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Milford's revitalization invites broader prosperity

Union Leader Correspondent

May 07. 2012 10:27PM
Though he's had to fight against the recession, Dick LaBonte, above, is putting a new face on his building in downtown Milford. (NANCY BEAN FOSTER PHOTO)

MILFORD - Twenty years ago, the Milford Oval wasn't the kind of place folks flocked to for a meal or do some shopping, but today, the downtown area possesses the charm and character of a classic New England town.

And now, the group that helped make that happen is reaching out to other areas of Milford with the hopes of inspiring broader prosperity in the hub of the Souhegan Valley.

On May 1, Paul Francoeur opened the doors of a new restaurant with a familiar name - Caf on the Oval - in a freshly-renovated space just a few doors down from where he ran his popular lunch and breakfast spot for 11 years.

The move means a lot of changes for Francoeur. He's no longer paying rent because he bought the corner building, he's got a lot more room and can feed about 15 more people than he did at the old spot, and he's got a new bakery where the restaurant's breads and pies are made fresh each day.

Francoeur's move into the building that hadn't seen much life in recent years, means that 20 years of work to get the Oval in shape is finally almost done. The crisp green awnings and fresh white paint are a marked improvement from the corner building's recent past, and people are flocking to the new restaurant, Francoeur said.

'We did well where we were,' he said, 'but it's been crazy here. People are just so excited to see the new place.'

Across South Street, Dick LaBonte, who bought the old Boston Shoe Company a few years ago and has been struggling against the recession to make the building new again, is inspired by what Francoeur has done.

'Paul made that happen,' he said. 'He was the driving force behind improving that building, and I'm doing the same over here.'

LaBonte is getting ready to put a second floor on the old building that sat vacant for years, though he hasn't quite decided what he wants to do with the space yet. He's toying with opening a small hotel, but the idea of retail shops or a place for corporate events is also on his mind. Whatever the building becomes, it will have an incredible view of the Oval from the 600-square-foot deck on the second floor.

'The Oval is great.' said Bill Parker, Director of Community Development, 'The redevelopment and investment being created will likely spur on additional redevelopment, which is what happens where investment occurs.'

'Downtown has really come together,' said Tracy Hutchins, director of the Milford Improvement Team. 'We have a 99 percent occupancy rate, it looks good, there are no glaring issues. Now we're focusing on economic development throughout the rest of the town.'

Going West (and East) Recently, the Milford Downtown Ongoing Improvement Team (DO-IT) changed their name to the Milford Improvement Team, a sign that they're ready to spread out into the rest of the community.

The purpose of the Milford Improvement Team is to work with the town, the Economic Development Advisory Council, businesses and organizations to promote Milford as destination for tourists, and a great place for businesses to set up shop. Through events like A Taste of Milford and the annual Pumpkin Festival, Hutchins said people both in and out of town are coming to area businesses to eat, drink, shop and seek entertainment.

And DO-IT brought grants and programs to town that helped fund everything from new awnings and signs, to new sidewalks on South Street. But businesses at the far ends of town could now benefit from some of that help, she said.

'The time is right to turn our attention to Milford's gateways,' she said. 'We're focusing on revitalization.'

Parker said there's a great deal of excitement for bringing new life to the edges of town, especially the west end of town which has room for retail, hotels, manufacturing and residential housing, and recently got some money from town meeting for infrastructure improvements.

'We are actively promoting the hotel recruitment (with the Economic Development Advisory Council) and are hell-bent on working with developers who come in with good projects,' said Parker.

The town has been addressing issues within the zoning process, streamlining permitting and trying to make doing business in Milford a simpler process.

Though the recession has put up roadblocks to development, Parker sees light at the end of the tunnel.

'I've seen much more early discussion from developers gearing up for the hopeful economic turnaround,' he said, 'and the lull in activity over the past three years has allowed a lot of good planning and efforts to get put in place so that development (like in the Oval) makes sense and makes people happy throughout the town.'

For Francoeur, the dark economic times of the past few years appear to be receding and he's confident that business in Milford will continue to thrive.

'It feels like the recession is lifting,' he said. 'It's definitely not as horrifying as it was a few years ago.'

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