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Investment in Concord's pedestrian-friendly downtown brings visitors, housing

New Hampshire Union Leader

November 25. 2017 9:32PM
A family crosses Main Street in downtown Concord last Wednesday. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

CONCORD -- Millions spent on narrowing Main Street and widening sidewalks is drawing waves of new visitors and 170 planned or completed apartments and condos.

"It's been a home run as far as I'm concerned," said Michael Herrmann, owner of Gibson's Bookstore on South Main Street. "There's just more people downtown and it's much more pedestrian-friendly."

Concord spent $13.2 million - including $7.5 million in city funds - on adding benches, widening sidewalks and reducing the number of street lanes from four to two.

Some visitors are making comparisons to another walkable city along the Seacoast.

"It's like a replica of Portsmouth," said Concord resident Janice Jobin, who meandered along Main Street with a friend one recent afternoon. "It makes me want to come down and see what's going on."

The street makeover ran from Centre to Pleasant streets on North Main and then Pleasant to Concord streets on South Main, encompassing more than a half mile. North Main was completed in November 2015 and South Main was finished a year later.

City officials say the spending is paying off.

"I think we've outpaced our expectations by quite a bit," said Carlos Baia, the city's deputy city manager for development.

The project has served as a catalyst for developers to propose 170 new housing units, including about 30 already completed, according to Matthew Walsh, Concord's director of redevelopment, downtown services and special projects.

The largest new development, by Dol Soul Properties, proposes constructing 109 apartments after leveling the former New Hampshire Employment Security building at 32-34 S. Main St. That project, which also includes retail and a restaurant, would produce $375,000 a year in new property taxes following its 2020 projected completion, Walsh said.

"These new residential units coming means more demand for restaurants and other services," he said.

Walsh compares building upon the city's economic fortunes as adding to a dessert.

"It's kind of a layer cake that's been coming around for decades," he said. The Main Street project is "the current frosting on the cake," Walsh said.

He cited the reopening of the Capitol Center for the Arts in 1995 and the opening of the Red River Theatres in 2007 as previous layers.

Concord developer Steve Duprey, who bought the Capital Plaza building last January, said the Main Street project "definitely played" a role in his decision. The North Main Street building today houses the Cobblestone Design Company.

"I just think Concord has been discovered," said Duprey, who owns at least three downtown buildings.

"What's happened is a well-done Main Street is becoming a community's living room," said Duprey, who is also a Republican National Committee member.

In September, Matt Menning, partner and director of operations at Manchester-based Elm Grove Companies, said the Main Street upgrade was a "huge factor" in his company buying four properties and a nearby parking lot to produce a few dozen new apartments on Pleasant and South State streets.

Tuftonborough resident Annie Clark recalled needing to make a decision in 2015 about where to set up her store, Fifty Home, which sells items from all 50 states.

"I opened in Concord because they were doing downtown over," Clark said, adding rents on North Main Street came in "a lot more reasonable than in Portsmouth."

She said business has increased since the project was completed near her store.

Russ Thibeault, a Laconia economist who several years ago conducted an economic analysis of downtown for the city of Concord, said Portsmouth and Concord are different cities.

"Downtown Portsmouth is healthy but kind of narrow in its focus, more visitor-oriented, where downtown Concord is resident-oriented," Thibeault said.

He said his study determined downtown Concord was "healthy but vulnerable," and he suggested cutting vehicle lanes and widening sidewalks. People and merchants have responded, he said.

"If you think of Concord downtown, there's not a lot you're missing," he said. "You could probably live downtown fairly well without a car."

Downtown includes a Market Basket supermarket, food co-op, bookstore, drug store and record shop.

Tim Sink, president of the Greater Concord Chamber of Commerce, said more people are visiting downtown.

"Other people from other parts of the state are showing up," Sink said.

Cobblestone Design Company, which sells flowers, plants and home decor, moved to North Main Street from Fort Eddy Road a few months back.

The downtown project was a "huge" reason to relocate, said co-owner Brad Towne.

"People are more comfortable walking around Main Street" since the number of lanes shrunk, slowing down traffic, he said.

Not every store owner has reaped a windfall.

Diane Beauregard, owner of Things are Cooking on North Main Street, said more people are coming since construction finished.

"More shops and restaurants have opened up. That's definitely helped," Beauregard said. "I would say it's definitely busier - not saying moneywise it's a whole lot different."

But Chicadee Lane Interiors has noticed a difference.

Since the store moved from Pleasant Street to North Main Street last May, sales probably have doubled, said co-owner Mae Edwards.

"What's interesting is the people who live in the area recognize the jewel that they have for downtown," she said.

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