Outdoor performance venues. A welcome center. Spaces for artists to live and work. A block-long pedestrian mall.
Those are among the elements of an envisioned “arts corridor” in downtown Keene, which a local economic development official presented during a talk Tuesday at the Keene State College Alumni Center.
John G. “Jack” Dugan, president of Keene-based Monadnock Economic Development Corp. (MEDC), said the effort would center on Gilbo Avenue between Main Street and School Street — a stretch of road bordered mostly by parking lots — and the Railroad Square area on the other side of Main.
While the concept is at an early stage — with community outreach, detailed studies and city approvals still to come — Dugan pitched it as a way to draw more people downtown in the Internet-shopping era.
“Will it work exactly the way I describe it this morning? I don’t know. We’re in early days; there’s a lot to do,” Dugan said at Tuesday’s event, a forum on recreation, arts and culture organized by the Greater Keene Chamber of Commerce. “But in our minds, it’s a transformative initiative in downtown.”
Working west to east, Dugan laid out the possibilities. On the vacant dirt lot on the southeastern corner of School Street and Gilbo Avenue, owned by Keene State College, MEDC hopes to build a large pavilion “that can accommodate things like outdoor concerts, big meetings, anything you think could fit under 15,000 square foot of roof,” he said.
The aging skate park on Gilbo Avenue would be replaced with a new “state of the art” skate park, in coordination with a volunteer group that has been raising money for that purpose. Closer to Main Street, MEDC would buy the transportation center from the city and “put some commercial businesses in there, as well as a visitors’ center for downtown,” Dugan said. North of Gilbo, MEDC is negotiating the purchase of the building that houses the St. James Thrift Shop, to turn it into combined live/work spaces for artists.
Across Main Street, MEDC has already extensively redeveloped the area around Railroad Square. Dugan said he envisions buying the square from the city, and, near the Monadnock Food Co-op parking lot, building additional live/work spaces for artists.
Those efforts would dovetail with the co-op’s planned expansion, which, Dugan said, includes the creation of an outdoor stage space with sound and light capabilities in the amphitheater behind the store.
To “tie this all together,” Dugan said, MEDC wants to have the block of Gilbo Avenue between Main and St. James streets discontinued, buy the land from the city and turn it into a pedestrian-only area.
He said MEDC recently hired a consultant to solicit public input about how to shape the pedestrian area, which should begin soon, and come up with possible designs. “When we build this common area that runs through the middle of the site, we don’t just want it to be a boring green space,” Dugan said.
The public Gilbo East and Commercial Street parking lots would be accessible via Gilbo Avenue, St. James Street and Wilson Street, which would form a T intersection at the western end of the pedestrian area.
Carl B. Jacobs, a Keene city councilor and local arts booster, said he’s excited about Dugan’s proposal.
“There’s so many people involved in the arts,” Jacobs said, “and to have the business community, represented by Jack, to be involved in it as well, it’s just — I think it’s all good for the economic vitality of Keene.”
Keene City Manager Elizabeth A. Dragon said Dugan has talked to city officials about the idea, which she said could complement city efforts to think about the future of downtown. “It is something that I think would be a asset to the region,” she said.
The next steps include community engagement, obtaining the necessary city approvals and securing financing. Multiple funding programs aimed at community development, including New Market Tax Credits, Opportunity Zone incentives and Community Development Block Grants, should be available, Dugan said.
MEDC is also planning to hire consultants to study the demand for live/work spaces for artists and to develop a plan for the operating entity that would oversee the corridor on an ongoing basis.
“Somebody’s gotta be in charge of cleaning; somebody’s gotta be in charge of maintaining it, scheduling events, promoting access to the site, including events (at) the site,” Dugan said. “To that end, we’ll create a business plan; we’ll capitalize an operating entity to run the project after we build it.”
Dugan said he hopes to get the project underway by the end of next year. He said one reason it can work is that just a few entities — MEDC, the city and Keene State — already own most of the property in question.
The project as envisioned would require the City Council’s sign-off on several aspects, including discontinuing a portion of Gilbo Avenue and selling city land.
Dugan stressed that the proposal is still preliminary, and could change significantly before becoming reality. “There’s a lot of other people above my pay grade who need to approve this,” he said.