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Moving Downtown Forward generating interest statewide

October 10, 2012
BERLIN - Berlin's Moving Downtown Forward initiative is getting the city noticed statewide.

"It has brought Berlin into a new light," Sylvia Poulin, Main Street Program, and Pam LaFlamme, City Planner, said. "People are coming to us saying 'this grant is available, we'd like you to apply'."

The goal of the initiative is both to improve economic development and streetscape. It came out of the 2010 update of the master plan. Under the economic development chapter, a new plan for the downtown was listed as the top priority.

A Tillotson Grant was applied for and awarded that the city used, along with funds from PSNH and the Main Street Program, to come up with an action plan for the twin goals of economic development and streetscape.

"We were very specific to consultants that that's what we wanted, an action plan," Poulin said.

The resulting 10-year plan covers the area from the Veteran's Memorial Park, the entry to the city, to St. Anne's Church, both Main and Pleasant Streets. Work is planned in phases. The first phase starts at Veteran's Memorial Park and goes to Aubuchon's.

The plan was first presented to the city council in January. Consultants estimated the total plan would cost about $15 million over the 10-year period and recommended the city contribute some money that could then be used to leverage more funds from grants and other sources that might require matching money. The council voted to contribute $100,000 and asked the Moving Downtown Forward (MDF) committee to start with some high profile projects that would get the communities attention and interest.

Work began this past summer on several projects in Veteran's Memorial Park. The tennis courts were repaved and the fence surrounding them will be painted next summer. A new information kiosk, paid for through the NH Grand initiative is planned across from the park on PSNH land. The gazebo was fixed, with donated labor from the Kiwanis Club.

MDF is also working on a new welcome sign that will have a stone base.

"Our goal is to do it once and do it right," Poulin said, noting the sign could be done cheaper, but they are looking for improvements that will last.

Other work planned for the park area include new sidewalks to connect to the core of the downtown and around the tennis courts. Improvements are also planned for the part of the park with sculptures.

MDF is also working closely with PSNH, which owns the Smith-Hydro park of 20 acres. Plans for that park include a children's playground, a gazebo, perhaps an amphitheatre and vehicle access.

Lower Main Street is the next phase. Some buildings there are privately owned and the initiative will work with those owners when possible. In some cases work will have to wait until an opportunity presents itself to get involved. Some work has already been done or is in progress.

The building just south of the Holiday House was tax deeded to the city and is being torn down. How that new area is going to be used is under consideration. The Princess Theatre has been sold to private parties and the city doesn't know yet how that building will be used.

A few years ago a group of investors got together and bought the former Gill's Flowers building. It was renoved to include spac for small businesses (Savoir Faire and WREN are located there) on the first floor and apartments on the second.

That is also the plan being followed by Tim Coulombe and Kevin Lacasse. The city gave them the former T-Bird's Restaurant building for back taxes and they have been working all summer on renovating it. It will include three retail spaces on the first floor and one-bedroom apartment on the second floor.

The former Rite Aid/Medicine Shop building (now Bickford Place), owned by the city and renovated by BIDPA, is in the process of being sold. It is believed Family Dollar will be moving to that building, although that has not been officially confirmed. The current Family Dollar building is also city owned and BIDPA will be renovating that as well, presumably to be eventually sold to a private investor/developer.

"Things seem to be falling into place," Poulin and Laflamme said. "It's easier to make thing happen when there's collaboration with city organizations."

For example, they said, at the previous city counsel meeting the counsel agreed with the MDF committee's recommendation that there be no smoking in Bickford Park, voting to ban it. The counsel also voted to contract with Northern Human Services to clean the park.

"Partnerships are making things happen," they said.

When Bickford place was renovated arches were put up around the building and over the park area. MDF plans call for making those arches a theme for the downtown area. A series of arches will be placed over Main Street, starting at the theatre and curve of Main Street. Arches will be placed both along Main and Pleasant Streets.

Improvements will be made in lighting, sidewalks, benches and landscaping. There are several areas with a potential for pocket parks along both streets. The largest open space, across from the Cote building will be improved with more sitting areas and a new bridge that will cross the green pipe into the Smith-Hydro Park, as well as a visitor's center.

A new park area is also proposed on Pleasant Street, the area that once houses several business that burned a while ago. That area is now just concrete slabs, with the city owning some, but not all. This would require the purchase of the areas not now owned. Improvements in lighting, paying and landscaping are also proposed for Pleasant Street.

The next phase deals with the area north of the Main Street/Mason Street intersection. What happens with this part will depend in large part on what happens with the property recently cleared of empty building. One proposal is for a new hotel. If that developer is successful in purchasing that land for that use, the MDF will no doubt want to work with that developer to continue the downtown theme.

The plan presented to the city counsel earlier this year addresses the issue of "why now."

It's the "front door" to Berlin and right now it's underdeveloped and could look better, it states.

"An improved downtown increases the values of all properties and increases the chances that more business will want to locate there."

It notes that a lot of things are coming together now. "Everyone one, city officials, merchants, investors, building owners, Main Street leaders and other at the local, regional and state level, want something to happen with the downtown," it states. "A community with a downtown without a future - no matter how impressive the community's past - is dying."

The plan states, with the closing of the sulphite mill, Berlin has a chance to rebrand itself, and suggests the "New Energy City in the North Country," for all the new clean energy that is being developed here.

"Everyone's excited about what's happening in Berlin," Poulin and Laflamme said. "Investors are waiting to see what happens."

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