High-end condominiums for sale in downtown Franklin – yes, Franklin

  • Todd Workman looks up at the gold-colored covering atop a huge room with its own stage where the IOOF social organization once put on plays and held public events on Central Street in downtown Franklin on Tuesday. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • Todd Workman shows a painting of the old bathroom in front of the new bathroom in the luxury condo in the former IOOF building on Central Street in downtown Franklin on Tuesday, May 24, 2022. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • The outside of the former IOOF building that has a Franklin Savings Bank Company office on the street level. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Mark Muzzey of Muzzey’s Floor Sanding wipes down a floor in one of the luxury condos in the old IOOF building in downtown Franklin on Tuesday. Muzzey sanded and polished all the floors in the building to a glossy shine.

  • Todd Workman looks up at the skylight atop the third floor luxury condo in the former IOOF building on Central Street in downtown Franklin on Tuesday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 5/24/2022 4:48:08 PM

It has been a long time coming and it still has a ways to go, but to an extent the rebirth of downtown Franklin can be seen in the 12-foot ceilings of the International Order of Odd Fellows building’s second floor, neglected for decades but now shining.

“Restoring a tin ceiling is like restoring an old car – lots of bondo, layers of it,” said Todd Workman, gesturing up at the gold-colored covering over the huge room with its own stage where the IOOF social organization once put on plays and held public events. “It was thin, so thin. Water was coming through it.”

That room is now part of a 2,100-square-foot condominium on the market for $699,000, with the option of adding the adjoining condominium and its rooftop access for another $349,000. They are among seven high-end condos going on the market in the building (three are already sold) in what might be considered the latest act in the life of the once-overlooked mill city.

“Act 1, we obtained a critical mass of buildings. Act 2 was the whitewater park. Now we’re on the third act,” said Workman.

This act includes high-end condominiums being built atop what will be an Irish pub across the street in the former Holmes and Nelson department store building; plans to combine the former Regal Theater with some adjoining buildings and turn it into a hotel with two restaurants by next year; close to 200 apartments coming into former mill and industrial buildings along the Winnipesaukee River; and even a crepe shop setting up a block off Central Street.

It seems a little puzzling to those people who know of Franklin only from its seedy reputation, as a place always looking to bounce back but never getting anywhere. They probably haven’t been to the Three Rivers City recently.

“There have been so many studies and reports done here,” said Ron Magoon, president and CEO of Franklin Savings Bank. “Now we’re finally doing it.”

Boarded up but not torn down

Franklin’s story is echoed by scores of mill towns in New England. It was created out of almost nothing in the 19th century around mills that used power from the Winnipesaukee River and flourished to the point that it hosted an opera house, then fell apart when river power was no longer needed and industry moved to cheaper locations down south or overseas. The population stagnated, remaining basically unchanged from 1980 to 2010, personal income plummeted and many historic buildings along the main streets were boarded up.

Boarded up but, importantly, not torn down.

“It survived urban renewal,” said Workman. “All the architecture is here. It wasn’t taken care of but it’s still here.”

Workman was one of the early proponents of using those buildings to bring Franklin back, buying up seven buildings, mostly on Central Street, through his economic development nonprofit PermaCityLife starting in 2014.

“Some we did well on, some we overpaid for, some were in good shape, some were in deplorable shape,” he said. “We had to fix the roofs, the bricks, the windows, the heating, the wiring, the plumbing.”

Through partnerships with groups like CATCH Neighborhood Housing, help from the city, support from Franklin Savings Bank’s investment arm, using grants, development credits and Tax Increment Financing district plus finding cash flow from interim tenants while boot-strapping the next project, an eventual 13 buildings were purchased and sold for rehab by PermaCityLife or others.

Starting with small steps like the Franklin Cafe – owned by Franklin Mayor Jo Brown, who recalls tearing out what she thinks was horsehair plaster from walls during remodeling – the effort has produced an influx of housing of various kinds. That includes workforce and low-income housing at the Acme Knitting Machine and Needle Co. building, assisted living at the Peabody Place expansion, and now the arrival of expensive units, including several penthouses that will be overlooking the river.

Workman said the order of things, getting workforce housing built first, was important for financial reasons.

“First you do the low end. As towns start to turn around, value goes up and it’s harder to do the deals,” he said.

Whitewater turning point

The real turning point was Mill City Park, New England’s first whitewater park, opened last year in the heart of Franklin’s downtown after years of planning and construction.

“Once the whitewater park was not just a dream but had a foundation under it, all of a sudden we could get more partners, more investors, and put the buildings into their long-term use,” said Workman.

Mill City Park is already proving to be a draw for the outdoors crowd, the sort of people who might buy six-figure condominiums and frequent not one, but two downtown breweries. Marty Parichand, owner of New England Outdoors outfitters on Central Street, said somebody came all the way from Exeter on Tuesday morning to get in some paddling even though the dam-controlled river is near its lowest flow right now.

Workman said the IOOF building units have attracted a family with small kids, a nearing-retirement-age couple, and investors who will use a one-bedroom and a studio condo for Airbnb rentals. Woodman said they have tweaked plans and are turning the building’s basement, which was “like the catacombs,” into a storage area with enough room for kayaks, skis and bicycles galore.

The work on the IOOF building began two years ago and is still going on in some units, complicated by labor shortages, supply chain issues and the pandemic. To a certain extent, it’s the culmination of more than seven years of pushing and planning by people like Workman, who expects to wind up the nonprofit now that it has sold all the buildings he bought and he is watching or helping the new owners bring them to new life.

“We’ve worked ourselves out of a job,” Workman said.

The pattern in Franklin, he said, also showed something else.

“It’s contagious,” he said of redevelopment. “When one person does it and it works, like a proof of concept, others follow suit.”

David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog granitegeek.org, as well as moderator of Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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