The head of a local economic development group laid out its vision for a proposed arts and culture corridor on Thursday, describing an 11-acre swath on either side of Keene’s Main Street with performance venues, artist studios and a vibrant, walkable outdoor space tying it all together.
While the idea has been pitched publicly for more than a year, Thursday’s presentation to the Keene City Council was based on a recent conceptual study. It included more details about the elements that could be part of the corridor and possible next steps.
The project is being proposed by Monadnock Economic Development Corp., a private nonprofit. MEDC President Arthur Robert said the organization is ready to move forward, though the City Council has not given any formal approval to the project yet. And during Thursday’s meeting, a couple of city councilors said they needed more information before it progresses.
Speaking to a virtual gathering of the council, Robert said the goal is to create a lively downtown area that would draw visitors, support local artists and bring new businesses to town.
“In my mind, it’s all about creating a destination, where an attractive and highly walkable corridor along the Cheshire Rail Trail connects art venues, arts installations, activated public space with performance venues,” he said.
He said this would contribute to economic development.
“An activated space that reflects creativity and energy will also be attractive to creative economy businesses,” he said. “Web and UX [user-experience] companies. Design firms. Marketing organizations. Video and gaming businesses. Their employees thrive with a dynamic urban setting that is marked by creativity and activity.”
The corridor’s envisioned footprint would start at School Street in the west, follow Gilbo Avenue to Main Street and continue on the other side to the area of the Monadnock Food Co-op.
Robert said the corridor would tie together various elements. Some — like an amphitheater near the co-op, an upgraded skate park and a new venue managed by The Colonial Theatre — are already in the works thanks to the efforts of other organizations.
Other elements would include a large covered pavilion on what’s now vacant land south of Gilbo Avenue, live-work spaces for artists and a visitors center with public restrooms at the city-owned 12 Gilbo Ave. building.
Robert said a key part of the plan involves “activating” the outdoor space connecting those elements. By that, he meant enriching it with things like overhead café lighting, public art, gathering spots, water features, even repurposed railroad cars “to either host small performances or pop-up stores.”
As part of the plan, he recommended closing one block of Gilbo Avenue, from Main Street to St. James Street. But he acknowledged that would involve serious discussions with the city and nearby property owners about logistics.
Finally, he said, the conceptual plan suggests “a defining monument or marker to pull together the corridor” — such as an arch spanning Main Street.
A nonprofit entity would be created to manage scheduling for venues, oversee upkeep and conduct other operations, he said.
After Robert’s presentation, some city councilors said they don’t feel informed enough about the project — including the discussions between MEDC and city staff — and want more details before it moves forward.
“My personal recommendation is, before another minute of staff time is put forward on this … I would like a little bit more of an update on some of these questions,” including financing, said Councilor Randy Filiault, who represents the city at large.
Ward 2 Councilor Mitch Greenwald, who owns a Main Street-based realty firm, emphasized that the City Council has not signed off on it yet. He said one big question is whether “any part of this is going to pay property taxes.”
“This is the last great frontier for Keene, and if it’s all to be nonprofit, I am really a little distressed about that,” he said. “I think we need taxpayers, we need job producers, and I think it could be a mix if it’s going to happen.”
Robert said a large portion of it would be “activated public space,” but particular aspects of the project might be able to generate tax revenue.
Councilor At Large Kate M. Bosley, who operates Henderson Bosley Properties on Gilbo Avenue, said, “I have not met with anyone concerning how this will affect my business.” She added that her biggest concern would be parking.
“I would also ask that you spend a lot of time reaching out to the different businesses in the community and get them to buy in,” she said.
According to Robert’s presentation, there are still challenges to be worked out. Those include funding. He said MEDC would seek federal incentives, which the organization has experience with, as well as private philanthropy. Some elements would come with their own revenue streams, such as rent for artist spaces.
MEDC also has to work with property owners about the sites and make sure the city is on board with key decisions.
Next, he said, MEDC will continue to engage with the City Council and community, follow up with arts and culture groups and downtown stakeholders, coordinate with city staff and draw up a realistic, phased implementation plan.
“We think we have a preferred path forward,” he said. “We’ve shared that with you tonight. The challenge before us all is to determine a path forward from concept to reality.”