Several months after news of a proposed “arts corridor” in downtown Keene began to circulate, the vision for the space is starting to come into focus.
In May, John G. “Jack” Dugan, president of Monadnock Economic Development Corp., presented conceptual plans for the project, which would include an outdoor performance venue, spaces for artists to live and work, a welcome center, a new skate park and a pedestrian mall. The corridor would stretch along Gilbo Avenue between Main Street and School Street and extend to the Railroad Square area on the other side of Main.
In an interview Wednesday with The Sentinel’s editorial board, Dugan said the goal of the project is to bolster efforts to revitalize Keene’s downtown while also supporting the area’s already vibrant arts community.
He said he met this week with a team of consultants who specialize in “creative placemaking” to discuss possibilities for the pedestrian-only area, which would close off about a block of Gilbo Avenue between Main and St. James streets.
While planning is still in early stages, Dugan said he has heard a number of suggestions for the pedestrian space from members of the public, from dancing fountains to a playground to fire pits that could remain a draw during the winter.
Organizers also hope to buy a train for the area that would function as retail and dining space while paying tribute to Keene’s railroad history. An old dining car could house a restaurant, Dugan said, while a former sleeper car could be rented out as an Airbnb. Additional freight cars could be used for retail stores, pop-up galleries or even as rehearsal space for musicians, he explained.
“It’s kind of what made Keene,” Dugan said of the railroad that formerly ran through the Elm City. “So we want to buy a train as similar to that train as we possibly can, and it would be static on Gilbo Avenue in the sense that it won’t move, but it won’t be static in the sense that there won’t be any activity going on there.”
The outdoor performance venue, on the vacant dirt lot on the southeastern corner of School Street and Gilbo Avenue, would be 15,000 square feet and could accommodate about 1,500 people, Dugan said. That lot is currently owned by Keene State College.
In addition to performances, the pavilion could be used for large meetings and weekly farmer’s markets, and could even potentially be flooded in the winter to become an ice rink, he said.
Over the next few months, consultants hired by MEDC will hold meetings with small groups of community stakeholders, such as abutting property owners, local arts groups and economic development organizations, to get feedback on the project, Dugan said. Then, in the fall, they’ll hold a charrette for the larger community to gather more public input, he said.
MEDC plans to use a combination of revenue sources, such as New Markets Tax Credits, Opportunity Zone incentives and Community Development Block Grants, to fund the $30 million project, Dugan said.
“So why we think we can come up with the $30 million is there’s like this perfect storm of funding sources available in the corridor. I mean, it’s amazing,” he said.
To capitalize on the New Markets Tax Credits, MEDC must submit the project to community development entities this fall, with awards typically announced in the spring. After the project gets necessary approvals from the city, construction would likely begin in 2021 and last for about two years, he said.
Dugan stressed that the process has only just begun, and the plans will certainly change and become more defined along the way. And though many other communities have arts districts, Dugan said that so far, this proposal seems to be unique in its focus on downtown.
“In the course of doing this, we’ve talked to a lot of people at the state of New Hampshire at their arts organization, and we’ve talked to other communities,” he said, “and we haven’t found anything exactly like this.”