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Joyce Endee

$15 million Downtown revitalization plan launched

This conceptual drawing shows the plans for Veterans’ Park, south-end of Main Street and the PSNH-Smith Hydro Park. The goals include incorporating the park with downtown. (click for larger version)
February 01, 2012
BERLIN – About 45 people filled the City's council chambers to hear the details of the "Moving Downtown Forward" plans for revitalizing Main Street on the night of Wednesday, Jan. 18. Three consultants – Jay Poulin, a project engineer; John Wacker, a landscape architect; and Stuart Arnett, an economic development planner – took turns outlining the $15 million plan and answering questions from the gathered community leaders and local citizens. The trio said the time is right to turn Berlin's downtown around, but it will take heart and head, not to mention $15 million.

"The uniqueness of this project," Wacker said, is "an economic study and a design study." Making downtown more aesthetically pleasing and more functional will spur development, he added. "It is the new heart" of Berlin, he added.

Arnett, concurred, the time is right for Berlin to capitalize on its change fortune -- namely the building of the bio-mass plant, opening of the new federal prison as well as removal of a blighted Rite Aid block once occupied by J.C. Penney. He praised city and community leaders for their commitment and vision and said private developers will follow.

The major focus of the plan is connecting Main Street to the PSNH Smith Hydro Peninsula Park and Pleasant Street, improving the streetscapes with more green space and promoting unity of message, design and development. Specifically, the plan calls for sprucing up Veterans' Park at the southern entrance to Main Street, making the access road to the park more inviting, and adding "pocket parks" around existing undeveloped spaces, including the triangle at the northern entrance across from St. Anne's church. At mid Main Street an access to the park will be created and the existing access to Pleasant Street will be improved.

The 19-acre PSNH Smith Park is currently not being utilized, said Poulin, a Berlin resident. "It's an incredible asset, and it would be good to connect it to the downtown area." The park would be expanded to include such things as a playground, bandstand and maybe even an amphitheatre.

Two-thirds of the funds will be private. The city has been asked to support 10 percent of the costs -- $150,000 annual commitment for ten years. The plan also calls for the creation of TIF (Tax Increment Financed) district. TIF districts are a popular redevelopment tool used by communities to bond public investments by leveraging future tax revenue. Simply put, Arnett, who was the state's top economic development planner in the 1990s, said the goal is change downtown from being "a cost center to a revenue center."

He suggested that Berlin utilize its unique strengths – its past as a working class mill town and its future as an energy exporter.

Much of the questions revolved around parking and trees. Residents were assured the plan would not reduce parking on Main Street and by connecting the park and Pleasant Street would open up more parking. Barry Kelly suggested slightly changing the design of Main Street's parking spots to angle parking on one side.

"Parallel parking is a lost art," he added.

Some residents warned about the trouble of adding trees – especially large shade trees, which would block store signs, intersections and cause maintenance issues. Wacker assured them that using the right variety of tree is the key.

"What we're really rebuilding here is community," Wacker said, "We're building home."

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