Signs of progress after years of effort to revitalize Franklin

Signs of progress after years of effort to revitalize Franklin

Concord Monitor | Julia Stinneford | 5/23/2021

When Jason Harrington was a teacher in Tilton, he did an activity with his students that involved an outdoor engineering project involving a white-water park that was slated to be constructed in the neighboring city of Franklin. After seeing his students’ ideas, Harrington realized that he too had one.

“It made me realize that the same people who want white water parks and things like that are the same people that want craft beer,” Harrington said.

Harrington had been a homebrewer since 2009, back when he lived in Texas. He worked for a brewing company there before he came to New Hampshire. When he learned about the potential of Mill City Park, the project to develop a white-water park in the center of Franklin, Harrington, his wife Shelly, and their friends Damon and Megan Lewis began plans to open Vulgar Brewing Company in Franklin.

The group was excited to be part of efforts to revitalize Franklin, a former mill town that missed out on the growth seen in other parts of the state.

After years of work, the fruits of their labor are being realized, with multiple attractions and businesses being built and newcomers moving to the city.

The number of construction permits have gone up every year since 2015, with 181 being given in 2015 and 293 in 2020. Many of these were for construction of accessory structures on existing properties, but numbers for commercial renovations and construction also grew, according to city planner Dick Lewis.

Multiple projects have been constructed, renovated, or are planned for the future, according to City Manager Judie Milner. These include high-end condominium units and a project involving a new grocery store and gas stations in the city.

At Vulgar, business is picking up.

“This season, we’ve seen a lot of interest in the area, we’re getting a lot more traffic,” Harrington said. He attributed this partially to loosening COVID-19 restrictions, but also to heightened interest in the park, as construction on phase one is set to be completed by the beginning of June.

“I think we’re going to see a huge uptick of visitors to the area and it should make an even bigger difference,” Harrington said. “I can’t see it going any other way but well for the area, and the surrounding towns too, by having this park go in.”

Mill City Park has been the central component of efforts to revitalize Franklin. Milner called it the “anchor” of the plans put into place by the task force set up about five years ago to reinvigorate the area, located between Concord and the Lakes Region.

“This anchors it because we’re a mill city, and we’re reusing the river for a cleaner purpose,” Milner said. The river that was previously the driver of the city’s economy can regain that level of importance, Milner said.

The park, which will offer visitors things to do on the land and in the water of the Winnipesaukee River, has drawn in investors, according to Milner, due to its tourism potential. A study run by the state said that for every two people using the water features at the new white-water park, eight to ten people will come to watch. Milner said that this equates to 162,000 visitors to Franklin in a year.

That kind of draw has had people buying buildings downtown and investing in real estate and commercial opportunities, just like the Vulgar Brewing owners. One of these is Chinburg Properties, which is currently working on putting an apartment complex into one of the city’s old mills.

This was a project, according to director of asset management Matt Assia, that Chinburg got on board with due to the city’s efforts toward revitalization.

“It was evident that the city administration and economic development folks and the local business community really were working together to transform the downtown,” Assia said. “We enjoy doing business in communities that are so connected and focused on transformative redevelopment.”

One of the main factors in this was the white-water park, and other outdoor activities nearby. Another factor was the mill itself, because Chinburg Properties has a history of refurbishing old mills for rental and commercial use.

This mill will have 147 apartments when completed, with some of its space also being devoted to commercial use, including a craft brewery. Construction will begin this summer, with the goal of being occupied in the first quarter of 2023.

Now, the city’s task force is looking to the future, Milner said. They’re considering whether to put a hotel in the city for the visitors to the white-water park. Another potential option is an entertainment venue.

“The momentum is growing and people are starting to talk about us,” Milner said. “Now things are starting to show, because there’s actual progress.”

“We’re working really hard to rebrand our city as a place to come recreate,” said interim Mayor Olivia Zink. “We really want to attract those tourists who want to enjoy our beautiful city.”

And like the others, Zink is seeing progress.

“Things are starting to happen, it’s very exciting,” she said. “We’re seeing our central street have new life.”

Franklin’s downtown is coming alive with new stores and businesses. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

The city of Franklin received 512,000 from the Transportation Alternatives Program late last month to build a pedestrian walkway over the iconic trestle bridge to connect to Mill City Park. 

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