co-working space and restaurant-microbrewery are in the works.
The 5 action groups have created a community newsletter, facilitated citizen-led volunteer projects to enhance the city and collaborated with property owners and developers to expand downtown housing options and repurpose boarded-up mill buildings.
One such housing project, part of a separate initiative led by non-for-profit Concord Area Trust for Community Housing (CATCH) and slated for the Riverbend Mill building, is finalizing its funding, and will include 45 units of affordable housing. This housing development located along the river will also include a playground, green space and art studios. Moreover, the addition of affordable units will expand housing options for the aging population in Franklin.
As Dick Lewis, City Planner, indicates in his summary report, “The successful 2015 Franklin for a Lifetime event laid the groundwork for a variety of projects that can, and are, facilitating initiatives to assist in the overall redevelopment of Downtown Franklin, both from an economic and housing perspective.”
Quality greenspace has also been expanded in the last year. A small lot has been transformed into “art in the park” featuring metal sculptures. Benches designed by high school students have been created, making the park a place to visit with neighbors or host community events. The riverfront has been cleaned and has become a destination for locals and visitors, an initiative that began when young people in Franklin decided to become stewards of the riverfront, volunteering to collect litter and improve the appearance of this valuable community asset. All this adds up to a town whose shared vision has been catalyzed and activated.
Looking forward, the city is considering a zoning amendment to ease restaurant development and permitting process in the downtown business district. The newly hired downtown Business Coordinator is working with downtown business owners and investors about specific projects. Businesses are also working to access state tax credits from the Community Development Finance Authority to fund downtown building and façade improvements.
It is evident that Franklin’s citizens are successfully leveraging their federal funding resources to create big changes. As workshop facilitator Sharon Cowen from the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension explains, “The energy and collaboration created by Franklin for a Lifetime continue to empower its citizens and government to work together towards a vision of their community that will meet its challenges.” By creating vibrant public green spaces, diversifying amenities and businesses downtown, and expanding housing options particularly for the older residents, Franklin is effectively planning for an aging population, while increasing livability and sense of place for all residents.
This article originally appeared on the Citizens' Institute on Rural Design™ website on July 26, 2016