Franklin hoping for federal funding to finish construction of whitewater park

By JON DECKER

The Laconia Daily Sun

Published: 09-01-2023 4:15 PM

FRANKLIN — The remaining $2.5 million needed to complete Mill City Park could be funded by federal tax dollars, according to City Manager Judy Milner. One-third of the park is complete and features an underwater structure that creates a perpetual wave where paddlers can practice their skills, along with an amphitheater for spectators.

“Sen. [Jeanne] Shaheen reached out and said, ‘Judy, can you give me something that I can put in the federal budget this year for a congressional delegation spend?’ Which used to be called earmarks in the old days,” Milner said. “We talked about it as a group, and read the rules which said absolutely no town offices, so we couldn’t put in [the Franklin Opera House], so we went with the whitewater park. And it did make it through committee level and is on the federal budget to be passed.”

The funding for the completion of the park is lacking in part because the city did not earn several grants, and a proposal that $2.5 million be included in a $20 million bond under discussion by the city council angered a vocal portion of the public.

That is by no means a guarantee, but Milner did express hopeful optimism, saying the committee level tends to be the more difficult arena for such earmarks to survive.

The whitewater park has been the subject of high enthusiasm and in some cases, bitter debate about the economic future of the former mill town. The park is the first of its kind in New England, and has attracted new business and development, while simultaneously increasing property values, and thus taxes.

Milner, along with four other members of the city’s economic development team, proposed the city would need an approximately $20 million bond for repairs and projects, including the Franklin Opera House — which also houses city hall — the historic trestle bridge and Mill City Park. The opera house was recently shut down to performances and public gatherings by the Franklin Fire Department due to safety issues.

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Milner reiterated to The Sun that there currently is no bond, and that it has not been brought before the city council. That has not stopped residents from voicing their concerns.

“What we heard from the public were two things,” Milner said. “One: ‘Let’s not do a $20 million bond all at once, let’s do each project on its own.’”

Milner added she initially wanted to do a single bond for the economy of scale, due to the costs associated with initiating individual bonds.

“Second thing was, because we know that we’re going after grants, what we need is that demonstrated match, we need the community to say, ‘We’ll bond it, that’s our match,’” Milner said. “So that’s the hard part, is that we don’t have that demonstrated match.”

Members of the city leadership and supporters say the project will draw much-needed tourism dollars in the form of paddlers and spectators.

Already, according to Joe Tammaro, of Outdoor New England and volunteer for Mill City Park, thousands of paddlers have come from all over the world and the country to the city just in the past year.

“As far as private boaters go — Maine, Vermont, New York, West Virginia. We’ve had people from Montana, Georgia,” Tamarro continued. “We have a lot of people who come up from Boston who are from other parts of the country as well. For the commercial side of things, we’ve had people from Israel, Saudi Arabia, Australia, Poland, Denmark, Colombia and New Zealand.”

Outdoor New England is owned by Marty Parichand, who was key in creating and implementing Mill City Park as its executive director. Parichand’s business benefits from its proximity to the park.

“People have been coming to Franklin to kayak for a lot longer than Marty has known about Franklin. Actually, for a lot longer than Marty is old,” Milner said.

Parichand was not available for comment on this story.

“If we’re talking about passers through the park, I would say tens of thousands,” Tamarro said. “If we’re talking about individual bodies that have come maybe once or maybe multiple times, I would say 5,000, 6,000 people.”

Detractors have criticized the project on social media with worries that city tax dollars would have to carry the rest of the burden, pointing to previous statements that the park would be funded via donations and grants.

Some members of the public have criticized the city for failing to secure a $1.9 million Economic Development Administration Grant.

The rejection of the EDA grant also prevented the city from gaining an additional grant through the Community Development Finance Authority, which was contingent on EDA funding.

“That [EDA] grant wasn’t received because we had already started the project so it didn’t fit their mold,” Milner explained. “They have a certain mold, they like to start from the beginning, and because we had already finished one of the three features of the park, it wasn’t from the beginning. However, our application did score number one in the region. So they tried real hard, we tried real hard and in the end they said, ‘We just don’t have the time.’”

Responding to critics and skeptics of the park as an investment, Milner pointed out that of all the items included in the proposed $20 million bond, Mill City Park was the only one with a return investment, but said she did empathize with taxpayer concerns. Milner also pointed out the city has a tax cap, which makes paying for things like road repairs or the opera house difficult.

“I do think that there is a vocal minority that believes that if we bond anything, it’s breaking the tax cap, which is not true,” Milner asserted. “They had a couple years in a row where the tax rate increased 40%. I get it, that’s wrong. This vocal minority was here for that, and some of them, they’re just fearful, I think, to make that step forward.”

As for steps forward, Milner says the city will probably hear if Shaheen’s earmark passed by this winter, perhaps December at the earliest. If it fails to come through, the city will have to look elsewhere for funding.

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.

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