When people talk about downtown Keene, they use words like “vibrant,” and “vital.”
But then comes the hesitation, the implied “but …” Keene has plenty of city spirit, pride, talent and ideas. But …
Whether it’s the dreaded downtown parking crunch or empty storefronts standing as gaping reminders that retail isn’t what it used to be, Keene has some challenges when it comes to moving forward to become all that it could be. But there’s good news: It’s working on it.
“Everybody recognizes, I think, that Main Street and downtown is kind of the core of our community, the heart of downtown,” says John G. “Jack” Dugan, president of the Monadnock Economic Development Corp. “Downtowns always evolve, and the city has been trying to get ahead of the curve in the age of Amazon, as people say, to see what downtown can be and how do we keep it vital. … The neat thing is we have a nice downtown, so we’re not starting from scratch.”
HISTORY OF CHANGE
Downtown Keene is no stranger to change, says Mayor Kendall W. Lane. But it’s been nearly 30 years since the city has undertaken major renovations. Back in the 1980s, the city looked much different. The sidewalks were lousy with trip hazard heaves, storefronts were boarded up, and upper levels of buildings sat empty and unused. There wasn’t even any landscaping downtown to speak of, as that sort of thing just wasn’t done back in those days, Lane explains.
It was about this time, Lane says, that Hans Klunder, a planner with Dartmouth College’s Urban Renewal Program, came to the city with an idea: Turn downtown into a giant pedestrian mall.
“This became known as ‘Klunder’s Blunder,’ ” says Lane. “Needless to say, that was a wakeup call. There was work that needed to be done, and we needed to do it.”
Between 1983 and 1984, Lane, along with other members of the community, formed a committee to study the downtown. In that year, the team brought its plan for downtown to the city, and it was a go. Lane says the city eventually spent about $2.5 million on renovations that included ripping out and rebuilding the sidewalks, adding trees and landscaping, creating bump outs for crosswalks and eliminating some of the four lanes of traffic that existed back then.
What the team didn’t envision or plan for in the redesign were shifts in the way people live now, compared with back then.
Therein lies some of the basis for the challenges Keene faces. Retail was king at the time of that last downtown remodel. People came downtown to shop, whether it was for food, clothing or supplies. But in the ensuing years — due to the internet generally, and Amazon in particular — some of those patterns have changed.
As Lane describes it, downtown Keene has to be more things to more people than it used to be. It houses the city government and social services. It’s a place where people commute to, but also where people actually live. The city has an older population but plays host to two institutions of higher education. Further, Lane says, expectations are different. People tend to want a downtown that has plenty of options for dining, arts and entertainment. But they also want recreation and green space.
“We ask our downtown to do a lot,” says Lane. “And we have to try to accommodate all the different uses that are going on in downtown.”
Not only that, says newly-minted City Manager Elizabeth Dragon, but pedestrian and vehicular movement patterns have changed since the downtown core was designed in the ’80s. For example, she says, outdoor eating has become popular, but Keene doesn’t have the sidewalk space to readily accommodate it. In addition, she says, as the community has encouraged healthy activities over the years — such as walking and biking — it hasn’t been able to really integrate those activities well in the downtown core.
FOLLOW THE MONEY
This is further complicated by finding funds to do anything about all this.
“Communicating and getting public buy-in,” notes Dragon, “is always a challenge with large projects.”
But that’s not stopping people from trying and, in many cases, succeeding. Dugan, who was named Entrepreneur of the Year at the CONNECT event, points to the examples of the Monadnock Food Co-op, which he says serves 1,000 shoppers a day; Southwestern Community Services, with all its employees, moving to the Railroad Street corridor; the expansion of MoCo Arts; the conversion of the Colony Mill Marketplace into housing; and the construction of a new building for MoCo Arts and an apartment complex near the old Keene Middle School.
Further, he says, non-retail businesses in the area have been moving in and expanding. Dugan points to People’s Linen; the success of Precitech and Janos Technology; and the relocation of a portion of Bensonwood to Keene.
In July, Gov. Chris Sununu was among those who toured Samson Manufacturing Corp.’s new 55,000-square-foot facility at 32 Optical Ave.
Further, local groups, such as the Keene Downtown Group, led by business owner Tracy Keating-Gunn, have been creating and looking for opportunities to provide fun festivities and shopping events to encourage people to head downtown.
But, there isn’t any one single solution to revitalize downtown, notes Dugan.
“We need to recruit more businesses to continue to create more jobs,” he says. “(We also need) more entertainment, more arts, maintaining and even expanding the boutique retail opportunities in downtown, more service businesses on the upper floors — because of course, that gets people onto Main Street with money in their pockets — and then all of that wrapped up in the aesthetic: What can we do to make it more attractive, more safe; what can we do to make it more inviting downtown?”
Cue the revitalization groups. For the past few years, the city has held sessions and workshops to get ideas for Keene’s future straight from the people who live or work here. Also, several other committees and ad hoc groups — including the downtown group made up of retailers and the Keene Revitalization Committee — have formed to study specific issues, as well as the broader revitalization picture.
“Taking a fresh look at the downtown area allows for the opportunity to not only design safer pedestrian and vehicular movements but to also design for and encourage business and other activities,” Dragon wrote in an email interview with The Business Journal. “Revitalizing the downtown allows us to look at ways to address these topics, and more, while creating an even more attractive environment for businesses to operate and thrive.”
Further, she notes, it’s the city’s hope that with a well-designed plan in hand, it will be able to pursue grant funds, private contributions and partnerships to help get started on these projects.
If downtown revitalization ideas were dollars, the city would be all set and then some. In broad strokes, these ideas include expanding the concept of downtown Keene to include areas outside of just Main Street as well as defining just what the community wants downtown to be.
One way to get there might be found in neighborhood branding, an idea proposed by City Councilor George S. Hansel as part of an installation at this year’s CONNECT event.
The goal of neighborhood branding is to build a sense of pride among residents and to take a proactive role in developing the neighborhood’s image. This requires building a positive image that helps attract and retain residents and businesses, but also aids in generating the required investments of time, money and government attention that are needed to achieve a neighborhood’s goals, he says.
“New York City has really done a great job with this — to the point where visitors from around the world get a clear image of what a neighborhood is about, just by hearing the name: SoHo, TriBeCa, DUMBO, NoLIta, NoMad are all examples of cleverly named neighborhoods and brands that exist within the greater New York City area,” says Hansel. “Just about every organization devotes a lot of time and energy to branding and marketing; neighborhoods should take it just as seriously.”
At its core though, the process needs to be organic and grassroots, he says, and works best when the residents have a hand in developing it.
And Keene already has an example of this, Hansel says, with the Marlboro Street corridor. The brand for that area, according to Hansel, has been very different over the years as it’s shifted from primarily industrial to more retail, then to mixed use.
“Sometimes the brand for an area can take on a life of its own, especially with events such as the displacement of single-family homes with college housing, or the loss of an anchor business,” Hansel says. “This doesn’t mean the brand is totally out of control and should be left to its own devices. If you don’t define yourself, someone will certainly do it for you, and you may not like the result.”
Other recurring ideas include transitioning empty buildings and vacant lots into living/work spaces for artists or even small businesses.
One suggestion to come out of the CONNECT event is to create the Beaver Brook Art Gallery and Community Block. This would include opening a gallery, along with living and work space for artists, musicians and other performers in a refurbished industrial building on the east side of downtown.
If something like that took place at, say, the empty Kingsbury building near Marlboro Street, that might lend itself to the city creating a riverwalk and greenway connecting that corridor to the Main Street area.
Complementing that could be another notion cooked up for the CONNECT event, which envisions juried sculptures — selected by a panel of arts, business and community leaders and created by artists throughout the United States — lining the streets of downtown. Or perhaps, that riverwalk.
A CHANGE IN TRAFFIC
Mayor Lane says he also envisions making a place on Main Street for bicyclists to use downtown. And while that might take up some precious driving real estate, that in and of itself might end up being a good thing, as narrower driving lanes necessarily slow traffic.
Dragon has similar leanings in her visions for downtown, saying she, too, would like to see downtown be more pedestrian- and bike-friendly and for it to be done in a way that is safer than it is now.
“If people feel safe and can move around easily, they are more likely to frequent the downtown area,” she says. “It would also be great to incorporate a design that includes spaces for outdoor dining so that we can support and encourage this type of activity.”
Along those lines, Lane says he’d like to see the parking meters removed to create more space for sidewalk cafés, and maybe a rethinking of the current traffic light system around Central Square to make things safer for everyone.
SPREAD THE WORD
From a business perspective, Keating-Gunn says she’d like to see more coordination with the business community on the part of all the groups looking at revitalizing downtown, as well as some mechanism for the groups to communicate with each other to avoid duplicating efforts.
Going forward, Dragon says, communication and coordination with residents and local businesses will be paramount. Dragon describes her role as working with staff and consultants to coordinate the initial review of downtown and potential changes.
“If a project is identified and supported,” Dragon says, “I will then work with staff and consultants to identify potential funding sources. This includes advocating for Keene to receive grant funds and searching for potential public/private partnerships.”
She also says that part of her job will be getting the word out about Keene, both within and outside the Granite State.
“I also educate others, far and wide, about all the reasons why Keene is a great place to have a business, work and call home,” she says. “I also work with the state office of economic development to make sure they know what a great place Keene is to bring new businesses. When the state is doing their recruitment outreach, I want them to think of Keene first and foremost. So I make sure that they know about the work we are doing locally to make our community even more appealing.”
Melanie Plenda writes from Keene, New Hampshire.