VHB partners with Franklin and Mill City Park to open Northeast's first whitewater park

VHB partners with Franklin and Mill City Park to open Northeast's firs

Union Leader | From VHB | February 21, 2023

Photo Provided by VHB: This photo shows construction of the cofferdam foundation in the Mill City Park whitewater rafting park in Franklin.

Photo Provided by VHB: Kayakers enjoy the river rapids at Mill City Park in Franklin as people watch from newly built amphitheater-style seating.

Franklin city leaders estimate new venue will bring 185,000 annual visitors and $6.8 million economic boost.

RECONNECTING AN economically challenged former mill town to a river once so vital to its well-being comes with hurdles. As the first park of its kind in the Northeast, Mill City Park in Franklin was subject to an unprecedented environmental review process. With an ambitious master plan anchored by a 13-acre whitewater park and an adjacent 21-acre conservation area, the city envisioned a rebrand around outdoor recreation.

Construction began in 2021 with future phases planned for 2023 and beyond. Plans for the land-based recreation area envision a mountain bike pump track, a multi-use trail network, campsites, an amphitheater, and more.

VHB’s engineers, scientists, and cultural resources team partnered with the city of Franklin on this unique community revitalization project to transform 1,600 feet of the Winnipesaukee River into the Northeast’s first whitewater park. Working closely with the city, non-profit Mill City Park, and Colorado-based design firm Recreation Engineering and Planning (REP), VHB is helping modify a 1.25-mile stretch of Class III and IV rapids with engineered features, creating new and enhanced kayaking and river surfing opportunities. The project team also navigated the complexities of designing around historic ruins.

The VHB team completed a full inventory of natural and cultural resources within and along the river and assisted with a hydraulic model to understand river flow data. Engaging with various resource agencies early in the permitting and design processes, the team progressed the project through rigorous environmental permitting in only nine months. As a publicly funded project, avoiding unnecessary costs and delays was paramount.

The project team developed green infrastructure to manage stormwater and cleared 22 types of invasive species to restore the ecology of the park area. Known as “a standing wave,” the first whitewater feature opened in June 2022 and has received praise from boaters and residents.

For the land-based park, VHB’s civil engineers designed a sustainable layout for the first phase, blending existing natural features with innovative design solutions in environmentally sensitive areas. VHB was an essential resource for the city during construction, keeping the project on track and coordinating river flows directly with the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services (NHDES) Dam Bureau.

“Mill City Park has the potential to transform Franklin from a forgotten mill city to a viable player in the Lakes Region’s tourism industry,” said Franklin City Manager Judie Milner.

The city’s renewal is already under way, with a new coffee shop, two new restaurants, and two new microbreweries, as well as the redevelopment of former mill buildings that include over 150 apartments and 27,000 square feet of commercial space. City leaders estimate that the free, year-round recreational venue will bring up to 185,000 visitors annually and reinvigorate the region’s economy with up to $6.8 million of direct spending.

Environmental Services Principal Pete Walker, who managed the project at VHB, said, “I feel privileged to have worked with such a passionate group of visionaries who continuously strive to make a difference for their community. This project is not only about creating New England’s first whitewater park, but also about developing a new and lasting community energy for the city of Franklin.”

Annique Fleurock, PE, Water Resource Engineer at VHB, and Marty Parichand, Executive Director of Mill City Park, will be giving a presentation about the Franklin Whitewater Park at the New Hampshire Society of Professional Engineers’ Engineers Week Banquet on Thursday.


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