Plans for city riverwalk stall
NASHUA – The goal of remaking the Nashua River into a showpiece and continuing the revival of Railroad Square hit a roadblock last week when aldermen objected to one of the key features of the plan.
The decision raises questions about the city’s commitment to touted public-private partnerships to improve downtown, developers said.
Michael Conneely said the 11th-hour change throws into doubt his planned $1.5 million investment to convert the former bike shop at 48 Main St. into an Irish pub and music venue.
“I have to rethink the investment,” he said.
A dispute among the Board of Aldermen is stopping City Hall from borrowing $1.1 million to build a nearly 700-foot boardwalk along the north bank of the river off Main Street.
Opponents now fear the idea of borrowing money for the boardwalk, though supporters of the plan say tax dollars from the surrounding development will cover the cost of the bond payments.
Ward 8 Alderman David MacLaughlin, an opponent of the plan, described it as “champagne taste on a beer budget.”
He said the aldermen are dealing with a tight budget for the next fiscal year, with demands from the police and fire departments along with the school district.
Paying for a river boardwalk is “hardly justifiable” considering the financial situation, he said.
The city has targeted resources to this part of downtown as city planners hope to extend the success of Main Street’s rebirth beyond the Main Street bridge.
The aldermen laid the foundation for the project when they approved the formation of a special taxing district at 48 Main St. last fall. The board then approved a $100,000 contract for engineering and permitting work for the walkway.
The private sector is expected to spend millions of dollars on developing the riverbank, while the public sector is paying for the nearby boardwalk, called the Nashua Landing Promenade.
On Tuesday, the divided board took three votes before handing the issue off to the Finance Committee. However, the committee does not have the authority to approve the bond. A public hearing needs to be held before a bond can be issued.
The property is the city’s first tax increment financing district. City ordinances allow for TIF districts as an economic development and revitalization tool.
A TIF operates by establishing a baseline tax assessment. As the property increases in value, the increased tax revenue from the property would be earmarked to pay off the $1.1 million loan.
The first phase of the boardwalk would stretch some 100 feet, next to the former Goodale’s Bike Shop at 48 Main St., so diners could spill out from Conneely’s future pub, called The Peddler’s Daughter.
The second phase would extend the walkway and would be part of the multimillion-dollar Jackson Falls condominium project, to be built in the rear of the property on the waterfront.
Mark Maynard, the developer of the Jackson Falls condos, said he invested $50,000 to design the riverwalk into his project, and now he’ll have to redo his building and get necessary city permits because it may not be there.
“I feel the city has really reneged on its share of the agreement,” he said.
This plan had been discussed for close to a year, he said, adding he was floored by the dispute.
City Hall is split, with the mayor strongly encouraging the project to continue as planned and the aldermen too divided, Maynard said.
Considering the previous votes on the district, Maynard thought a public hearing and approval for the bond was a done deal, he said.
“I was never worried about it,” he said.
However, MacLaughlin said the board was against the idea Tuesday. The aldermen’s concerns ranged from the environmental to the fiscal, he said.
MacLaughlin said the price tag is high for only a boardwalk. He said he wants to understand the scope of the project before moving forward.
Asked why the board was hesitant since the previous Board of Aldermen gave the green light last year, MacLaughlin said times have changed since that vote in the fall, and the economy has not improved all that much.
Alderman-at-Large Jim Tollner said he voted for the establishment of the tax district, but did not recall hearing the city would borrow money to pay for the riverwalk.
The issue comes down to priorities, Tollner said.
He said aldermen are trying to borrow nearly the same amount of money to buy a new fiber-optic telecommunications system, but that also is facing opposition from board members. The benefits are higher for the city to borrow the money to pay for the telecommunications system instead of the riverwalk, he said.
“You have to pick and choose,” he said.
Also, Tollner said supporters of the project did not lay the groundwork to prepare the aldermen to deal with the issue.
Typically, aldermen would have informal conversations to let word filter out to other board members that such a pricey item was coming, he said. In this case, aldermen just found it on the agenda without prior conversations, he said.
On the other side, aldermanic President Brian McCarthy supports going forward with the project. But he said the bigger issue is the question of whether City Hall can keep its word.
McCarthy said the previous board had set policy that the walkway would be built, using a specialized tax plan, but now the city was stepping back from the commitment. Developers will not want to work with the city if they believe the city’s promises can change without warning, he said.
“It’s unlikely developers will want to listen to us in the future,” he said.
Indeed, Maynard said others constructing large projects would be reluctant to work with the city if the problem is not resolved.
On this project, McCarthy said increased property taxes from the completed building projects in the tax district would be ample to pay the roughly $100,000 bond payments.
Ward 4 Alderman Marc Plamondon said the walkway would help improve the downtown’s economic viability.
“No one’s listening to the overall cost versus the overall benefit,” said Plamondon, though he added he also has questions about the funding measure.
Conneely said his design for the interior of The Peddler’s Daughter is tied in with the boardwalk.
If it does not go forward, he would have to spend roughly $250,000 to revise his interior layout. And he does not know if that would be a wise investment.
“It behooves everybody to get on the same page,” he said.
Conneely said he was frustrated with the turn of events because the historic building combined with the walkway appealed to him. And any delay means pushing back his planned opening in early August.
“I don’t mind delaying my opening if I know (the boardwalk) is on the horizon,” he said.
Andrew Nelson can be reached at 594-6415 or firstname.lastname@example.org.