Preservation Initiatives Promote Community Revitalization

By AnnMarie French

Cities and towns throughout New Hampshire are becoming increasingly mindful of the importance of preserving their historic character. Inspiring stories abound, such as the remarkable rescue of the Colonel Paul Wentworth House, circa 1701. Originally built in what is now Rollinsford, in 1936 the house was moved to Dover, Massachusetts. When new owners wanted to demolish the house in 2001, they donated the house to the Town of Rollinsford. Local citizens raised funds and moved the house—board by board—back to Rollinsford, to within yards of its original location. Now serving as a community arts and cultural center, the Wentworth House poignantly illustrates how a cherished local history can join citizens together.

Preservation projects often grow out of necessity, prompted by the sense of need and duty to protect historic structures. Each community approaches the concept differently, depending upon the issues of momentary concern. Whether rallying to save town hall, or to revitalize the commercial downtown center, local officials and an inspired citizenry are polishing New Hampshire communities, building by building.

Restoring Town Halls and Gathering Spaces
Built in 1895, Wakefield’s Town Hall continues to serve as the town offices, opera house, town meeting and community gathering space. Several years ago, a committee was formed to preserve the historic opera house. It was the stage curtain that prompted the community to begin to raise funds for the overhaul and, like most improvement projects, the wish list began to grow—and grow. “It started with a curtain and turned into a $2 million project," laughs Robin Frost, Town Administrator.

The building was listed in the New Hampshire Register of Historic Places in July 2002, opening the door for funding opportunities to assist in the effort to restore the structure. A New Hampshire Land and Community Heritage Investment Program (LCHIP) grant for $70,000 provided funding for phase one, including the planning and the construction of a connecting bridge to the Gafney Library next door, satisfying ADA accessibility requirements. Wakefield’s voters are very much in support of the project, having approved $100,000 in 2005 and $300,000 in 2006. With the assistance of an experienced grant writer, the town is drafting a fundraising plan for the remaining costs of the project.

Wakefield’s active Heritage Commission has spearheaded several downtown revitalization efforts. The Garvin Building was renovated, restored and sold, generating a profit then used to purchase additional structures. The sale has prompted the need to find a new home for the Historical Society and museum, and hopes are now set on the site of Turntable Park, the historic train depot. Residents have turned this long neglected green space into a gem for the downtown, restoring an important piece of shared history into a welcoming space for concerts and other activities. After leasing the park from the state for the past 15 years, the town hopes to purchase the land to make the park a source of town-owned pride. “Townspeople have worked hard for many years to make it a very nice place," says Frost.

Utilizing Historic District Designation to Guide Change
The City of Franklin is setting the stage for revitalizing downtown with an eye toward preserving its role in history. Within a three-block area, Franklin still maintains four of the five key elements of an Industrial Revolution era commercial center: government, commercial, industry and residential. The fifth element, transportation, is evidenced through the old railroad lines, which are now part of the Heritage Rail Trail.

Franklin established a Heritage Commission in January 2002, an action advocated by Mayor David Palfrey, who proposed the idea as a way to create safeguards for the improvement of downtown. The Franklin Falls Historic District was established in September 2005, however the Heritage Commission had no authority to regulate activities in the area until a June 5, 2006 city council vote granted Historic District Commission authority.

“The Heritage Commission can now draft an ordinance with some teeth to it for code enforcement to follow," notes Mayor Palfrey. “We don’t want to see boarded up windows downtown." The commission’s next step will be to draft a series of rules reflecting what will be acceptable for the district, and communicate with business and property owners in the area.

Heritage Commissions and Historic District Commissions are authorized by statute, and municipalities enjoy flexibility regarding the powers and relationship of each. “It’s a local choice: a community chooses the level of involvement for their Heritage and Historic District Commissions," says Linda Ray Wilson of the state Department of Cultural Resources. “Communities can make the decisions to suit their unique needs." Wilson finds that communities often fear that establishing these districts may tie their hands, and prevent development from happening. Franklin officials see an opportunity to guide the changes that will restore the downtown to the glory that it once was.

Franklin City Councilor Annette Andreozzi has been closely involved in local preservation activities for some time. “Franklin needs a revitalization, and it just makes sense to start with what we’ve got," states Andreozzi. Prior to being elected councilor, Andreozzi was chair of the Heritage Commission. This spring, she attended the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance annual conference with several members of the local community to draft a plan for the next steps, which include a Plan New Hampshire charrette focused on improving traffic patterns and revitalizing the downtown.

Franklin’s streets were designed to support a mill economy, at a time when workers lived downtown and walked to work. This street pattern places the city at a disadvantage when it comes to parking. In addition, an estimated 15,000 to 17,000 cars travel through downtown each day, rarely stopping to support the commercial center, a fact that has made attracting new businesses to the area all the more difficult. Yet, given the growing trend to improve walk-ability in commercial centers, careful planning may position Franklin as a uniquely desirable place to live and do business.

Officials point to a recent success story, the Franklin Antique Market: two preservation-minded businessmen from outside the area purchased and renovated a historic downtown building, and in fact, one of the owners has since moved to the city to run the store. “We hope that it can serve as a catalyst for future business," says Mayor Palfrey.

Revitalizing New Hampshire’s Main Streets
Many communities approach downtown revitalization as a multifaceted activity focused on improving the commercial core. The National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) began the Main Street program in 1980, which now boasts over 1900 active programs across the country. Here in New Hampshire, 19 communities currently participate in the program with the support of the New Hampshire Main Street Center (NHMSC). Kathy LaPlante, Director of NHMSC, calls the program an “economic development program with a focus on preservation." Since the program’s inception in New Hampshire, a total of 1901 public/private improvement projects have been completed and $166,371,478.28 has been invested. It is the leveraging of investment that is most noteworthy: In 2005, the NTHP calculated an average national reinvestment ratio of $28.31 in new investment for every dollar spent in the program.

“Revitalization is a community effort," says Jeanie Forester, Executive Director of the Greater Meredith Program. “The heartbeat of our community is the commercial district: if businesses are successful, then the community will be successful." The Greater Meredith Program (GMP) is the community’s second Main Street program. The first, launched in 1997, began to flounder after several years before closing its doors in 2002; the current program was launched in 2004 with renewed spirit and enthusiasm, and has produced an impressive array of results in just two years.

In addition to winning multiple awards at this spring’s NHMSC annual award ceremony, Meredith was honored as the Outstanding Main Street Community of the Year for 2005. Meredith Town Manager Carol Granfield feels that the win is a “credit to all of the people involved." Architect Christopher Williams is one of the many residents behind the success of Meredith. As Chair of the GMP Design Committee, he helps to guide architectural decisions for the district. “Main Streets is about trying to improve the fabric of the community from a design and an economic standpoint," notes Williams. “It benefits both the businesses and the residents."

Among Meredith’s award-winning projects is the rehabilitation of 92 Main Street. Built to replace the original town hall, in 1855 the upper floors of the structure collapsed under the weight of a large group of voters gathered for town meeting, resulting in Meredith’s “Great Catastrophe." That building was eventually torn down and replaced with the existing structure. During the 1990s, the building sat vacant and neglected, until a local citizen group, with the assistance of $10,000 from the Town, purchased the building. The group drew plans of what they wanted the building to become, then resold the structure to a developer who agreed to make the plans a reality, with two units of retail on the first floor and four units of workforce housing on the upper floors. Today, this building that had previously appraised for $40,000 is valued at over $500,000. The tax revenue to the town increased from $1,998 in 2005 to an estimated $8,000 in 2006—an impressive return on the Town’s initial investment. This project won the NHMSC 2006 award for Best Adaptive Re-Use of a Building. “This highlights the way it should be done," adds Granfield. “The Main Streets program and the Town working together. Each one supports the other for the good of the community."

For revitalization programs to be successful, support of municipal officials is critical. Members of the Littleton Board of Selectmen were honored at this spring’s award ceremony for their “unwavering support" of the Littleton Main Street program for the past 9 years. The selectmen provided consistent funding for the program in the town budget each year at a level of $15,000, and this year raised the amount to $20,000. “The selectmen have shown up at every single event, and at times have even personally supported our efforts as well," says Ruth Taylor, executive director of Littleton Main Street, Inc. (LMSI). “They are local guys, and have watched the town go up and down. They understand the value of the program." Selectman Burton Ingerson feels that the program is well worth the investment. “They got the buildings to look better and people in the stores, “ says Ingerson. “I suspect that without the program, Main Street wouldn’t be what it is today."

To encourage preservation of downtown buildings, many Main Street programs offer a grant incentive for façade improvements: a one-to-one matching grant for painting, lighting or signage. In order to receive a grant, however, the property owner must adhere to established design guidelines and participate in a review process. “Improvements can be expensive, as anyone who has ever had to paint their house knows, and these grants really make a difference for a small business," says Taylor. Since 1998, LMSI has awarded 32 façade grants of up to $500, with a required one-to-one match from the property owner, and invested $15,000 in privately raised funds, which leveraged $250,000 in projects.

Among the first communities to apply for Main Street designation, Littleton was selected as one of the first three programs in February 1997. “At the time, Wal-Mart was starting to make noise about wanting to locate here," recalls Taylor. “One of our board member’s parents lived in a Main Streets community in North Carolina, and had seen the community turn around as a result of the program." Littleton too has turned around. With a 20 percent vacancy rate in 1997, downtown Littleton now boasts an average rate of 5 percent—at times as low as 2 percent. In 2003, Littleton received the honor of becoming a Great American Main Street Community, a coveted and highly competitive national award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. (New Hampshire boasts two Great American Main Street Communities: Milford Main Street won the award in 2002.)

Communities across New Hampshire have begun to experience a renaissance as a result of initiatives to preserve the integrity of the downtown, boosting the local economy by attracting residents, tourists and new businesses. There are a great many ways to achieve the goal of preserving and revitalizing downtown. The important thing is to find the right combination of resources and energetic residents and leaders to make the dream a reality. As Kathy LaPlante often says in presentations to communities: “If you had to rebuild your town today, you couldn’t afford to do it. It just makes sense to take care of what you’ve got."

AnnMarie French is a Communications Specialist for the New Hampshire Local Government Center.

New Hampshire Main Street 2006 Best Downtown Revitalization Awards

Berlin

  • • Main Street Hero of the Year: Sylvia Poulin

Concord

  • • Best Business Retention, Expansion or Recruitment Project: Concord Cooperative Market
  • • Best New Sign: Merrimack County Savings Bank
  • • Best Building Rehabilitation, $100,000 - $250,000: The Baby Bungalow
  • • Main Street Hero of the Year: Mark Ciborowski

Dover

  • • Best Fundraising Project: “Viva! Las Vegas!" Taste of Dover & Live Auction
  • • Best Printed Publication: Downtown Dover Historic Calendar
  • • Best Image Enhancement: Tuttle Square Park

Enfield

  • • Best Interior Building Rehabilitation: Twigs Café & Bakery

Laconia

  • • Best Public Improvement Project: Laconia Public Library

Littleton

  • • Best Building Rehabilitation, $10,000 - $100,000: Eames Block Grant
  • • Main Street Business of the Year: Littleton Area Chamber of Commerce
  • • Award of Merit - Main Street Hero of the Year: Littleton Board of Selectmen

Meredith

  • • 2005 Outstanding Main Street Community of the Year
  • • Best Public/Private Partnership: Plan NH Charette
  • • Best Adaptive Re-Use of a Building: 92 Main Street
  • • Best New Construction Project: Lovering Volvo
  • • CDFA Best Design or Business Incentive Program: Extreme Makeover: Small Business Edition.
  • • Best New Sign: Welcome to Meredith
  • • Best Building Rehabilitation, $250,000 or more: Shops at Meredith Place
  • • Main Street Hero of the Year: Rusty McLear

Plymouth

  • • Award of Merit - Best Fundraising Project: Dinner on the Bridge Gala

Tilton

  • • Main Street Manager of the Year: Judy Rich
  • • Main Street Hero of the Year: Patrick Clark