Forging a trail: Merrimack River Greenway effort sees breakthroughs

  • Friends of the Merrimack River Greenway Trail President Dick Lemieux stands next to the Hannah Duston monument in Boscawen. Running by the site is a disused railroad bed that Pan Am Railways is abandoning, potentially to be bought by the state for a rail trail. NICK REID / Monitor staff

  • The Northern Rail Trail runs 58 miles from Boscawen to Lebanon. It could be extended into Concord. NICK REID—Monitor staff

  • The Northern Rail Trail runs 58 miles from Boscawen to Lebanon. It could be extended into Concord. NICK REID / Monitor staff

  • This map, supplied by the Friends of the Merrimack River Greenway Trail, shows the path the first phase of the project will take.  Courtesy

  • This map, supplied by the Friends of the Merrimack River Greenway Trail, shows the path the trail is planned to take through Concord, with and without the usage of the to-be-abandoned railroad corridor. —Courtesy

  • The Granite State Rail Trail —Courtesy

  • This rendering, provided by the Friends of the Merrimack River Greenway Trail, shows what the first segment of the boardwalk to be built off Terrill Park will look like. Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 8/12/2016 1:20:44 AM

The effort to build a paved riverside trail across Concord for bikers and pedestrians has seen recent breakthroughs, although there’s still a bumpy road ahead.

The Merrimack River Greenway Trail’s proponents received what they saw as an important backing this week from the city council, hopefully boosting their chances to win an $800,000 federal grant this winter. That’s enough to connect Loudon Road to Manchester Street on the east side of the Merrimack River, by building a quarter-mile-long boardwalk over wetlands.

Construction on the first phase of the boardwalk – beginning near Terrill Park on Old Turnpike Road – could begin as soon as this fall, said Dick Lemieux, president of the Friends of the Merrimack River Greenway Trail. It’ll end abruptly after 100 feet, however, at which point Lemieux said he intends to place a sign reading: “This is where the funding ended.”

His group has already won one grant and raised $300,000, he said. It has two potential grants pending, including the one the council endorsed Monday, but it is still working to raise its 20 percent share to match the federal dollars, should they come through.

A major donor in Grappone Automotive owner Amanda Grappone Osmer has stepped up and pledged to help. She said she’s looking to raise $50,000 to $100,000 on her own to support the project in honor of her late brother, Greg.

“If he were still alive, he would absolutely be supporting this,” Grappone Osmer said Thursday.

Greg Grappone, who died in 2015 following complications from his cancer treatment, found it more difficult to recreate outside when he became bound to a wheelchair late in his life, his sister said. She said he would have enjoyed the paved trail – and so would a wide swath of others, from mobility-limited seniors to young families and athletes.

As a businesswoman, she also sees the trail project as a chance for Concord to improve its outside appeal and show it’s a good place to raise a family, perhaps enticing its ambitious students who leave the state for college to come home afterward.

“I see the trail as being one of those kind of feather-in-the-cap kind of things for the city to support,” she said. “It’s a statement that they support healthier lifestyles.”

That’s why she’s willing to be the first major supporter for the next phase of the project, priming the pump for other donors to follow along.

“It is a little intimidating to want to be the first one, but they’ve done so much legwork already. I believe in them,” she said. “If they say they can get it done, they will.”

And if they can’t get it done, Concord’s city councilors said they might fill the funding gap. Maybe.

The councilors authorized the city manager to apply for grant funding Monday and adjusted the priority of the boardwalk project to reflect that they intend to see it built sooner than later. They also said they would consider using taxpayer money to make up the difference if the Friends of the Merrimack River Greenway Trail can’t meet the $200,000 goal.

But that’s not yet a firm commitment, as Councilor Brent Todd said. It’s something that’s “on the plate in the budget.”

“My thought is if we couch it in those terms, we’re giving the public the sense that you don’t know what the city council really will do with the budget,” he said on Monday, after other councilors worried that the council’s financial support would dissuade private donors.

Nevertheless, Todd said he wants to send a strong signal that the city wants the project to happen. He recalled a conversation he had several years ago with Lemieux when he said “this is a great project, but I’m never going to see it in my lifetime.”

“Well, now, miraculously the planets have aligned and we seem to be able to have these funding sources; we have generous support from donors in the community,” he said. “I think that will continue, and lots of other support to actually make this happen, not just for my children, but for all of us to enjoy.

“I think we really need to step up to the plate as a city and take advantage of that right now,” he added.

Lemieux noted that the council has always supported the Merrimack River Greenway Trail project, which first began to take shape in 2008. But “this was the biggest ask,” he said, because “we’re asking the city to be prepared to put some skin in the game.”

Once the 100-foot boardwalk construction begins, Lemieux said he’s hoping more people will be able to envision the final product and help out. That could happen this fall, but he said it might be best to wait until the spring, when the cost may be lower, since many contractors who might bid are currently occupied until the end of the year.

From the end of the boardwalk, viewers will be able to watch wetland wildlife and catch a glimpse of the far-off State House dome across the river. The second pending grant – for $80,000 and due late fall – would add another 100 feet. The third grant – for $800,000, which received the city council backing – would complete the boardwalk to where it will connect with a path built in a cornfield behind the post office on Loudon Road.

In addition to support from the city and Grappone Osmer, the Merrimack River Greenway Trail’s long-term goal potentially became much easier in May. That’s when Pan Am Railways notified the city it’s abandoning a disused railroad that stretches from Horseshoe Pond to Boscawen.

That was a cause for mild celebration for Lemieux, who said “if it wasn’t privately owned . . . that would have been our preferred alignment right from the get go.” He was riding on a rail trail in Windham when he first said to himself that someone should do something similar in Concord, he said.

Trails built on former railroad beds make planning far easier because they’re relatively straight, pre-built and don’t require a patchwork of permissions from various property owners.

The Pan Am railway that’s being abandoned is perfectly positioned to continue a 58-mile gravel trail that already exists from Lebanon to Boscawen. If the state reaches an agreement to buy the track from Pan Am, it could make the Friends of the Merrimack River Greenway Trail’s plan cheaper, faster and easier to build, potentially moving the completion date up years, Lemieux said.

But that requires the state, which has right of first refusal to buy the land, and Pan Am to agree to a deal. In other places, that’s proven difficult, said Charles Martin, who wrote the 2008 book New Hampshire Rail Trails and is working on an update.

“We can’t get too excited, because negotiating with Pan Am is not easy,” he said.

Pan Am Railways’s vice president of human resources, Cynthia Scarano, didn’t return a request for comment Thursday.

(Nick Reid can be reached at 369-3325, or on Twitter at @NickBReid.)

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