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Concord: City on the Rise
 
Published Wednesday, May 17, 2017
by KATHIE RAGSDALE


Main Street in downtown Concord. Photo courtesy of the City of Concord.


It has been the hub of state government for more than two centuries, but Concord now boasts a new self-description: NH’s Main Street—and it's an increasingly lively one.

The state’s capital city has undergone a transformation in the last few years, and the change has brought a surge of new restaurants and small businesses, new and revamped office and residential space and a reinvigoration of the arts community. The aim by government and civic officials is to make Concord not only the center of state government, but a business and cultural hub as well.  “We’re much more vibrant than we were five years ago,” says Carlos P. Baía, deputy city manager for development. “We’re poised to take off.”

The most dramatic changes have come along Main Street, which received a $14 million facelift between 2014 and 2016. Its four lanes of traffic, which many pedestrians found perilous to cross, were reduced to two. Sidewalks were widened to allow for outdoor dining and public performance space. Parking spaces were enlarged to allow for easier ingress and egress. Nearly all of the 18 buildings along Main Street that were not ADA-compliant were made accessible.

Those infrastructure improvements are accompanied by regulatory changes made by the city council, which lifted a ban on overnight parking and provided incentives to redevelop existing buildings to foster downtown residency. “Together, they triggered a tsunami effect” of growth, says Baía, explaining there has been a surge of interest from developers outside the state. “New Hampshire’s Main Street is our trademark now.”

Capitalizing on the Creative Economy
That growth has included the creative community. An unused space at the Steeplegate Mall has now become the Hatbox Theater, offering plays, comedy, music and more. The old Rumford School has been reincarnated as a community arts center. The Kimball Jenkins Estate has positioned itself as a downtown art school. Numerous eateries proffer live music at night. Sidewalk art sculptures are the latest addition to the mix.


The Kimball Jenkins Estate is among Concord's cultural offerings. Courtesy photo.


The Capitol Center for the Arts (CCA) expanded the use of its banquet room into a café to present more regional artists. It is partnering with Gibson’s Bookstore and NH Public Radio to showcase writers and is working toward opening a second performance center downtown, says Nicolette B. Clarke, CCA executive director. “When we realized the whole downtown rehabilitation was going to happen, it tied in well and we decided we needed to make another capital investment in our physical plant,” she explains. “It would be a flexible space that would allow 270 seated and we could push back the seating and have kind of a club atmosphere to appeal to 20-somethings… It really is a city on the move.” That would allow the space to accommodate 450 patrons standing.


The Capitol Center for the Arts. Courtesy photo.


In addition, the city now welcomes sidewalk performances and sets aside four “busking” locations for musicians and other performers. It further seeks to attract creatives by referring them to nonprofit CATCH Neighborhood Housing’s Mennino Place, an affordable rental community with a preference for artists.


Concord seeks to attract artists to the city with Mennino Place, an affordable rental community with a preference for creatives. Photo courtesy of the City of Concord.


“We have this level of energy in the city now,” says City Councilor Byron O. Champlin, member and past chairman of Creative Concord, a subcommittee of the Greater Concord Chamber of Commerce. “[The Capitol] Center is going to have a second performance space. Red River Theatres has an enthusiastic new executive director. Wow, wow, wow. The city is starting to hit on all eight cylinders.”


Red River Theatres in Downtown Concord. Photo by Matthew J. Mowry.


Concord’s Commerce
The energy has proven contagious. Several new craft and design stores have opened downtown. Concord Craft Brewing started operations in January, the Dos Amigos Mexican restaurant is doubling in size and some half-dozen new restaurants have come to town in the last year. Among them is Revival, a farm-to-table, upscale casual eatery, owned by chef Corey Fletcher, that opened on Depot Street in January.

 
Left: Revival Chef and owner Corey Fletcher. Right: The dining room at Revival. Photos courtesy of Revival and Pine & Bars Co.


The downtown improvements were “definitely a big factor” in his decision to open in Concord, says Fletcher, who previously worked at the Granite Restaurant and Bar and 55 Degrees in the city. “I wanted to be part of that increase in downtown business.”

The city’s overall transformation was accomplished through a series of partnerships involving the city, Chamber of Commerce, federal government and private developers with the intentional inclusion of business owners and residents who would be most affected by the changes. Some 70 public meetings were held regarding the Main Street project alone.

So closely did project organizers work with local merchants and residents, Baía says, that halfway through construction, property and business owners hosted a barbecue for construction workers.

Critical Partnerships
Chief cheerleader for the project was the chamber, which worked with Intown Concord, a downtown group that hosts festivals and other events. “The chamber partnered with Intown Concord to promote the grant process, and did a lot of lobbying and PR,” says Timothy G. Sink, chamber president. When the Community Development Finance Authority awarded a $750,000 grant for the project, the chamber sold the tax credits. “Before we even got the grant, they were all sold,” Sink notes as an indication of the level of community support for the work.

Community support is essential to growth, agrees Jayme Simoes, current chair of Creative Concord. “It’s not just public-private, it’s across the board,” he says. “It’s the community supporting the Red River Theatres, dining out, going to the Capitol Center, the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center. People want to live downtown for the first time in 20 years.”


Museum guests visit the Astronomy Gallery at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center.Courtesy photo.


That appreciation will be long-lasting, predicts City Manager Thomas J. Aspell Jr. “People like to see where their money is being spent and where the value is for them,” he says. “All these projects, people are going to use and enjoy for 50 to 100 years.”

The transformation has come despite challenges. Concord is not typically viewed as part of the Boston business corridor, says Baía, adding that some border cities like Nashua and even Manchester are able to attract business from that corridor. “It’s like the days of Columbus when people thought you’d fall off if you went too far,” he explains.

And nearly 30 percent of the city’s property value is not taxable because of governmental or nonprofit status. “Because of that, we have to work harder and smarter than a lot of places,” he says.

For example, the streetscape project on Main Street, with Severino Trucking as the contractor, was accomplished through a combination of a $4.7 million federal TIGER (U.S. Department of Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grant and $560,000 in CDFA tax credits, with the balance paid through city impact fees or bonds and tax increment financing.

Private investment has also been crucial. Several years before the Main Street streetscape project, developer Steve Duprey—credited by Baía as being a “linchpin” for change—completed two projects on South Main Street that provided initial momentum. One was a 92,000-square-foot office building, built with tax relief, and the other was redevelopment of the former John A. White Building, once a woodworking equipment manufacturing site, into a 75,000-square-foot site for offices.

Duprey, working with city and chamber officials, was also successful in locating the League of NH Craftsmen, a cultural institution in the state, into new headquarters on South Main Street when it was considering a move outside of the city. A Community Development Finance Authority grant of $1.2 million assisted, and the League now has a new facility with a much larger gallery for exhibits.


The League of NH Craftsmen's headquarters on South Main Street includes a larger gallery for exhibits. Photo by Matthew J. Mowry.


“I’m a believer that we need to keep Main Street and downtown viable, especially in this age of malls and post-malls with Amazon,” Duprey says. “The only way to help retailers survive is to have a vibrant downtown… I’ve lived in Concord for 38 years and I’ve had a 38-year love affair with the city.”

Beyond Downtown
But the downtown hasn’t been the only area to see improvements. Late last year, a new Sewalls Falls Bridge opened across the Merrimack River, replacing a 100-year-old structure, at a cost of $10 million ($8 million in federal funds and the rest paid by the city).


The Sewall Falls Bridge over the Merrimack River. Courtesy of the City of Concord.


Starting two decades ago, Horseshoe Pond, once “an empty, burned-out lumberyard,” according to Sink, was transformed with the help of the city, Capital Regional Development Council and Chamber working together to apply for a $4.4 million Community Development Finance Authority grant. The Chamber sold tax credits of $5,000 to $500,000, and the area now boasts a hotel, conference center and office park.

Such transformation could not have occurred without the help of many local, and unsung, heroes, Sink says. In addition to Aspell, Baía and Duprey, he cites Mayor Jim Bouley for doing “a fabulous job;” City Engineer Edward Roberge, who “wore the boots on the ground for Main Street and played a major role;” and Steve Heavener, director of the Capital Regional Development Council, which provides small business loans.

The late M.T. Mennino, former executive director of the Capitol Center for the Arts, has also been an inspiration, according to Champlin. “She insisted the arts were an integral part of the economy, and it was an unrealized dream she and I had,” he says.

Champlin carried forward that vision, and in 2006, it led to the creation of a Creative Economy Task Force, with 50 percent of the funding coming from the city and the rest from the business sector. Two years later, the city council approved 10 task force recommendations leading to the birth of the chamber’s Creative Concord Subcommittee, which had among its goals to retain existing creative businesses and attract more.

Hard data on how much Concord’s improvements are growing its economy and cultural base were not available. Aspell says the federal government requires TIGER grant recipients to provide regular information on job creation and economic growth, but the first report with those figures was not going to be available until mid-February, after press time for this publication. But anecdotal evidence abounds.

“We now have more than 200 events a year,” says Clarke at the Capitol Center for the Arts. Between ticketed patrons and free events, “we have 80,000 people coming through our doors, and that was not the case a few years ago.” Ticket sales alone have gone from about 50,000 five years ago to between 63,000 and 65,000 now, she adds.

Moving forward, advocates for the city say they plan to keep capitalizing on Concord’s assets—its riverside location near the I-93 and I-89 interchange, reputation as the state capital, its school system, airport, 8,000 acres of open space, 20 parks and 65 miles of hiking trails—to keep the momentum going. The city was expected to hire its first economic development director in February and there are many plans already on the drawing boards.

Among them are:

• A roundabout at exit 16 off I-93, where there is a five-street intersection, with work to begin this spring.

• A $7 million, multi-generational community center on the site of an old school in the Heights section, which has a high density of elderly, young families and refugees, according to Aspell, with work to begin this year.

• Starting in 2018, an extension of Storrs Street just east of Main Street, connecting Horseshoe Pond office park with downtown.

• A Merrimack River Greenway Trail for bikers and pedestrians to take advantage of the city’s riverside location.

• A May 6 “celebration of cultural vitality,” in Simoes’ words, that will be open to the community.

• Development of “Concord’s Front Door” to include landscaping and other measures to make the city appear more welcoming for interstate travelers, in conjunction with the upcoming expansion of I-93 in several years. The Front Door project, sponsored by the chamber and Creative Concord with help from the Duprey Companies, city Planning Department and McFarland Johnson Inc., sees the highway as a potential entryway for visitors to the city.

• A new skate house, funded through a public-private partnership with the Black Ice organization, to showcase the city that hosted the nation’s first organized hockey game on Nov. 17, 1883. That project is now under design, according to Aspell.

• More market rate and upscale housing. Developer Jon Chorlian has purchased the former Sacred Heart Catholic Church on Pleasant Street with plans to turn it into 10 units of condos that will be sold for $300,000 to $400,000. Also planned are 20 units of market-rate housing in the Remi block at the intersection of Main Street and Loudon Road. “There’s two bookends of Main Street with residential going on,” says Aspell.

“Being a government hub is important, but I see Concord as being much more of a cultural destination in the state,” says Sink. “The 93 spine moves a ton of traffic through Concord. Concord is the perfect hub for the New Hampshire experience.”


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