Franklin, New Hampshire’s smallest and poorest city sits at the confluence of two rivers, the Winnipesaukee and Pemigewasset, that thread together downstream to form the Merrimack. As is typical of cities along rivers, Franklin got its economic start in the 1700s by using power from the river to run manufacturing process in industrial mills that lined river banks. These mills were the primary source of the economic success of Franklin’s early years. Central Street, which forms the main downtown, was lined with furniture stores, drug stores, grocers, hotels, entertainment venues such as roller rink, pool hall and opera house, and other specialty shops and services. The City was prosperous throughout the age of the mills; however, as mills began to close in the 1970s, the City began a prolonged period of decline and disinvestment in our historic downtown buildings.
A Local Solution
Since 1967, boosters for revitalizing Franklin’s downtown have held at least five charettes, suggesting new curbs, vegetation, facades and other cosmetic changes to encourage investment and draw businesses to the neighborhood. Yet these plans and directives have not transitioned beyond planning into physical implementation. Todd Workman, Executive Director of PermaCityLife, believes that the most recent charrette grounded in the principles of permaculture will bring about the transition the city needs.
Having grown up in the nearby town of Gilford, Workman remembers the glory days of Franklin decades ago, yet he rarely spent any time in Franklin. After buying a home on Webster Lake, he walked around the downtown and wondered why the city so rich in heritage and natural resources never returned back to its state of prosperity. He imagined a transformed city—a model of a resilient, vibrant, diverse and sustainable community. So, he began connecting with others who shared a similar vision, and formed PermaCityLife with the sole purpose of bringing Franklin Falls Revitalization Plan to life.
Our vision is to create a model for cities to become more self-reliant and to transition away from their dependence on fossil fuels with an emphasis on protecting our drinking water, creating renewable energy, ensuring local food supplies, and implementing zero waste measures. We hope to pioneer a new approach to building a collaborative and resilient downtown, turning downtown into a vibrant micro-urban centerpiece. Our movement is focused on environmentally conscious living and quality of life measures. We desire a downtown that is walkable, locally sustainable, and has a distinctive sense of place. We encourage pedestrians and expanded bicycle facilities along with car reduced transportation measures. As a homegrown city we take pride in preserving our historic storefronts and mill buildings. Creating an optimal mix of building and space uses will enable us to become an economically vibrant mixed-use commercial district.
This is the largest adaptive reuse project in Franklin’s history. We’ve acquired seven large block buildings and three of the mills. Carefully selected development projects are underway that will set into motion a new logic for our downtown. Reactivating our dormant mill buildings is a priority with the capacity to trigger a ripple effect of multidimensional change that will fundamentally remake the value and function of our downtown.
With the creation of the PermaCityLife and accumulation of sufficient real estate to reach critical mass, we are now positioned to carry forward the vision that has been laid out and supported by the community. Yet, the market alone will not drive development in downtown Franklin. Our group is taking the lead role to identify and structure creative public-private financing and partner opportunities to provide the needed gap financing. Innovative approaches will speed up the development process and lower the costs and risks of development. The basic reason to establish PermaCityLife is to take the “financial burden” of showing the way. This redevelopment work will tempt outside investment and bolster local confidence.