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Picturing Franklin: Urban Renewal Brings New Hope to Former Mill Town

​By Tom Morgan via Telling True Stories

The Franklin skyline from the 6th floor of the Franklin Business Center (Credit: Tom Morgan)

Passing another “For Lease” sign, this one duct-taped to the inside of an empty storefront window, on our way down Franklin’s Main Street, we stop and snap pictures. The sidewalk is crumbling, the doorway littered: an empty pack of cigarettes, bits of straw, a broken piece of crown molding. Within the angular brick shadows of once-bustling paper and fabric mills, 8,000 cars a day pass but business has retreated elsewhere. The rail bed empty and the final mill shuttered as the town’s last hardware and grocery stores have followed the Interstate, arching east and away from downtown.

Franklin’s story is the story of America’s deindustrialization.

“For Lease” signs populate Main Street storefronts in Franklin

“I think people had lost their pride in Franklin.” — Jo Brown, owner of the Franklin Studio

The (mostly) white working class families in this once-thriving town have been hit hard the past half century, and the Great Recession brought with it a set of pernicious twins: a crippling economic landscape with an explosive opioid epidemic. The decline of businesses coupled with a citizen-imposed tax cap have prevented the city from raising revenue as the needs of the community have grown. As a consequence, 24% of the city residents are living at or below the poverty line and 58% of the school district families qualify for free and reduced school lunches. Emergency services have reported a 113% call volume increase since the 1990s. Facing a $1.3 million shortfall, the school board fired ten teachers last year. The picture of Franklin, in other words, isn’t pretty.

“Franklin is a really beautiful community, but there is not a lot of pride of place. The condition of the high school isn’t great. There are holes in the floor; the walls haven’t been painted in 15 years. Bandwidth is bad. Students complain they can’t use the internet. It’s not surprising that young families don’t want to move to Franklin.” — Andrea Costanzo, Franklin High School English Teacher.

A rainbow of exposed wires, Franklin Business Center

Amid the rising drug crisis, a declining tax base, and significant drops in school enrollment, City Manager, Elizabeth Dragon, sought a lifeline. She found one in the National Endowment for the Arts’ Citizens Institute on Rural Design (CRID). The CRID grant that Dragon secured provided funding, contacts, and expertise for the groundbreaking Franklin for a Lifetime event (2015), which brought together university experts, common citizens, non-profit leaders, community organizers, and government officials in order to brainstorm solutions to Franklin’s most pressing challenges.

“I would credit Franklin for a Lifetime with giving the city it’s first chance for improving,” Jo Brown recalls, sitting inside her newly renovated non-profit coffee shop, The Franklin Studio. “But, these old buildings are hard to rebuild and expensive to refurbish.”

Old Mill building stairs, Franklin Business Center

A spark of hope emerged out of the Franklin for a Lifetime workshop, and along with the Franklin Studio, a steady progression of Main Street storefronts have opened for business in the past two years, such as Marty Parichand’s Outdoor New England retail store, Oscar Gala Grano’s Take Root Coworking space, Matt Charlton-Nidey’s Franklin Clothing Company, Colby-Sawyer College’s Franklin Field Office, and Cast-Away Bait and Tackle. Renovations are also underway to turn the former Toad Hall art gallery into the Toad Hall Tavern featuring beer from Last Hop Brewing. Not to mention the 45 affordable CATCH Neighborhood Housing apartments being constructed inside the old Franklin Light and Power Mill.

“Once the CATCH Housing project is complete, Franklin will finally have high-quality affordable housing. I see it as an anchor for downtown.” — Elizabeth Dragon, Franklin City Manager.

Kayaking equipment for sale inside the newly renovated Outdoor New England

Lacking the ability to raise taxes above the tax cap and faced with falling municipal revenue, community leaders including Dragon, Brown, Parichand, Franklin Savings Bank’s Community Relations Officer, Sarah Stanley, and PermaCityLife’s founder, Todd Workman, have been forced to look for both creative funding sources and outside of the box solutions to jumpstart their revitalization campaign. In the works: a public-nonprofit partnership to create Mill City Park — a world class whitewater park, mountain bike pump track, community garden, and “eco-village-style campsite” — along a tract of city-owned land on the Winnipesaukee River that the Department of Resources and Economic Development estimates will generate up to $6.8 million of direct spending to the region.

“We are investing the time and effort now, as a down payment in the town’s future.” — Elizabeth Dragon, Franklin City Manager

The Winnipesaukee River flowing into downtown Franklin

To talk with any of these visionaries is to be besieged with an avalanche of government, business, and non-profit jargon and acronyms — DRED, TIF, CATCH, FBIDC, CRID — and what becomes clear is that post-industrial communities like Franklin cannot dig themselves out of their problems alone. Visionary leadership and hard work must be met with robust investments from the state and national government as well as strategic partnerships with educational institutions and non-profit organizations.

And, while a spark has ignited in Franklin, the revitalization of downtown is in the fledging stage. Dependent on outside funding and resources, there is still quite a bit of local skepticism. As one Main Street shop owner explained, “I don’t think the PermaCityLife-led revitalization thing is gonna stick; it’s just too far fetched.”

The conference room at Take Root Coworking where we worked on this project

But don’t tell that to Jo Brown or Marty Parichand or Oscar Gala Grano. Inside their newly opened businesses, the hardwood floors gleam, the brick walls lend character, and the high speed Wi-Fi hums. As Gala Grano explains, the pace of change is accelerating:

“Before we even opened our first Take Root office, a software company from Ohio had already offered rent rooms from us. Now they have three offices to themselves up here. Next month a counseling service is moving in, and all my private offices will be occupied. The open space here will still be available. Eventually, I’d love to see over 25 people a day using this space.”

Stories like Gala Grano’s are filled with optimism. My fingers are certainly crossed. As Franklin resident Yvonne Weglarz reiterated, “I have hope for this city, I really do.” And, indeed, the picture of Franklin, at least for a visionary few, is already improving.

 

 

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