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After town vote, the future is now in river district

March 26, 2014
LITTLETON— Eighteen months have passed since the weekend design session that launched river district revitalization and thanks to two positive town votes this month, the district is preparing to move ahead with improvements meant to enliven the area between Main Street and the Ammonoosuc. With a strong sense of optimism, many players are ready to move forward in Littleton's next big community development enterprise.

John Hennessey is chairman of the River District Re-Development Commission. The 12-member body has been meeting for a year to ponder the report created after the September 2012 design brainstorm.

Hennessey was thankful for the community support on two district warrant articles. He sees the town's concurrence as helping prepare for the district's new beginning.

Hennessey said the town's backing of the articles "really allows us to move forward, and build off the progress made to date." The articles call for $50,000 for an engineering report on district infrastructure, as well as $30,000 to pursue rights of way and other means to improve safety and parking across the district.

One first step in implementing the infrastructure engineering report is a $3,500 grant the district has received. Town Manager Fred Moody said the grant funds will "draw the road map on how we're going to proceed." The final report authorized in the warrant article should provide a better understanding of the needed electrical, water, and sewer improvements for the district.

The possibility of underground power has intrigued commission members. Some have said Main Street's attractiveness and charm stems partly from underground utilities. Although such work presents some challenges, Moody suggested power lines that are out of sight provide "development options you might not have with above ground power."

Overall, the district's area covers the land below Main Street. The district starts at the intersection of Saranac and Meadow streets, then goes all the way to Veterans' Memorial Bridge. The immediate area on both sides of the Ammonoosuc is included in the commission's bailiwick.

Hennessey suggested the bright future for the district is the result of "so many people willing to put in the time and effort to make things happen." He credited Littleton's selectmen, town departments, fellow commission members, and the many players involved in working with the commission.

Jere Eames, who has followed the commission's work from the beginning, echoed Hennessey's focus on the team aspect of river district improvement. Eames said the recent town votes are "another turning point for Littleton." The public and private teamwork so far, he continued, is simply "the attitude in Littleton. We'll get it done together."

Partnerships are important for the district's ongoing focus on economic development. Attracting private investment and additional government funding often require evidence of a town's interest in a project, Hennessey said. Thanks to voters' approval this month, Moody added that the town and commission will investigate "how can we leverage money from other sources, both grants and private sources."

Commission member Dave Ernsberger has made important progress on private fundraising. Hennessey said Ernsberger's outreach to business owners and others has brought in $136,000 for district improvements.

Ernsberger's efforts have focused on creating a view deck on the river, which will be built this year. The project includes three new streetlights, designed to match those on Main Street.

Hennessey said the commission hopes for completion of the new view deck, as well as signs for the Pollyanna Gateway by mid-June. This would coincide with the town's Pollyanna Day, set for June 14.

A mid-June community celebration can provide visual manifestation of the district's early victories, Hennessey said. He added that the deck and gateway ideas can also "link Main Street and the river together."

Working with private landowners will be another point of focus. As Moody noted, "We need to be respectful of the property owners' rights, while identifying for them the merits of the project going forward." Ultimately, the ability to gain rights of way from landowners is necessary to create a better intersection at Saranac and Meadow streets. Parking and roadway changes along Mill Street will also call for further work with property owners.

When they look around, players in the district see opportunities for improvement. This could include potential development of vacant lots. Some sites of interest are on the south side of the Ammonoosuc. The abandoned lot next to the Tannery Marketplace could be in the picture, as well.

Ongoing revitalization at the Tannery offers immediate evidence of district gains. Hennessey said the Tannery building is "a unique aspect of the whole river front." The design brainstorm that started it all took place in the Tannery.

Ray Cloutier, owner of the iconic building right on the Ammonoosuc, reported that two more leases are almost done. This means the Tannery will soon achieve "a new high of 20 commercial tenants," Cloutier said.

Thanks to tenant Stacey Doll, the Tannery continues to look ahead. With environmental design and community planning experience, Doll looks to make the Tannery a symbol of what the district can become. In May, she will be hosting a permaculture design workshop, which aims to connect the Tannery to the surrounding natural environment. "I'd like to see the whole river district become almost park-like," Cloutier said.

The Tannery's focus on renewable energy is another part of the picture. A wood pellet heating system is under consideration. The building's south facing exposure could be a great spot for solar power, as well. Doll said April site visits are planned to further investigate the solar idea at the Tannery.

Heating in the district as a whole is of interest to Marghie Seymour. As a selectman and river district commission member, Seymour has said district heating is worth some investigation. Such systems, which can heat a neighborhood, have been popularized in Europe.

Decisions on where to spend resources, especially local taxes, are central to overall river district improvement. Regarding local tax money, Moody said, "It's up to town government to make sure it's spent conservatively and properly."

Updates on the commission's work can be found online. Go to: www.golittleton.com/riverdistrict. Hennessey also invited the public to the commission's meetings. The next meeting takes place at 4:30 p.m. on April 3 at the Tannery Marketplace.

From the beginning, the commission has stressed the desire for both small and large victories, spread across the short, medium, and long terms. This year provides the opportunity to better define how the district can provide both immediate results and a vision for the future. The final stages of the river district's rebirth may not yet be known, but the players are patient. As Moody concluded, "The process is as important as the product, and we're still early in the process."

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