Walkway plan has support on board

NASHUA – At least 11 aldermen support the Nashua Riverfront Promenade, one more than needed for the project that supporters say would enliven the Railroad Square neighborhood, according to a poll of aldermen by The Telegraph.

The project needs 10 votes to be successful tonight, when the Board of Aldermen considers borrowing $1.1 million to erect the nearly 700-foot boardwalk along the north bank of the Nashua River off Main Street.

A tax increment finance district approved in the fall would pay for the project. New tax revenues from the construction of developer Mark Maynard’s five-story, 22-unit Jackson Falls condominium project and the conversion of the former Goodale’s Bike Shop on Main Street into an Irish pub and music venue would be used to pay off the bond, officials said.

Supporters say they are confident the condo and pub development along the riverbank would repay the borrowed money and contribute to the revival of the neighborhood. They also say business owners must be able to trust City Hall when it embarks on a public-private venture.

But opponents say the city should not borrow any more money given its financial situation. They also question the usefulness of the so-called TIF district and the value of what the city would get for the money.

Based on a survey by The Telegraph, supporters include Aldermen-at-Large Steve Bolton, David Deane, Brian McCarthy and Jim Tollner, along with Ward 1 Alderman Kathryn Vitale, Ward 2 Alderman Richard LaRose, Ward 3 Alderman Kevin Gage, Ward 4 Alderman Marc Plamondon, Ward 5 Alderman David Lozeau, Ward 7 Alderman Lori Cardin and Ward 9 Alderman Robert Shaw.

Opponents include Aldermen-at-Large David Rootovich, Paula Johnson and Ward 9 Alderman David MacLaughlin.

Ward 6 Alderman Robert Dion could not be reached for comment.

The issue once divided the aldermen so much they could not agree to hold a hearing on the walkway.

But the project has gained the attention of the public, especially those with an interest in downtown. Nearly 90 people came out to urge the Finance Committee to support the project on July 1.

Committee members passed the legislation that night on a 4-2 vote, with Dion and Rootovich opposed.

John Mitterholzer, executive director of the Great American Downtown, said his organization has lobbied aldermen to endorse the project.

The investment would be the biggest project downtown for the next few years, he said.

Community Development Director Kathy Hersh said the project has been scaled back by about $100,000 in response to aldermen’s concerns.

The wooden walkway is estimated to cost $964,000, with the remainder paying for the infrastructure to support it, she said.

Some aldermen, who once expressed doubts about the idea, have swung to the supporters’ side.

LaRose, the Ward 2 alderman, said he feels more confident about the project after talking with the developer of the planned condominium complex, one of the cornerstones of the north bank’s development.

“Sometimes the city has to back projects and spend money to make money,” he said.

The project is on the edge of Ward 3 and has the backing of Gage, that ward’s alderman.

Gage said he has concerns about a needed police presence in the area, but overall, he favors borrowing the money.

“There are very positive things around it. It’ll add to the downtown,” he said.

A dry cleaning business, a hair salon, a Chinese restaurant and other businesses are already located in Railroad Square, Gage said. The project could help replace an outdated bad reputation that people associate with Railroad Square, he said.

Conversely, Rootovich, who said he would miss the vote because of a long-planned vacation, said he does not want the city to borrow any more money unless it is an emergency.

He called the TIF district a “shell game” because it takes the increased tax revenue away from the general revenue fund and pays back the borrowed money instead of reducing the tax rate.

MacLaughlin, the Ward 9 alderman, said he fears the project could be a costly down payment for future requests for a walkway around the Nashua River downtown.

He figures the city is paying close to $1,500 per foot for the 700-foot walkway.

“We are not talking about a great distance, but we are talking about a lot of money, he said.

Besides, MacLaughlin said, developers are willing to go forward with the project whether the city builds the walkway or not.

Johnson said she fears the condos will not be built since the developer asked for a permit extension and taxpayers will be responsible for paying the bond.

People disparage the idea of the city changing its mind, but other private-public ventures have changed because of the private sector, such as the reduced rental fees in the contract with the Nashua Pride, and few people make noise about that, she said.

McCarthy, who along with Ward 4’s Plamondon was an original sponsor of the legislation, said the project takes advantage of the city’s natural resources, along with attracting a destination class of businesses to the square.

Lozeau of Ward 5 said he supports it because it would be a plus for downtown business and the continued revitalization of the city center.

Tollner moved from a skeptic to a supporter after the city agreed not to pay for items such as historic-era windows, which be believes should be the responsibility of the developer.

Tollner said he wants to fulfill the public sector’s commitment that was debated around the tax increment financing.

The project ranged between $700,000 to $900,000, he said, adding he is comfortable with the $964,000 price tag.

“It’s in the ballpark. Hopefully, we can move forward with it,” he said, noting he has a business meeting in Washington, D.C., today but hopes to make the meeting.

Bolton said the project would be a positive addition on the city’s part to that area of downtown, plus the investment would be more than paid for through the reserved tax revenues.

And other establishments around Railroad Square could benefit from a positive economic spinoff from the investment, he said.

At the same time, however, Bolton said he did not like how City Hall’s endorsement of the project seems to be a payback for campaign support.

Mayor Bernie Streeter rented the former Goodale’s for $200 a month during his mayoral campaign against Bolton. It was a bad business decision for the then-building owner to get involved with the mayoral campaign, Bolton said.