Seeking Solutions: Franklin leaders have a blueprint for community investment in Salida, Colorado

A whitewater park along the river in Salida, Colo. is what city leaders envision for Franklin.

A whitewater park along the river in Salida, Colo. is what city leaders envision for Franklin. Scott Peterson, Colorful Colorado—Courtesy

A whitewater park along the river in Salida, Colo., is what city leaders envision for Franklin.

A whitewater park along the river in Salida, Colo., is what city leaders envision for Franklin. Scott Peterson / Colorful Colorado

Investment in a whitewater park on  the Arkansas River helped transform sleepy Salida, Colo., into a tourist destination.

Investment in a whitewater park on the Arkansas River helped transform sleepy Salida, Colo., into a tourist destination. Scott Peterson / Colorful Colorado

A whitewater park along the river in Salida, Colo. is what city leaders envision for Franklin.

A whitewater park along the river in Salida, Colo. is what city leaders envision for Franklin. Scott Peterson, Colorful Colorado—Courtesy

A whitewater park along the river in Salida, Colo., is what city leaders envision for Franklin.

A whitewater park along the river in Salida, Colo., is what city leaders envision for Franklin. Scott Peterson / Colorful Colorado

A whitewater park along the river in Salida, Colo. is what city leaders envision for Franklin.

A whitewater park along the river in Salida, Colo. is what city leaders envision for Franklin. Scott Peterson, Colorful Colorado—Courtesy

By MICHAELA TOWFIGHI

Monitor staff

Published: 10-14-2023 4:01 PM

When P.T. Wood arrived in Salida, Colo., 30 years ago, it was an old mining town that was becoming a shell of its former self. Ranching had slowed down, the railroad was leaving town and many homeowners were looking to move away.

If you took a trip to Salida now, that description would be unrecognizable.

Today, Salida is a recreational destination – with kayakers, river guides, bikers and hikers alike heading to the small city of 5,800, nestled along the Arkansas River at the foot of the Rocky Mountains in central Colorado.

“When I moved here it wasn’t developed. Salida was going from being an extraction town … and transforming into more of that tourist town,” said Wood, who later became its mayor.

One of those recreational activities that’s drawing tourists is Salida’s Whitewater Park.

The economic turnaround in Salida, with recreational activity replacing the old legacy industries, is exactly what people in Franklin, N.H., are hoping will happen with the opening of a new whitewater playground called Mill City Park.

But just like Salida, not everyone is on board, and questions about public investment are clouding the future of the project.

Exactly how much, if any, money should be invested to spur economic development to turn around New Hampshire’s smallest city became a focal point of the election held earlier this month. Voters chose Desiree McLaughlin, a local business owner who has been a staunch critic of investing public money into Mill City Park, as the new mayor.

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The answer to the economic questions in Franklin might be found in the rapids of the Arkansas River 2,000 miles to the west.

Building Salida

The initial idea of a whitewater park stemmed from a group of friends in Colorado who wanted to kayak and didn’t want to travel far to do so.

Wood was part of that bunch. Along with Jerry Mallett, who had just moved to the area with his wife, he knew the area well as a river guide.

“There was a lot of selfishness that drove it,” joked Wood. “But it was worth it.”

At the time, Salida would host the “First in Boating the Arkansas,” or FIBArk race – a tradition that dated back to 1949 in what remains the longest whitewater river race in the United States.

Aside from the race, there was a clear understanding in Salida – don’t go by the river.

That was until Mallett, Wood and others began working on a whitewater park plan to transform the neglected waterway. A four-part project was launched – with the formation of the nonprofit Arkansas River Trust to support the work.

Today, the park houses four water attractions – two waves and two holes – constructed by boulders in the river that create features for paddlers. Each phase was constructed by Recreation Engineering and Planning, the same design firm behind the designs of Franklin’s Mill City Park.

Building these features took time and a change in town attitude, particularly in leadership positions.

“We got one of the town administrators fired. We had to change folks on the city council, and it took a lot of political will to move forward,” said Wood, who went on to serve as mayor himself from 2017 through 2021.

As tides changed, park leaders were able to finance the construction of the park through a combination of state grants, town support and fundraising. The total cost of the initial project, which took 10 years to complete, came out to about $600,000, according to Recreation, Engineering and Planning, the whitewater design firm in Boulder, Colo.

Of that, the Arkansas River Trust raised $300,000 in grant funding.

“We filed papers for the Arkansas River Trust, got a 501(c)(3) and started knocking on doors,” said Mallett.

With inflation, the $600,000 spent 10 years ago comes out to nearly $1 million today.

After rounds of grant funding and fundraising in New Hampshire, Franklin park proponents are proposing to spend $2.5 million on Mill City Park to finish the second and third phases of the river course, which could come from a publicly financed bond if city leaders agree.

Funding in Franklin

With years of deferred maintenance on city facilities, including roads, bridges and city hall itself, it’s easy to say that Franklin finds itself where Salida, Colo., once did.

City leaders think so too.

“Salida is kind of like us. We pick on Salida because they have the same population we do and their industry that left town was the railroad, whereas ours was the mills,” said Franklin City Manager Judie Milner, in an interview with the Monitor in May.

In presentations to the public for a $20 million dollar bond proposal – which would have invested in the city’s opera house, roads, trestle bridge and Mill City Park – Milner and other members of the city’s economic development team pointed to Salida. Spending money and investing in the community will grow the tax base and pay dividends down the road, they argued.

But for weary taxpayers in a city where the median household income of $62,000 a year is $20,000 less than the state average, the sum of money was worrisome. Vocal opposition, led by McLaughlin, halted the proposal.

Going forward, the funding for each project will be presented separately when it becomes “shovel-ready.”

To find the $2.5 million to complete Mill City Park construction, the city is now looking for federal support. U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen has filed a congressional-directed spending request – federal funding that can be used to support local communities – for the whitewater park, according to Milner.

If and when federal dollars are available, the economic task force will bring a recommendation to the city council to begin construction. Without a bond or federal funding, progress at the park is at a standstill.

Public money was never part of the initial pitch for the park.

When Marty Parichand first approached the city of Franklin about building the whitewater park along the Winnipesaukee River, he planned to finance it with grants and fundraising. After a successful run at the first round of grant applications and the construction of a standing wave in the river itself, it looked like that would be the case.

Then the pandemic hit.

Recently, Mill City Park has had less luck in netting grants. Out of five applications, only one was successful, Parichand said.

If the park is completed, more restaurants and shops will open to cater to new visitors, he argues. It’s already begun to happen – with Vulgar Brewery and the Waterhorse Pub crediting their downtown success to the river park. And that’s only the beginning.

Rebuilding downtown

Years before Vulgar Brewing opened its brew pub and pizza place on Central Street, a closed dentist’s office occupied the old mill. After it closed, the space sat vacant for almost 15 years, with water pouring down from the ceiling.

That’s how Damon Lewis found the building when he started Vulgar Brewing in 2019 alongside his wife, Megan, and business partners Jason and Shelly Harrington.

At the time, the city had one or two other restaurants downtown, with little foot traffic on Central Street aside from Opera House shows. Now, Lewis sees a different image of the city.

“From our perspective, a lot of that has begun to change and has changed drastically,” he said.

He credits Mill City Park with driving the downtown transformation. It’s what prompted the Vulgar owners to open up their brewery – after the Harringtons heard a presentation on revitalizing the community through outdoor activities from Parichand and Tood Workman, the executive director of Perma-CityLife, who has invested in Franklin’s downtown over the last decades.

“That motivation has driven a lot of people to come and be part of that change,” said Lewis.

Now when Lewis looks across the street, he sees a handful of restaurants and shops – like the Waterhorse Irish Pub, which opened in Franklin in January. They, too, credit the water park with their move to the Three Rivers City.

“We were looking at Franklin for a while, and then the water park opened and you started to see things start to come to life,” said Maryann Parkhurst, who owns the business with her husband.

Parkhurst, who also owns a restaurant in Bristol, always heard of Franklin as a community teetering on the edge of change. Now, she sees how Mill City Park has propelled that forward.

“There’s so many different things in the community and this is a piece of that pie, it’s a cog in the wheel. But people notice it,” she said. “We’ve had a bunch of our customers from the Newfound area come over and enjoy whitewater rafting.”

When customers sit in the window seats of Waterhouse, Parkhurst encourages them to visit the other businesses they see along Central Street.

“For such a small city, we already have so much diversity and so much to offer,” she said.

And if and when the park is completed, Parkhurst imagines more visitors will continue to come to the area.

“My hope would be that people in the community would realize what an asset it is. And that even if it’s something they don’t participate in, it’s bringing outdoor enthusiasts to the community,” she said. “I think it will only continue to grow and be a positive for the area.”

‘Heartbeat of the community’

In downtown Salida, Totally Tubular River Rentals offers inflatable tubes, kayaks, paddle boards, rafts and boogie boards for use along the river. Rocky Mountain Outdoor Center leads guided trips on the Arkansas River.

A paved path leads to a park and playground. Just about every kid in town owns a life jacket and a boogie board, according to Wood.

“It’s one of the cool things that has come out of this, is that it’s really tied our community to the river,” he said.

During his time in Salida, Wood has watched the evolution of a now thriving downtown. He said nine out of 10 businesses in town will attribute their success to the river park. He’s also a local business owner himself as the proprietor of Wood’s High Mountain Distillery.

With this economic engine comes tourism, naturally. The demand to live and rent in Salida has stretched affordable housing thin, as real estate prices have soared.

“Schoolteachers and law enforcement people and hospital employees do have a tough time finding a place to live sometimes,” he said.

But it’s still an investment Wood would make time and time again.

“What are we doing if we are not investing in our community to make it a better place, a place where you want to be, where I want to be, where everybody wants to be?” he said. “It’s got things for our kids, our families and for our visitors, and those are things where real value in our community comes from.”

The river park provides a focal point to the community – it’s where kids go to boogie board together or spectators picnic to watch the waves. On any given day when Wood walks by, it’s exactly the missing piece to the city he envisioned.

“It’s the heartbeat of the community. It’s where people gather even if they don’t want anything to do with the river. It’s just where everything is centered and that’s what’s critical to any community,” said Wood. “It’s building community; it’s proving community. It’s where you can find your friends. It’s freaking awesome.”