From the Shop: Mill City Park

Last week I wrote about our new video series “Where We Canoe.” This week I wanted to write a bit more about the river featured in the first episode, the community around it, and the effort I’m involved with to bring the two together.

Franklin, NH sits where the Winnipesaukee and Pemigewasset Rivers converge to form the Merrimack.  It also sits at the confluence of several economic factors that make it’s story all too familiar.  It’s the story of every former mill town and rust belt city.  The mills closed down, one by one.  About the same time, what was once the gateway to New Hampshire’s Lakes Region and the route to the White Mountains was bypassed by the Interstate.  Economic and social decline set in.  People moved away, businesses closed.  Franklin is now New Hampshire’s smallest and poorest city.  By nearly every socioeconomic measure, it’s at or near the bottom.  Poverty rate, educational attainment, school drop out rate, free and reduced lunches, drug use.  I could go on, but I don’t need to.  You’ve heard this story before.

If you walk west down Central St. from the Winni takeout, you can see this story written in the buildings: proud, brick buildings, the kind they “don’t make ’em like that any more.”  It doesn’t take much to imagine what it looked like in it’s heyday.  In a couple of blocks, there were three theaters.  Closer inspection reveals the peeling paint and empty store fronts.  But also signs of life.  Some of the facades have been improved recently.  New tenants have decided to make a go at investing in Main St America in the era of Amazon and big box stores.  After decades of decline, there are signs that a few people are starting to think maybe things can or will get better.  What’s behind that?

Franklin grew up around the rivers; the rivers powered the mills.  Paper, textiles, hosiery, knitting needles, hacksaw blades.  The mills are gone, either shuttered or demolished, and they’re not coming back.  But the river remains, winding through downtown.  It’s already a pretty decent whitewater river, generally Class III, with a guaranteed minimum flow of about 250cfs, but most of the time, more water than that.  But what if we can make it better?  There’s also a lot of underutilized, vacant land along the river; interesting open space, with a lot of history.  This is where the paper mills stood.  Could we make this destination for outdoor enthusiasts?  And so the idea for Mill City Park was born.  Our goal is to develop a whitewater park on the final stretch of the river, where two mill dams once stood, clean up some of the remaining debris in the river, add a couple of play spots (something sorely lacking in this region), reshape the channel so it’s better at summer flows and possibly hang some slalom gates, build a bike pump, an event space, trails through the mill ruins… There’s so much potential here to build something amazing.

I feel like I’m uniquely qualified to be part of this project, it almost feels like my life has led me to this point.  I studied fluvial geomorphology and processes in school- basically the way rivers shape the land.  After that, I spent several years traveling and competing first as a pro-kayaker, and now as an outdoor recreation business owner.  I get to see first hand how these sorts of projects change the communities that build them.  Year after year, I went back and saw how towns changed and flourished.  That’s what has made me a believer in this project- I’ve seen it done, I’ve seen it work, and now I get to do it here.  It’s exciting and meaningful to me.  I don’t believe it will solve all of Franklin’s problems, but it will go a long way to giving the city a new image;  that of a ‘River City.’

So where are in the project?  Working with the City, we’ve received a grant for funding of the design and permitting for the first phase of the whitewater park.  Preliminary design is complete, and we’re moving on to the permitting phase.  We’ve also received a grant through the Land and Water Conservation Fund for the first phase of the land-based portion of the park.  Both of these large grants were matched in part though a very generous donation from Franklin Savings Bank, along with a lot of smaller donations.  While the whitewater park is still a few years in the making, this past summer we hosted the first Winnipesaukee River Days, an opportunity to show that whitewater recreation will attract visitors.  We have a long way to go, but we’re blessed to have a very motivated, visionary team with a wide variety of backgrounds working on this project.  It’s been a learning experience for all of us, from non-profit governance to environmental permitting to the history of the land and water.

If you’re interested in following this project as it progresses, I’ll point you to the Mill City Park Facebook page and  (And while you’re there, if you want to donate $5, I won’t complain.)