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Democrats critical of Sununu’s budget allocating money for Franklin whitewater park, other projects

  • Timothy Morrill of Franklin busts through the rapids at the base of the trestle near downtown Franklin on Friday, March 22, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Timothy Morrill of Franklin busts through the rapids at the base of the trestle near downtown Franklin on Friday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Timothy Morrill of Franklin busts through the rapids at the base of the trestle near downtown Franklin on Friday, March 22, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Timothy Morrill of Franklin busts through the rapids at the base of the trestle near downtown Franklin on Friday, March 22, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Andrew Fournier of Northfield swirls around the bottom of the Winnipesaukee River after kayaking with friends on Friday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 3/23/2019 5:03:27 PM

Groups of paddlers from across New England knifing through the Winnipesaukee River at a whitewater park will bring more than just fun and tourism to Franklin.

It’s a way the former mill city plans to reinvent itself, city manager Judie Milner said. By growing its tax base through business and tourism, Franklin will be able to better address its critical issues of school funding, the property tax burden, the opioid crisis and homelessness.

“We are all in on this project,” Milner said. “As we see it, outdoor recreation is our city’s future. Funding for the schools, taxes, economic development, it all plays into that master plan.”

The city was overjoyed when Gov. Chris Sununu allocated $1.5 million in his proposed budget for next year toward construction of the whitewater park in one-time aid from state surplus funds.

But down the road in Concord, Democrats have been critical of the funds allocated to projects like Franklin’s whitewater park in Sununu’s Capital Infrastructure Revitalization Fund budget, $168.4 million total.

“If we care about children, we should first fund child protection and child safety, not water parks and skate parks,” Sen. Dan Feltes said after a Thursday press conference on the governor’s budget.

Projects in Sununu’s budget include everything from money to rebuild Lacona’s Weirs Beach boardwalk to funding for the rehabilitation of red list dams. Legislators like Feltes are saying more money should go toward education funding, property tax relief, the mental health crisis and the opioid epidemic.

“Granite Staters deserve a budget that works for everyone, not just those hand-selected by the governor,” said Rep. Mary Jane Wallner of Concord, chair of the House Finance Committee.

Those in Franklin argue that they are the people most hard hit by these issues – Franklin is the poorest city in the state with the second lowest rate of residents going on to higher education.

Many people feel failed by the state’s rollback on initiatives like stabilization funding for schools. They see the whitewater park as a long-term, sustainable solution.

“I truly believe that in Franklin we need to think differently,” said Marty Parichand, executive director of Mill City Park, the non-profit behind the whitewater park. “We need to think outside of the box in order to survive.”

Blueprints of the whitewater park are done, but funding has been a challenge, Parichand said. In four years, Mill City Park has received a $250,000 donation from Franklin Savings Bank and grants from the state department of transportation and the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund totaling $712,000.

The money from Sununu’s budget would be a massive dent in the around $2 million to $2.5 million needed to complete the park’s water features: waves for surfers with boards, a novice to intermediate freestyle kayaking hole, as well as the stadium seating near Trestle View Park and a river-level walking path.

In the next few weeks, members of the Finance Committee will be looking through Sununu’s budget and adjusting it in the way they feel best fits the state’s needs. This means some projects may be taken off the list.

“We’re going to take a really long hard look at the items on this special fund that is set up and make sure they are state projects and have been vetted,” Wallner said. “I think we need to look at this as what all communities in the state need and not try to carve out your winners and losers.”

Franklin’s needs

Once a bustling mill city, Franklin has suffered in recent years without the industry the mills brought in.

The downtown has lost businesses that haven’t been replaced. The schools have struggled to find funding: for the last four years, the school budget has been around $1 million short.

Supporters of the whitewater park project see the park as something that could turn that around. The park is estimated to bring in $6.8 million and 160,000 visitors a year.

The design for the Mill City Park project is based on other whitewater parks, mostly in the west, where cities wanted to rebuild their economy after losing industry from the railroads. The water park in Franklin would be the first of its kind in New England.

In addition to the water features, the project will also include an 11-acre park that will house a tent-camping area, a community garden, pavilion, two public bathrooms, picnic areas, hiking trails, a parking area, a climbing wall and a mountain bike pump track system, Parichand said.

The design will also incorporate Franklin’s history as a mill city.

There are the sites of three former mills on the proposed park property that Parichand wants to incorporate into the park in an educational way that will allow people to see, touch and interact with the history safely, while also preserving it. One way to do that is through a proposed climbing wall on some of the old ruins on the southeastern end of the park.

Parichand said the organization is also working to be as environmentally conscious as possible. All structures on site will utilize solar electric or other renewable energy power sources, he said.

Parichand said the park will eventually pay for itself.

According to a 2015 Plymouth University report, at least 35 percent of direct spending in the state by tourists is on accommodations and meals. With the 9 percent rooms and meals tax in New Hampshire, generating $215,000 a year, the $1.5 million will be taken care of in seven years with new revenue, Parichand said.

“That’s a sustainable and strategic investment,” he said.

Milner said it makes sense to use one-time money for a one-time investment.

“This will provide more revenues to support the more sustainable initiatives down the road in the state’s budget,” she said. “I think it’s with good foresight that the governor decided to think of us for this money. Sometimes, it’s painful because they aren’t seeing things right away, but it takes time for revenue to come in.”

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