Bond to aid whitewater park raises concerns among Franklin taxpayers
The park is part of a plan to revitalize the city. Now residents are being asked to pay for it.
Lilly Cote pauses when she thinks about 2018. It was a bad year for the 76-year-old Franklin native. Her husband lost his two brothers, within a month of each other. She also lost her adult son.
But they inherited the family house after her brothers-in-law passed away – a trove of memories for her 86-year-old husband.
They’ve watched proposals come and go to revitalize the old mill city. But they’ve remained in town as other entrepreneurs have left, because Franklin is where they were born and where they’ve lived ever since.
The three rivers that run through Franklin hold the history of what the city once was – the source of textiles, hosiery, paper and wool from a dozen mills, harnessed by the power of the water.
Now the rivers tell the story about what city officials think that state’s smallest city could be – a world-renowned destination for whitewater paddlers.
But there’s a price tag to purge the past – $20 million, to be exact. And city officials are presenting it in the form of a bond that would finance road repairs, maintenance on the city’s opera house and trestle bridge and the final stages of Mill City Park – the whitewater park along the Winnipesaukee.
For the Cotes, the bond would leverage better roads (which are desperately needed) and draw people to downtown (with whom Cote likes to talk, walking down Central Street). But it also comes with a fear of being priced out of the community they’ve stood by – taxes for their two properties would increase by $1,000.
It’s an expensive gamble that seems like past empty promises – especially in a community that has historically lived below the poverty line.
For city leaders, though, it’s an innovative solution to revitalize a place plagued by decades of neglect.
$20 million proposal
An opera house that doubles as city hall sounds regal in nature. It’s a place for audiences to be entertained and city councilors to confer.
Yet the ceilings of the century-old building are stained with yellow water rings. The neglect and dilapidation are so prominent that the fire chief presented an ultimatum to city leaders earlier this year – fix the building or vacate the space.
And a drive through town means dodging potholes and crumbled pavement.
Yes, the city has a prioritized list of roads that are up for repair, but some of those streets haven’t been touched in 25 years, with other priorities funded first.
“Everything the city’s ignored for 40 years or putting Band-Aids on has come to the point that these things can’t be patched anymore,” said Seth Creighton, the city planner.
With the city’s tax cap – where the intent is to keep increases modest each year – it’s a delicate dance to spend on larger projects without breaking the spending ceiling, according to Judie Milner, the city manager.
“There is no way to get any capital under that tax cap – big-ticket items that have a useful life of over 10 years. There’s no way without utilizing a portion of the tax cap that’s designed for capital,” she said.
That’s why the city’s economic development team – including Milner and Creighton – is proposing a $20 million bond to finance portions of the water park and other city projects.
Other members of the team include Neil Cannon, a finance consultant to the city; Jim Aberg, who represents the Franklin Business and Industrial Development Corp.; and Marty Parichand, the founder of Mill City Park.
First and foremost, they said, the money will go toward necessary repair.
“We’re not building a foot of new road; we’re not getting any new sidewalk. All we’re doing is going back and catching up on deferred maintenance,” said Aberg.
But alongside maintenance is the one item that’s not – construction of the second and third phases of Mill City Park.
“This little piece, this $2.5 million of the $20 million, is going to be the piece that gives us the return on investment so we can afford the things that we’ve been deferring,” said Milner.
For a home that’s valued at $200,000 – the median value in Franklin – annual taxes would increase by $494.
That’s a hefty price tag for city residents who were told no taxpayer dollars would be used to build the water park.
But for leaders who believe the park is the key to Franklin’s revitalization, a promise can be shattered if it means the city’s future will be patched.
Over the falls
The bond’s tax impact is a looming cost that hangs over Cote’s head as she goes to the grocery store. Costs are already fluctuating when a carton of eggs holds a new price each week.
“It’s terrible if we get more taxes on top of that,” she said. “I can see how people will get forced out. Hopefully, we’re not one of them.”
That’s a concern for many Franklin residents when they first heard of the potential $500 tax increase for people who owned even modest homes.
At a recent public forum to discuss the bond, attendance was so high that Desiree McLaughlin, who owns the laundromat downtown, watched the meeting from the opera house’s balcony.
A few residents came back to the opera house the following week with similar concerns.
“I mean, it might help the tax base incrementally, but you’re talking about what $300, $400 or $500 per taxpayer per year,” said Al Warner, 63, at the May 1 city council meeting. “What’s that taxpayer getting from this? Are the sidewalks any better?”
Parichand lives in Franklin, too, and he knows he’ll see an increase on his own property tax bill.
“I don’t want the idea to be that people are getting priced out of their homes,” he said. “Nobody on the team wants to do this. But we’re very, very close to being out of options.”
McLaughlin and other residents have a simple solution – don’t do it. Franklin doesn’t need new shops or visitors, let alone a water park, to reinvigorate the city, she said.
“Franklin pride has been written on the school’s T-shirts for decades,” she said. “We were fine before you. We will be fine when you’re gone.”
But she knows that Parichand’s ideas are only the start of a slew of development ideas even if he were to back out.
“There’s always going to be a Marty looking to capitalize on this area,” she said.
But for developers, investors and city officials, the strength of Parichand’s plan is already evident.
A stagnant history
When Parichand opened his sporting goods store Outdoor New England in 2015, the vacant storefront on Central Street in Franklin was boarded up to cover the shattered windows.
He was outside his vacant store when someone walked by and quipped that they knew a kayak shop would never last.
He hadn’t even opened yet.
“This space was vacant; Vulgar Brewing Company was totally neglected. Water was coming through the walls through the ceiling, no heat, no pipes, no working electricity,” he said. “It’s a really sad thing when you have 40 years of stagnation.”
And that was the reality of many business endeavors in Franklin. Plenty of new shops opened but later shuttered their doors.
“Franklin doesn’t keep Franklin in business,” said Parichand.
Statistically, Franklin is improving. In 2012, almost 20 percent of Franklin’s population lived below the poverty line, according to U.S. Census Data. More recent data shows that number is almost a quarter of what it once was – 4.8 percent of the city’s population is now living in poverty. And it’s below the statewide 7.2 percent rate as well.
Still, not everything is rosy – the median household income of $61,664 is $20,000 below the state average.
More than half of the district’s 900 students are identified as economically disadvantaged, with 55 percent eligible for free and reduced lunch, according to NH Department of Education data.
For decades, the mills grounded the city and sustained Franklin’s economy. But when they closed, empty buildings replaced Franklin’s rich working history.
“Franklin just didn’t know what to do with itself. Everything was centered around those seven, eight or nine mills,” Milner said. “It was a walkable community, everybody walked to the mills, everybody worked for the mills. All the eggs were in that basket, and so when it was gone, it was gone and things changed.”
What followed next were empty proposals of how to reinvent the city’s identity. Anheuser-Busch talked about opening in the city. Conversations about locating the State Prison for Women in Franklin came and went.
“But none of it involved the rivers, which is really why the city of Franklin’s here,” said Milner.
Mill City Park
Mill City Park puts people directly in the river – by way of kayak, surfboard or even boogie board.
With a large laminated map, Parichand follows the Winnipesaukee River north with his finger, pointing out the three distinct phases he has planned. Each has its own main attraction – drawing a different demographic of water enthusiast.
Phase one opened in the summer of 2021, including the construction of a standing wave into the river for kayakers – a repetitive current for paddles to push against while remaining in the same spot on the river.
Phase two will introduce another wave, this time for surfers and beginner paddlers. And phase three will create an Olympic-style slalom course, meaning professional paddling competitions could come to Franklin.
It’s the first park of its kind in the New England area, which finally puts Franklin on the map as a regional tourist destination, said Parichand. People will come to kayak. And they’ll leave with a clear association of what you can do at Mill City Park in New Hampshire – similar to other New England destination spots.
“Whether you like Bath, Maine, or Portsmouth or the Cape, when you say those locations to someone, they instinctively have an idea of what’s there, why they like it and why they’ll go back,” he said.
The idea for the park stemmed from Boston’s bid to host the 2024 Olympics in 2015. At the time, Parichand had the idea to build a kayak park in Concord, where the city could host Olympic paddlers for the summer event – think of soccer games held in the English city of Manchester at Old Trafford during London’s 2012 Summer Olympics.
No, Boston is not hosting the Olympics next summer. But when the bid died, Parichand met Todd Workman, an entrepreneur and owner of several old mills in Franklin, who encouraged him to take his idea a little farther north.
When Parichand first arrived in Franklin, the plan was to use grants as the primary funding source for the fledgling nonprofit organization.
In initial applications, Mill City Park received every grant that it applied for.
But that was in 2015. With a pandemic, a looming recession and a park that is past the concept stage, it became harder to find funding for the second and third phases.
Mill City Park has had one successful grant application out of the last five submitted.
It’s time the Franklin community invested in the heart of their mill city, according to the Economic Development Team.
“We are more likely going to receive a grant if we say that, ‘Hey, we’re pitching in too,’ ” said Creighton.
There’s one catch that doesn’t sit well with the public – Parichand’s initial pitches emphasized that no taxpayer funds would be used to build the park.
“We are now in a position where we are going to go to town and ask them to make a contribution, particularly since it’s their economy that will benefit most from the investment,” said Aberg.
And in doing so, critics say city leaders, but in particular Parichand, doubled back on their promises.
“Marty … he is a charlatan. He is a used car salesman. At this point, in my opinion, without a car to sell,” said McLaughlin.
Long road ahead
Two thousand miles away, Salida, Colo., is the road map for Parichand and Franklin. An old railroad town, it holds the same once-vibrant, later turned-depressed past.
But when they opened a whitewater park, people came back.
Prior to the park opening, the lone restaurant in Salida grossed around $400,000 annually, according to Milner. Now, it grosses $6 million.
And in Franklin, Parichand is already seeing that investment.
In 2015, Eric Chinburg participated in a design charrette for the mills in the city. He vowed then and there that he’d never invest.
Just two years later, with promises of the water park, he bought Stevens Mill, which he’s now converting into 153 apartment units and commercial space.
Parichand can also name a handful of new businesses that have opened along Central Street. He won’t credit the park in their creation, but he’d like to think it played a role in their decision to pick Franklin to set up shop.
“We’re seeing a lot of redevelopment now, just because of the little that we’ve done and the promise of what’s to come,” he said.
Yet Cote worries about her nephew, who just bought a house in town. It’s not just elderly residents who are stretched thin by increased costs, she said.
“It’s the younger ones, too, who are raising a family or trying to raise families,” she said.
It’s a hard line to walk, according to city leaders. This investment would grow the tax base, lowering bills in the future.
But all of that is hypothetical. As city manager, Milner will have to ask the mayor and city council to hold a public hearing and subsequently vote on the proposal.
The timeline for doing so seems to be the end of summer, she said.
But when it goes in front of the nine-member council, at least two members will have to abstain due to conflicts of interest – Valerie Blake is on the board of Mill City Park, and Leigh Webb is president of the Franklin Opera House.
It’s a long road to regain the trust of citizens like McLaughlin, who says fact-checking the bond proposal and subsequent pieces is like a full-time job for her (and she already has two of those).
And it’s a long road ahead for councilors to weigh the return on investment of a pricey park versus the collective taxpayer concern.
“We have to go with what the residents want. All the residents, not just one party,” said Cote.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was Franklin, New Hampshire.”
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