Friday, July 22, 2016
As he flipped the lights on and unlocked his door Wednesday, Franklin Clothing Company Owner Matt Charlton-Nidey began another day at his month-old business. He adjusted some mannequins in the windows along Central Street, moved in black garbage bags of clothes from his car, and generally spruced up the newest bright spot in downtown Franklin.
The 28-year-old Nashua resident opened his storefront June 15 after selling gently used clothes on eBay for a year.
“It was kind of the next step,” Charlton-Nidey said. “It was really when I saw these front windows – I really wanted to do something with them.”
When he approached the building’s landlord PermaCityLife, a nonprofit dedicated to revitalizing downtown Franklin, Charlton-Nidey said the store “was not looking really great.” But with help from his landlord and volunteers this spring, the windows were cleaned, the floor was repaired, and everything got a fresh coat of paint.
Local artist Joseph Kildune made the sign above the space, too.
“Everything came together really fast,” Charlton-Nidey said.
That is the ideal scenario for Todd Workman, the fast-talking, big-thinking and determined executive director of PermaCityLife. Workman, a Gilford resident currently staying at a friend’s house on Webster Lake, has been working for more than two years to gather funds, property, collaborations and momentum to fulfill a grand vision: the revitalization of downtown Franklin using permaculture principles to create a resilient, viable, vibrant and sustainable city.
Now with three mill buildings and seven other properties, enthusiastic partners and many, many projects under way, Workman said, “We’re knee deep.”
After decades of design charettes – beginning in 1967 after the city’s historic mills were shuttered – and ideas never coming to fruition, he said, “You’re about to start seeing visible changes.”
Signs of big dreams
Some signs of progress in Franklin are more apparent than others. Franklin Clothing Company, the candy store Central Sweets, and the volunteer-run coffee shop Franklin Studio have all brightened up downtown as they’ve opened over the past year.
Other projects in the works show promise, such as the whitewater rental shop, education center and recreation business Outdoor New England (ONE), which has had kayaks in its windows as the floors, ceiling and storefront get renovated.
More ventures are in the beginning stages, or are still not visible.
Toad Hall, formerly Joseph Kildune’s art space filled with mythical creatures (and presidential candidates) sculpted out of old car parts, was the center of Workman’s operations for the first few years. Now, however, the space is empty and is under renovation for its next iteration: a 97-seat restaurant and pub called Toad Hall Tavern expected to open in November.
On the third floor of the building, Workman said he’s installed a penthouse suite for a higher-income resident, and he’s renovated more apartments in his other buildings.
“To put a downtown together and do it right, you have to have a downtown be appealing to all ages and all income levels,” Workman said.
Below Toad Hall Tavern, Last Hop Brewing will install a micro-brewery in Franklin Street corner building, Workman said, and the second floor is now merged with the building next door.
To get to that second floor, visitors enter 359 Central St., and pass through a door with an inconspicuous sign reading “Take Root Co-working.” Up some stairs to the left is a large room lit by wide windows, dotted with desks and chairs, and backed by an informal kitchen. To the right are private offices, conference rooms and smaller, shared office space.
The co-working center, cultivated by Salisbury resident Oscar Gala Grano in partnership with PermaCityLife for the past year and a half, will offer shared office space for people like himself, a programmer running his own business called JINFO.
On Wednesday, Gala Grano was putting some art on the walls and finishing up the stairs landing. He said he already had two people in the private office spaces, and the larger room he expects to open Aug. 1.
Unseen by just walking down Central Street in Franklin are more businesses Workman said have moved into his buildings: predictive analytical software company Prevedere Software, Social Distance Films, and more.
Another less obvious though well-developed idea will be hosted in the empty “Hair Doctors” storefront next to the co-working center. Colby-Sawyer College is beginning a new, three-year bachelor’s degree program in community-based sustainability in the fall, which will do hands-on course work in partnership with PermaCityLife.
CSC Director of Sustainability Jennifer White said by phone Monday, “It’s exciting for us to be able to have a presence down in Franklin.” Students will take occasional visits to the city for classes this fall, and then will have two intensive classes in the winter and spring where they will work on projects in the city.
“It’s like having an enthusiastic workforce at your fingertips,” said White, who has worked closely with Workman over the years. She added of his efforts, “When people meet him . . . they’re so surprised by how many things he’s doing and keeping track of at the same time.”
White said Workman has gone about his work in the right way, building partnerships and getting more people on board.
“If you empower some key folks in the community and give them the information they need to participate and get engaged,” White said, “sometimes people just need the tools to do that and it just kind of catches on on its own.”
Standing in the former Hair Doctors’ business space last month and surrounded by building materials, a peeling ceiling and a lot of renovating to do, Workman said he feels like he’s no longer alone in trying to fulfill his vision.
“There are so many people who have been waiting to believe in Franklin,” Workman said.
With the dozen or so dedicated volunteers he has, Workman added, “It’s a team project now. It grows everyday.”
Workman was a believer from the beginning, enough so to sell his own home on Webster Lake and cash in his retirement savings to purchase the properties now owned by PermaCityLife. He didn’t earn a paycheck for two years.
“I was a placeholder,” he said. “I took a leap of faith and a lot of personal risk. Just about tipping the change jar upside down.”
PermaCityLife was formed last year and bought the properties, and now, Franklin Business and Industrial Development Corporation (FBIDC) acts as a fiscal agent to apply for grants.
Franklin Savings Bank also provided a $30,000 donation to PermaCityLife earlier this year.
In addition, Workman said FBIDC “back stopped” PermaCityLife by providing extra collateral damage and loan guarantee, with the stipulation that PermaCityLife provide its executive director – Workman – with a salary.
FBIDC told the Monitor it could not confirm this stipulation by press time.
With financial backing and the ability to apply for government grants, the Franklin revitalization project has made some considerable progress. The Riverbend Mill building, for instance, is undergoing renovation this fall thanks to a partnership between PermaCityLife and CATCH Housing.
Just a year after a 45-unit, nearly $12 million affordable housing project was proposed, the funds were garnered through various grants, tax credits and local financing.
Another large project – facade restoration along much of downtown Franklin – is possible if the city garners a $500,000 tax credit from the Community Development Finance Authority.
“That’s absolutely critical,” said Franklin Downtown Coordinator Niel Cannon. “We need to jumpstart Franklin.”
He added that from his perspective, the highest priorities for Franklin are creating an attractive downtown for businesses and making the mill district more accessible and more development ready.
A unified vision?
In FBIDC Executive Director Jim Aberg’s eyes, PermaCityLife and the man behind it are starting to change attitudes in Franklin.
“I think as the work has progressed and progress is being made, I think PermaCityLife has gained quite a bit of credibility,” Aberg said Tuesday. “I think he’s getting more and more folks saying, this is going to happen.”
Franklin City Manager Elizabeth Dragon said though the city and Workman weren’t always in sync, they are now.
“I think that initially there was a lot of skepticism about how realistic some of the plans were,” Dragon said. “It really has evolved.” In addition to herself and other city staff dedicating hours to meeting and providing information to PermaCityLife, Dragon said she’s seeing residents become interested, too.
“I really have heard a lot more enthusiasm,” she said, adding that several Pittsfield residents have called asking for ideas about what they can do in their own town. “Something is happening, something good is happening, and that’s exciting for people.”
Some of that enthusiasm was voiced during a walking tour around downtown Franklin last month for the “Franklin for a lifetime: A Year Later” event. As Workman described his vision to several dozen people, resident Denise Steadman said, “I like this guy. I’m so excited.”
There may have also been some incredulous looks in the crowd when Workman began describing plans for a whitewater rafting park in the Winnipesaukee River or a beer-tasting patio behind Buell’s Block, given Franklin’s past failed attempts to bring its city back.
Outdoor New England founder Marty Parichand said Wednesday that he was recently renovating his storefront when a passerby walked in, wrongly interpreted that he was closing the space, and said that he knew it would happen.
“That’s kind of the perception that some people have – it can’t happen here because it hasn’t happened here in the last 30 years,” Parichand said. He added that he felt more of the Franklin community could be informed about PermaCityLife, and perhaps that would help show it’s not all just some passing project.
Pointing to his newly installed ceiling finished at 1 a.m. that morning, Parichand – who still works full-time and does everything at night and on the weekends – said, “This amount of commitment to this space really shows I’m not a pop up business.”
He added that there’s been setbacks and adjustments, but the work has been kept going by the growing support in the community.
“I think it’s okay to dream big with this team,” Parichand said.