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March 31. 2013 7:07PM

Keene's downtown improvement continues


The Railroad land site in downtown Keene that stood empty for decades is now home to the Marriot Courtyard and mixed use building 51 Railroad Street. This photo was taken just as infrastructure improvements to the now developed land started. (Courtesy photo)


Monadnock Food Co-op store manager Whitney Field labels products in the store Sunday afternoon in preparations for the Co-ops Wednesday opening. (Photo by MEGHAN PIERCE)

KEENE - The redevelopment of the city's old railroad yard hits another milestone this week with the opening of the Monadnock Food Cooperative.



The Monadnock Food Co-op is planning a soft opening Wednesday at 11 a.m., which is to be followed by a grand opening sometime in June, general manager Michael Faber said on Saturday.

The 8,000-square foot store should centralize shopping for people who find themselves going to different farmer's markets or farm stands to pick up the local produce, eggs, meat or dairy they want.

But the Monadnock Food Co-op is also a grocery store in downtown Keene.

"People are psyched to see a grocery store downtown," he said. "It just makes a community stronger to have a supermarket in the hub of it all and on top of that this is community-owned. What a special thing for all of us in the Keene community to be a part of it."

The Monadnock Food Co-op was hoping to have 1,000 founding members before opening this spring and is happy to boast 1,285 members as of Sunday, said co-op marketing and membership manager Jen Risley.

Answering the wants of the nearly 1,300 members, the food co-op plans to specialize in organic and locally grown and produced food and products, she said.

But the co-op is also looking to accommodate those living in the Railroad Land senior housing development with familiar food brands as well.

Risley said it's exciting to see how the land has transformed since she moved to the area about 10 years ago.

"When I moved here all I remember it being was a parking lot, where if you couldn't find any parking you came over here and it looked abandoned, really," she said.

In the next three to five years, though, Risley said the Railroad Land should be completely developed and no longer an afterthought destination, but a major part of downtown.

"Right now Main Street's what's happening in Keene and now Main Street got a little wider," Risley said.

The food co-op is considered the second phase of the Railroad Land Project that started in 2007 to revitalize the blighted area that went out of use when train service through the area stopped said Jack Dugan, president of the Monadnock Economic Development Corporation (MEDC).

"When the railroads ceased to operate the tracks were ripped up," Dugan said. "It pretty much sat there for 25 odd years."

In 2005 the city awarded MEDC a bid to redevelop the six-acre site that sits in the heart of downtown. In 2006 MEDC bought the land from the city for $305,000 with a promise to invest $13 million into the site. Today the developed site has about $30 million invested in it through private financing and capital as well as through public grants and loans.

The tax increment finance district established by the city pulls in about $1 million a year, Dugan said.

Because of its old railroad use, the land was polluted and designated a brownfields site, requiring a cleanup in the first phase of re-development, Dugan said.

The first phase also included a mix of non-profit and for-profit entities such as a Courtyard by Marriott, Keene Senior Housing, Southwestern Community Services and Railroad Street Condominiums and office space at 51 Railroad Street, with Cheshire Medical Center occupying the second floor. This equals five buildings and 167,000 of total space, the creation of 75 new jobs, 24 apartments for low income seniors and eight high-end residential and office space condominiums for sale or lease.

Faber said starting this week the Co-op will be employing about 75 people.

Dugan said right now the third phase is being held back by a need for more parking spaces. However, city officials are looking into building a parking garage downtown. If the city builds that parking garage on the Railroad Land, two more mixed-use buildings for apartments and commercial/business space could go up in the next few years, completing all three phases and most likely the total investment into the land would be about $55 million.

"There's enough tax increment to build a parking lot on the Railroad Land if they so choose," Dugan said.

The project is being funded through private financing as well as many different local, state and federal loans and grants programs.



The development has created jobs and filled downtown needs without competing with Main Street, Dugan said. For instance the Marriott was built without a restaurant, and as a result hotel guests patronize Main Street restaurants, which are within walking distance.

"It's brought a tremendous amount of economic vitality downtown with all the visitors and people that come to this new neighborhood and live here and work here," Dugan said. "If you look at Main Street in downtown now there are actually no vacancies. It's doing very well and I think it's (due) in part to the Railroad Land development."

mpierce@newstote.com



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