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Franklin property owner leads ambitious effort to remake struggling city into permaculture destination

Last modified: 12/29/2014 1:21:00 AM
Between the two bridges on Central Street that bookend downtown Franklin, there’s a bank, a deli and a furniture store. There’s an insurance company, a whole lot of empty storefronts, and one corner of windows filled with odd creatures.

The building used to be a department store, then it was an antiques store and then it was vacant, for years.

Now, it’s a gallery for car parts that have been upcycled into sculptures – some look like bugs, others resemble men, and still others are abstract. Besides being home to these recycled life forms, the building on the corner of Central and Franklin streets is the hub of activity for a small but ambitious group, led by Todd Workman of Gilford, who hopes to change Franklin for the better – for decades to come.

Workman grew up in Gilford, left the state after college and eventually returned to his hometown. He remembers hearing the sneers Franklin drew even decades ago, but he fell in love with the city when he bought a home on Webster Lake. He sold that house last year to help finance his downtown project.

He cashed out his retirement plan, too, and invested it all in tying up properties within a 20-acre area of downtown. He hopes to turn Franklin, starting with a two-block area along Central Street, into an international permaculture destination.

What would that look like?

He explains: Picture a city with just the right balance of commercial businesses downtown – some naturopathic medical practices, some retail, some offices and restaurants. There’s green space within walking distance, and housing designed to encourage lots of generations to mingle.

Food from nearby farms feeds residents. Trash and stormwater runoff are collected and given new life and new purpose.

“Wouldn’t you want to live there? Wouldn’t you want to live somewhere where the end of the world could happen and it wouldn’t even matter?” Workman said.

Over the past year, he’s spent between $5,000 and $7,000 a month buying or leasing properties downtown, or building relationships with the building owners and selling them on his vision.

A critical mass of property has been one of the major ingredients missing in every previous attempt at revamping Franklin, and he’s poised to vault over that hurdle.

But it’s not the only one. He’ll find out next year whether he can clear the rest.

2015 will be do-or-die time for Workman’s vision of a new Franklin. It’s the year he has to stop losing money, start attracting new residents and businesses, and start showing some results.

Challenges abound

Before taking on this project, Workman has been a stockbroker, run an assisted-living facility and put together complicated real estate deals.

Over the past year, he’s perfected his pitch for a new downtown Franklin, and he sounds like a seasoned sales professional. He usually starts by outlining all the challenges he knows Franklin faces. He knows them because he’s seen them for years, on his daily commute.

“The entire world evaluates Franklin based on these two blocks of downtown, between these two bridges. I was one of those people who, you drive through Franklin, you hunch your shoulders and you shut your eyes. You say, ‘That town’s a mess.’ It has a stigma, and when you drive through downtown Franklin, you see things that remind you of that,” he said.

Franklin is the smallest and poorest city in New Hampshire. It has the second-highest concentration of lead paint.

Dozens of commercial spaces downtown are empty, and they can’t be filled because of long lists of code violations. Fixing those buildings will cost as much as it would to fix a similar building in any other city in the state, but the potential return on investment through rental income is 25 cents on the dollar, Workman said.

Franklin’s poverty rate, 21 percent, is more than twice that of the county as a whole.

It’s also stagnant. Since 1970, the city’s population has grown about 16 percent, from 7,300 to 8,450, while the population of Merrimack County has grown by more than 80 percent.

But then, Workman launches into what he sees now, after learning about permaculture and taking a fresh look at Franklin.

The city’s downtown is flat, compact and walkable. Odell Park sits behind an inviting granite arch, a lush green diamond on the oxbow of the rivers. The rivers themselves tempt anyone dreaming about renewable energy sources.

And Franklin was passed over by the urban renewal efforts in the ’60s and ’70s that tore down now-admired brick facade architecture in mill towns across the country.

In some cases, that means Franklin’s downtown buildings have structural problems that have gone unaddressed. To Workman, it means that, on the outside at least, the city looks a lot like the state’s more charming tourist spots of Portsmouth and Meredith.

He’s not the first person to envision a new life for downtown Franklin. Earlier attempts at redevelopment include at least five different design charettes, one in the late ’60s, and several around the turn of the century. They’ve sputtered and stalled in part because no one entity had control of a critical mass of downtown.

Workman feels he has momentum from a new alliance he’s formed with the other three major downtown property owners. But the path ahead is still uphill.

Millennial vision

Even if someone involved in those earlier attempts at revitalization had control of most properties, they lacked a unique vision, Workman said.

He has that in permaculture, but he acknowledges he’s not out to please everyone. He’s out to catch the attention of the Millennial Generation, those born between roughly 1980 and 2000, who care more about having an iPhone than a car. Millennials move to cities where they want to live and figure out what they’ll do for work after.

“We have to make this town have a reason to exist on the map, to not be generic-ville,” he said. “I’ll walk away if I have to dumb down the vision, because we are an aging population. If you don’t capture the youth, specifically the educated youth, you’re in serious trouble.”

First, though, he has to attract permaculture enthusiasts. The philosophy of operating in a closed, no-waste system is a big movement in Denmark, Australia and the U.K., and the first residents of the new Franklin will have to be willing to move to town before the renovations are done and more amenities are nearby.

“Right now, our marketing isn’t the glossy brochure in the tourist booth at the rest stops. That’s not who we’re trying to attract right now,” Workman said. “We’re trying to attract the innovators and early adapters who will literally move here to be the change, to be part of making this happen.”

Mayor Ken Merrifield might want to see the city take its place in the tourist brochure rack, but he said he’s happy to see anyone as enthusiastic as Workman is about the downtown.

“Todd has demonstrated a tremendous love for Franklin, for the historic nature of our downtown, and we’re very excited about the chance for success here,” Merrifield said.

But the city isn’t so excited by Workman’s plans that it’s willing to become a business partner or invest in the work. The municipal budget just can’t accommodate that, he said.

“The amount of commitment needed from the city can present difficulties. We’re not able to raise a lot of tax revenue, and we have other duties we have to provide,” Merrifield said.

City Councilor Bob Desrochers was more direct: “I hope he can do it, I really do. . . . But the city doesn’t have any money to spare,” he said.

For now, Workman isn’t looking to the city for money, just support. He’s applied for a handful of grants, and said he could do more if city staff would help with the paperwork or sign on as official public-private partners.

“It can be dangerous for a city like this to just brace itself against getting worse, against anything that could disturb the status quo, just so they don’t risk getting worse,” he said.

Big year ahead

Workman and his partners will find out next month if their application moves to a final round of consideration for a grant from Art Place America. If they win the $340,000, they plan to give away 18 months of free rent in seven storefronts to entrepreneurs with permaculture-inspired business plans. They’ll also commission and install seven permaculture-themed art pieces for public spaces, and create a “7 things after 6” program, creating or highlighting after-work activities in downtown.

Other grants could help them pay for cleaning up industrial pollution in the mills and other abandoned commercial spaces.

“But if we don’t get them, we’ll still do these things. We’ll find a way,” Workman said. “January will be big, but we’ll be working on things in January that will make April a big month, and May a big month.”

In a year or two, if it all goes well, he plans to move into a loft in one of those old, empty, abandoned mills. He’s got a corner spot all picked out.

He has no plans to run for public office and hopes he’ll be running one project, maybe the art gallery in the old department store. Maybe something else – but just one something.

“Three months from now, I don’t want to be the focus,” he said. “I don’t want to run every business. I don’t want to own every building. I want to be one person in a team of people with broad interests and broad skills. Success rests wholly on attracting the right people with different talents.”

But he also knows what he’ll do if by the end of the year, the project isn’t moving along on its own yet, and if other people aren’t investing in the vision, too. He’ll start looking for work again.

“I’m highly employable,” he said. “But chasing money doesn’t motivate me anymore. You learn over time and with certain experiences of life that chasing money is empty, it’s shallow.

“I want to make a real, tangible difference getting something here done.”

(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or spalermo@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @SPalermoNews.)


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