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Downtown: New friends group seeks common ground on redesign

The Concord City Council will meet tonight about the Main Street redesign project, but a new group of residents is already looking beyond the design process.

The informal group, called “Friends of Downtown,” aims to gather support for businesses in downtown Concord, said founder and organizer Althea Barton.

“I really don’t think you can look at the Friends of Downtown as being anything other than people who love downtown and want to help out at a tough time,” she said.

Friends of Downtown has support from individuals and groups that had asked the city’s Main Street advisory committee to look beyond parking, such as the Central New Hampshire Bicycling Coalition and the Capital Area Wellness Coalition. Concern over lost parking spaces could limit the ability to widen sidewalks, transform Main Street or increase safety for pedestrians and bicyclists, they argued. Their views were at odds with those of many downtown merchants, who lobbied the committee to maintain the current number of angled parking spaces on Main Street.

But Barton said the new group isn’t advocating for any one design. Instead, she’s “harnessing that energy” surrounding the project.

Barton said she decided to form the group after she attended the Nov. 7 public form hosted by the advisory committee. The meeting was

moderated by New Hampshire Listens, an initiative of the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey Institute that helps people discuss difficult issues. Participants were split into small groups to discuss their ideas for the $7.85 million Main Street redesign project, for which the city received a $4.71 million grant this year.

The event generated enthusiasm about improving downtown Concord, Barton said, and it also helped her understand why business owners have concerns about the project.

“So I tried to put myself in their shoes and think about the project from their point of view,” she said. “And I realized that, in particular, the construction process would be a time of . . . worry and concern for them.”

Barton said she plans to meet with downtown merchants to ask how she can help them.

Gerry Mark, owner of Caring Gifts on North Main Street, said he thinks the group could be a positive step, or a “warm and fuzzy reach out” to merchants.

“I saw that as a reaching out to all of us, to say, ‘Hey we’re all in this together, we all have much to gain, we all are going to go through this construction pain,’ ” Mark said. “So I look at it as something positive. Maybe they’ve come to the realization that of all the groups that are participating here, the merchants actually stand to lose the most, only because the construction will affect us.”

Maura Adams, a board member for the Central New Hampshire Bicycling Coalition, said she is working with Friends of Downtown, which she sees as “just wanting a great downtown and finding creative ways to support that.”

Adams said she and other cyclists met with some downtown business and property owners earlier this month, before the Main Street advisory committee’s final report.

“It was wonderful because actually talking to the merchants about their issues and letting them know that we’re not a bunch of crazy radicals was just so healthy and it really kind of made it clear just how much we have in common: This should not be an adversarial thing; that we all are looking for great public spaces,” she said.

By rallying support for local businesses, Adams said Friends of Downtown can continue to find common ground with merchants.

The group has a Facebook page and sponsored an event Saturday encouraging residents to walk around downtown and shop. Barton said she doesn’t know what will come next; she hopes to hold an organizational meeting this week.

Liza Poinier, operations manager at Intown Concord, said her organization hopes to collaborate with Friends of Downtown as it grows. (The Monitor is one of Intown Concord’s corporate sponsors.)

“Intown Concord applauds the group’s efforts to get folks downtown and actively rally support for local businesses – now, and for the duration of the Complete Streets project,” Poinier said in an email. “It’s going to be especially important to let customers know that not only will downtown Concord be open for business during the planning and construction phase, but also that businesses are committed to keeping things going – and exciting things are happening that will make it better than ever.”

Although Intown Concord and groups like the Merchants Roundtable are already in place to organize support for downtown Concord, Barton said Friends of Downtown can organize residents with new ideas.

“Where I see us adding value is in maybe linking energy and enthusiasm of residents and individuals with the downtown businesses,” she said.

Meanwhile, the city is moving forward with its plans for redesigning 12 blocks of Main Street. The city council will meet at 7 tonight for a public hearing and vote on the Main Street advisory committee’s recommendations.

The committee’s report recommends reducing traffic to two wide lanes with a crossable center median. It also suggests converting angled parking to parallel parking on one side or along sections of Main Street, but only if the loss of parking spaces is limited. The committee recommended losing no more than five spaces in addition to those that would already be eliminated by the project between Centre and Pleasant streets. City officials have estimated the project will eliminate about 16 parking spaces in that area to meet safety and accessibility standards.

Pop-up shops

Two shops have opened on South Main Street for the holiday season.

Concord Handmade is back for a second year on Main Street. Kaza Designs, which closed its daily shop operations in June to focus on wholesale business, will return to retail sales for six weeks. Both shops opened Friday

Alison Murphy, owner of Concord Handmade, said she is selling gifts made by 50 different New England artists and will remain open until Dec. 29.

Murphy opened Concord Handmade for the first time last holiday season, on the corner of Main and Pleasant streets. This year, the shop is at 67 S. Main St., in the same building as The Draft sports bar.

“It was fabulous last year,” Murphy said. “It was really exciting because I’ve wanted to do it for years.”

The store’s homemade items include jewelry, toys, photographs and Christmas decorations, Murphy said.

Kaza Designs opened in 2007 on South Main Street, next door to Vinnie’s Pizzeria, and closed its daily retail operations in June, owner Lisa Swan said. Now it’s back for six weeks at 202 S. Main St.

Swan sells locally made furniture, home decor and artwork. Since she closed the retail shop in June, she’s been developing a wholesale catalog. Twenty-three shops across the country have expressed interest in her product line, she said. The shop now has “a totally different look,” Swan said.

“It’s very eclectic but it’s all part of our product line,” she said.

Sign swap

The green and gold “French’s Toy Shop” sign on North State Street will soon be replaced with a blue and yellow sign with the words “The Toy Shop.”

But that doesn’t mean the shop has a new name or owner – those changes came last year, when Lori Leitner opened The Toy Shop.

Leitner ran French’s Toy Shop with her ex-husband, Warren Brown, from 2005 until their divorce in 2009.

Brown closed French’s Toy Shop last summer, and Leitner returned last October as The Toy Shop. The French family still owns the 10 N. State St. building.

Leitner also has a toy shop at the Mall of New Hampshire in Manchester with the same name.

Her application for a new sign will go before the Concord Planning Board on Wednesday. She said her father made the blue sign, with yellow letters and chess pieces.

“I’m trying to grab people’s attention with the new sign,” Leitner said.

As for the old French’s sign, painted with a toy soldier, drum and doll?

“I was actually going to call the Frenches . . . to see if they wanted to take it,” Leitner said.

New nail salon

South Main Street has a new business: Roy Nails and Spa opened a few weeks ago at 31 S. Main St.

Co-owner Jimmy Vu said the spa offers manicures and pedicures. He hopes to provide facials in the future.

Downtown art

The Greater Concord Chamber of Commerce is hosting an art tour Saturday.

There are more than 10 venues participating in the tour, including: Kimball Jenkins School of Art, the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen, the McAuliffe-Shepard Discover Center, Red River Theatres, Rowland Studio and The Works Bakery Cafe.

The event is free and open to the public. Maps, brochures and refreshments will be available at each location from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. Saturday.

(Laura McCrystal can be reached at 369-3312 or
lmccrystal@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @lmccrystal.)

Nice article. Anyone wishing to learn more about the Friends of Downtown or wanting to help out can check out the group's Facebook page at Friends of Downtown Concord. Thanks!

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