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Charrette creates vision of success for Ashland's future

Ashland resident and structural engineer Walter Durack, from McFarland-Johnson in Concord, was one of the team of building professionals who participated in this past weekend's Plan NH Design Charrette in Ashland, creating a vision of a possible future for Ashland's downtown village district. Tom Samyn from Samyn D'Elia Architects in Ashland was also amongst the many design professionals who generously contributed their time and expertise to the project. (Marcia Morris) (click for larger version)
August 24, 2011
ASHLAND—We all know that the Town of Ashland is the geographic center of New Hampshire. But if you were one of the lucky attendees at this past weekend's Plan NH Design Charrette, you might have left the meetings with the feeling that Ashland could one day, maybe, become the center of the universe...almost.

It was that inspiring.

At the end of the long series of "listening sessions," working meetings and a presentation prepared by the team of ten design professionals from Plan NH who volunteered their time and expertise to work with Ashland community members, Town officials and business leaders to "brainstorm" solutions to some of Ashland's aesthetic and economic development challenges, the audience of local residents and business owners sat quietly for a moment and took a deep breath.

There was so much to digest after a powerful two-and-a-half-hour report delivered by architects, engineers, community planners and other design professionals at the conclusion of their intensely productive volunteer weekend of "visioning" a future for downtown Ashland.

The Town of Ashland was one of five communities this year to have the good fortune of being awarded a Plan NH grant, which provided this whirlwind of creative activity and intense professional concentration on the future of its downtown center. (Hebron is another local town that is scheduled to participate in a Plan NH Charrette in September.)

But the professionals from Plan NH that facilitated the process this past Friday and Saturday at the Ashland Elementary School emphasized that it was not about them. Time and again, they said that they were not there to tell residents of the Town of Ashland what it should do, but rather, to listen to residents and stakeholders, business owners and neighbors, and to assist local leaders in the process of coming up with potential solutions to generally recognized problems in the community, as well as to help craft a community consensus on a vision for a brighter future for everyone.

In a very short period of time, they were able to make a lot of headway.

But they had a lot of help. More than 80 Ashland residents, representing several millennia in years of local experience, turned out over the course of the two-day event to participate in the process of defining what is unique and special about Ashland, and how to capitalize on that for a prosperous future for the Town.

The Plan NH Team will come out with a written report in a few months, but their preliminary presentation left many in the audience speechless, but excited, when it all came to a conclusion on Saturday afternoon. The presentation included analysis of all the input that the design professionals heard from Ashland residents about what is important and special about the Town.

It also included some draft solutions to such problems as the traffic congestion at the main traffic artery (the confusing five-point intersection of Main and Highland Streets downtown), the perennial parking problem, and what to do about rehabbing and reviving empty mill buildings that once provided the centerpiece of Ashland's economic life.

Plan NH professionals prepared a conceptual plan for creating a unifying theme and relatively low-cost aesthetic improvements to the streetscape on Main Street, from the I-93 exit to the Civil War Monument in lower village, and guidance on the possibilities for renovating and redeveloping the historic L.W. Packard Woolen Mill buildings.

Significantly, they identified a large number of relatively easy improvements that could be accomplished with volunteer labor and little expense. Recognizing throughout the proceedings that the hefty tax burden on Ashland residents serves as a constraint on possible options, they also made progress in identifying relevant sources of outside assistance and grant monies that could greatly assist in getting things underway. Just as importantly, they spelled out a process by which local business and community leaders could move steadily in the direction of completing a succession of tasks, one step at a time, to get the job done.

Plan NH organizers remarked many times that the Charrette was intended to be not an endpoint or conclusion to efforts at coming to consensus on a coherent plan for the future, but a catalyst and a starting point for an ongoing process that could continue for many years, or even decades.

When the Ashland Mills closed their doors more than a decade ago, they left many local residents out of work and in need of a way to reinvent themselves vocationally and financially. That process has been unfolding on an individual level now for many years. Residents have had to adjust to the disruption of their livelihood and the extinction of much of what provided an identity for the Town of Ashland for generations.

The hope for the future is that the community, as a whole, can move forward with the task of making that same adjustment, to find a new basis for economic development, perhaps in the re-purposing of the vacant mill buildings that for so many years provided the engine of growth for the hardworking industrial village. It remains to be seen whether the community can harness the community consensus and spirit to get that job done, but it is off to a good start.

There was wide agreement this past weekend that Ashland is filled with untapped potential — architecturally, culturally, socially and economically. It has a lot of things going for it. It boasts the flagship Common Man Restaurant and Company store – a destination location for decades — not to mention Alex Ray's hovering genius and community spirit. It boasts more museums and interesting attractions per square inch downtown—all within close walking distance — than just about any town in New England. It works hard. It has a beautiful river. It is the gateway to the Squam Lake Region and White Mountains. It has that "small town feel" and just about every convenience a resident could wish for – except maybe a pharmacy. It is relatively safe. The people are, by and large, friendly, neighborly and interesting. It has great fireworks on the Fourth of July, pulling tens of thousands of visitors into the area to enjoy the festivities. And, let's not forget... it is the geographic center of New Hampshire...if not the universe.

There is so much to be done. But for everyone who attended the workshops this weekend, there is a wonderful beginning and the level of excitement that can catapult the community into something truly promising.

Design professionals who generously donated their invaluable time and expertise to the Town of Ashland this past weekend include: John Wacker, Wacker Landscape Architect and Facilities Planner, Conway; Scott Collard, Landscape Artchitect, Stantec Consulting, Scarborough office; Walter Durack, Structural Engineer, McFarland-Johnson, Concord; Jay Poulin, Civil Engineer, Bergeron Engineers, North Conway; Tom Samyn, Architect, Samyn D'Elia Architects, Ashland; Chick Engborg, Executive Council of AARP NH; Laura Scott, Town Planner, Town of Windham; Fred Richards, Historic Preservationist, Richards Consulting, Concord; Gordon Cormack, Cormack Construction Management, Madison, and Plan NH Executive Director Robin LeBlanc. More information on Plan NH can be found at the Web site, www.plannh.org, or contact by calling 453-PLAN(7526) or email info@plannh.org.

Martin Lord Osman
Salmon Press
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