Union Leader | Michael Cousineau | August 21, 2021
Marty Parichand of Outdoor New England arrives back in downtown Franklin on a whitewater raft while guiding a group from Rhode Island on Aug. 13.
But first they needed to remove the rusty car parts and discarded bricks of defunct mills littering the Winnipesaukee River.
As word got around that the state’s smallest city wanted to build New England’s first whitewater park, people started putting their faith — and funds — in Franklin.
“Every downtown has to reinvent itself,” said Todd Workman, whose nonprofit has been involved in renovating about a dozen buildings along Central Street, the city’s main drag.
“We’re reinventing ourselves around the whitewater park,” he said during an impromptu tour of buildings completed or under renovation. “In fact, we’re just building a downtown community to go with the whitewater park.”
Even some who once harbored doubts have gotten into the flow.
Niel Cannon, a finance and development consultant assisting the city, recalled a dream he had about rafts moving along the Winnipesaukee River. “Instead of paddlers, they were full of dollars,” he said.
Across the state, former mill towns that saw their fortunes sag in decades past have found ways to repurpose old brick factories to house apartments or high-tech companies.
“I think Manchester is the biggest shining example,” said Jeffrey Hayes, executive director of the Lakes Region Planning Commission. “Renovating those mills totally changed the face of Manchester and led to the college and all those businesses.”
Franklin is taking a different tack.
“The Franklin revitalization project and whitewater park would have a major impact on, I believe, retaining a younger workforce,” Hayes said. “It’s good outdoor recreation that will attract younger people.”
Franklin, situated about 20 miles north of Concord, is home to about 8,700 residents, whose collective median age is 5 years older than the state median 43 years.
Fewer people own computers. More live in poverty than in the state as a whole. At the end of 2020, private-sector workers in Franklin were making about $475 less a week than their counterparts in Manchester. Residents voted twice for Donald Trump, its public library was funded by steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, and its most famous resident was Daniel Webster.
So far, the project is behind schedule.
First, construction was delayed a year because of the pandemic and more recently this summer because ironically the river was too high. Work is scheduled to resume Aug. 30.
The former Regal Theatre, more recently an auction house, may become a boutique hotel on Central Street, within walking distance for visitors using the whitewater park, according to Workman.
“I think the last movie that played there was ‘Jaws,’” he said.
Tami Lynch of Warwick, R.I., and her daughter, Karlie, buckle up before heading down the Winnipesaukee River in Franklin on a whitewater raft on Aug. 13, 2021.
Franklin’s revitalization is banking on “three signature projects” along the river, according to Marty Parichand, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Mill City Park.
One piece is a 13-acre, land-based park called Mill City Park, which is already open. Another nearly 20 acres was given conservation status to protect the river. The final piece is the whitewater park.
“They are all connected together and are symbiotic,” Parichand said.
All are free to use for people who have their own gear.
The whitewater park’s price tag is $3.5 million, including a first-phase cost of $1.5 million. That includes building an amphitheater on shore for spectators and a pedestrian walkway under a vehicular bridge and constructing a whitewater feature — essentially a stationary wave — for people to surf or practice their kayaking skills. The park also has secured a minimum flow of water.
Marty Parichand of Outdoor New England guides a group from Rhode Island down the Winnipesaukee River in Franklin on Aug. 13.
activities such as kayaking and whitewater rafting and producing as much as $6.8 million in new yearly visitor spending, according to a 2015 economic impact study Parichand worked on with state economic development officials.
For decades, community brainstorming sessions have emphasized how “we have to connect the community to the river, but no one actually tried to connect the community to the river until now,” Parichand said.
A city task force has raised nearly $5 million in recent years from public and private sources for various projects, including about $3 million for the whitewater park. City tax dollars won’t pay for the park’s upkeep.
The city’s tax cap means much of the city’s capital improvements are paid by grants from other government agencies, according to City Manager Judie Milner.
“The only way to bring in more (property) taxes is to bring in more tax base,” said Milner, previously the city finance director.
She said the city is “now at the peak” of its revitalization efforts, with several projects approved.
About half of $1.4 million in property taxes from a special taxing district downtown was earmarked for improving parking behind Central Street and tearing down a few structures, with the rest going for the whitewater park, Milner said.
Cannon helped harness state and federal tax dollars to improve several building facades and garner funds for the whitewater park.
“I think it’s finally gotten an awareness that it has to change with the times, and that it has to diversify its economic base, that the mills are gone for good,” Cannon said.
Some in town question how the park will pay for its upkeep and how the city will handle increased traffic.
“They have beautiful glossy answers for every question,” said Desiree Dominguez, a former school board member who owns the Central Street Laundromat. “I’m just asking some questions everybody else is.”
Desiree Dominguez pushes a cart through her laundromat at Central Street Laundromat in Franklin on Aug. 13, 2021.
Jeffrey Fitzgerald helps Jessika Gardner carry a kayak into Unique Pawn Shop in downtown Franklin on Aug. 12, 2021.
Franklin is home to three rivers — including the Merrimack and the Pemigewasset — but it’s the Winnipesaukee that provides Class 3 and 4 rapids (out of a maximum 5).
“It really has all the ingredients,” said Mike Harvey, planning and project manager at Recreation Engineering & Planning, which is based in Boulder, Colo. He is the designer and project manager for the Franklin project.
“The fact the river is at the end of Central Street, which is the main drag in Franklin... now you can create those integrations between downtown and the river corridor,” Harvey said.
That will lead to the development of restaurants and shops to service the park’s visitors.
Marty Parichand of Outdoor New England rides his bus with a group from Rhode Island while taking them on a guided whitewater rafting trip in Franklin on Aug. 13, 2021.
Street, led a group of whitewater enthusiasts from Rhode Island on several runs along the rapids that guided rafters under the Central Street bridge.
“Oh, my gosh, it was excellent,” said a wet Tami Lynch, of Warwick, R.I.
“Exhilarating,” said Pam Peloso, of West Warwick, R.I.
The group, visiting in Moultonborough, sought out a whitewater trip but didn’t know a whitewater park was planned in Franklin until it arrived. The visitors expect to return next year.
The whitewater park’s first phase is to be finished in November.
Workman, who used his buildings as collateral to get money to pay Parichand and two others in their early days of planning, said each community needs to find something that is unique to its area and capitalize on it.
“You need a vision, you need a team and someone to take the risk to get the ball rolling, then you have to work together on implementation,” Workman said. “Most towns get bogged down in planning and never move to implementation.”
Todd Workman of PermaCityLife gestures while speaking with a reporter in downtown Franklin on Aug. 13, 2021.
Stuart Arnett, a former state economic development director, has formed Comeback Communities, which advises local leaders on how to revitalize their towns and cities.
“There is always the danger anywhere of your public relations getting in front of you,” said Arnett, who has done some consulting projects in Franklin. “Franklin has made a lot of positive progress, and they would recognize there is still a long way to go.”
Traffic flows through downtown Franklin on a quiet Thursday in August.
News of the whitewater park and the creation of a federal opportunity zone offering tax advantages to investors are spurring people to buy commercial properties in Franklin.
“Prices have gone up,” said Katelyn Nash, a real estate agent in the family-owned Central Gold Key Realty in Franklin. “You’re not able to scoop properties up as cheap as you used to.”
Residential prices also are moving higher. “I believe it has a lot to do with the whitewater park and all the attention Franklin has been getting,” she said.
Stevens Mill in Franklin is being converted into nearly 150 rental units.
Developer Eric Chinburg had his eye on Franklin long before the whitewater park was conceived.
Chinburg, who has converted former mill buildings in more than a half-dozen Granite State communities, became interested in the Stevens Mill along the Winnipesaukee River beginning in 2011 before the owner agreed to sell in 2017.
Local and federal tax credits help “make it viable,” he said.
“I think the town has great potential, and I feel a project like the one we’re doing could be part of a transformation of a community,” Chinburg said. “Obviously, the water park is another big catalyst in town.”
His $30 million project calls for renovating all four buildings that are part of the mill complex, dedicating half to commercial uses and the rest for 147 market-rate apartments, set to welcome tenants as soon as late next year.
“Right now, we’re thinking some people priced out of the Concord market might want to move into Franklin,” said Chinburg, who wasn’t able to say what rents would be.
State environmental regulators have given their blessing to the whitewater park, with removal of industrial debris and failed dams “an overall environmental benefit,” said James Martin, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Services.
He also cited the conservation efforts along the river.
Hayes, of the Lakes Region Planning Commission, noted other improvements.
“I think they have a strong industrial past and there was a lot of contamination in some of the mill buildings and some of them needed to be actually torn down because it was to that extent,” he said. “There’s been a lot of assessment of controlling and mitigating the contamination in some of the mills.”
The Salida model
Referencing other communities with whitewater parks, Parichand pointed to Salida, Colo., another place that was past its peak and began climbing again.
Salida fell on harder times after the railroad industry pulled out of town in the 1990s. The Salida Whitewater Park, a city park created wholly within the banks of the Arkansas River, helped bring the city back to life.
“In terms of economic impact, I don’t think it could be overstated to say what the whitewater park has done for Salida,” Drew Nelson, Salida’s city administrator, said in a recent phone interview.
“People have relocated to Salida just for the whitewater park,” he said.
“This plucky little town that didn’t have much going for it created this cool thing … with grit and determination,” Nelson said.
Salida’s population has grown from around 4,800 residents in 1990 to more than 6,000 today.
Harvey, who’s developing the Franklin whitewater park, also created the one in Salida, about a two-hour drive from Colorado Springs.
“Salida has a very similar history to Franklin in so many ways,” said Harvey, who remains the head of a nonprofit that still runs the Salida park.
Marty Parichand of Outdoor New England says hello to a group of diners at Vulgar Brewing Company in Franklin on Aug. 13.
Server Emily Edson carries a pizza and salad on her way to a customer’s table at Vulgar Brewing Company in Franklin on Aug. 13, 2021.
Franklin was not on the radar of Jason Harrington, who was working at the nearby Tilton School and thinking about opening up a brewery somewhere.
After Harrington happened to catch Workman’s presentation of plans for Franklin to attract outdoor enthusiasts, Harrington said the city clicked in his head as a place to open his business.
“That’s our same demographic for draft beer,” Harrington said.
When he went to view a building Workman’s nonprofit owned at the time, Harrington saw a 3-foot-by-5-foot hole in the floor.
Today that’s where the bar is located at the Vulgar Brewing Company, which employs 16 people, about half full-time.
“All the changes going on in Franklin and with the whitewater park and the building behind us (being converted into housing) was part of the decision,” said partner Damon Lewis, who noted a lack of other breweries in the area.
Customers included 60-something Kathy Lees of Northfield, a resident there since age 3.
After the city’s mills closed by 1970, Franklin “was a rundown town,” she said.
“They called it Skanklin,” Lees said, herself included, chalking it up to sports-team rivalries.
A young family walk down Central Street in Franklin on Aug. 12, 2021.
Makayla Pixley and Jonathan Sidman cross Central Street on their way back from the Farmers Market in downtown Franklin on Aug. 13.
Canopies provided shade for customers at a farmers market next to the brewery in Marceau Park along the city’s main thoroughfare. Glenn and Carolyn Morrill from Morrill’s Sugar Shack in Franklin were peddling their own maple syrup at $12 a pint as well as an assortment of vegetables.
“All the storefronts until the ’70s were open and full,” said Glenn Morrill, 69, a longtime resident. “It just had a low point where a lot wasn’t going on.”
Today, he is upbeat about the city’s chances.
“I think fantastic things are happening for Franklin,” said Morrill, who occasionally drives a shuttle bus for Parichand’s whitewater clients. “We’re lucky to have the river.”
Among those strolling through the farmers market were Jonathan Sidman, 23, and Makayla Pixley, 21, whose purchases included wine and sausage.
The Regal Cinema in Franklin has been bought.
Last May, the couple found an apartment in Franklin in a region where “it’s really hard to find a place right now with everyone trying to get into apartments,” Pixley said.
They like to walk and exercise, and “there’s a lot of scenic spots to go to” in Franklin, she said.
She and her boyfriend are working as bakers at a new bakery called Peppercorn Farm Market & Cafe, expected to open in Plymouth late this month.
Pixley said it wasn’t clear how long they would live in Franklin. “It depends on how everything goes,” she said.
What will Franklin look like in 10 years?
“Franklin is going to be a thriving community,” predicted Milner, the city manager.
Workman, whose nonprofit organization has been involved in renovating several downtown buildings, also sees better times ahead.
“You know what the great thing is? The historic features are going to look the same because we’re all doing our best to preserve the historic architecture of these buildings and the character,” he said .
“The biggest difference is you’re going to see a lot of feet on the street,” Workman said. “You’re going to have a lot more people on the sidewalks.”