F or months, the city government has been pondering locating a public bathroom downtown, for residents and visitors alike. The presumed location has been in or near the transportation center on Gilbo Avenue, just off Main Street. There had been public restrooms there, but they were closed several years ago after someone started a fire in one. The proposal began last spring, put forth by the Monadnock Interfaith Project, the idea being that the city’s transient population needs restrooms. The alternative, advocates say, is people doing their business in public. That’s something no one wants for multiple reasons, including — importantly — that it’s a blow against the personal dignity of the person involved.
But it seems the big hurdle right now in getting the city’s support for the project isn’t cost or who would use the facilities.
It’s the arts.
The arts? Well, yes. You see, over the past several years, local proponents of both the performing arts and visual arts have been increasingly promoting the city as an arts stronghold, building on successes such as Art Walk, Art in the Park, the Keene Music Festival and Monadnock International Film Festival. The successful fundraising campaign for a new MoCo Arts facility and next summer’s impending Walldogs festival of mural painting are just two high-profile examples building on that longstanding support. Advocates have been stepping up to have a say in other areas, from calling for sculptures on public spaces to making sure the arts community is represented in any plans to revitalize the downtown and the rewriting of city zoning codes.
Now, apparently, there are plans to create what’s being called “an arts and culture corridor” along Gilbo Avenue and across Main Street, leading through Railroad Square to the Monadnock Food Co-op. No one seems ready to discuss much more about the project, beyond that description and that the plan is being formulated by the Monadnock Economic Development Corp. A City Council panel last month discussed putting on hold any plans for public restrooms while the details of the arts project are worked out. It seems the city-owned transportation center might well be part of the project — which might also explain why councilors seem so willing to cut ties with the owner of Taqueria Odelay, who has been paying rent there with an eye toward starting a microbrewery/pub. Odelay owner Ash Sheehan now seems to have his eye on private space elsewhere, costing the city revenue.
The arts are an important part of the community, and a big project furthering that success would be welcome. But such a project is at best years away and plans seem nebulous at this point. It seems city officials are willing to simply put a hold on anything to do with Gilbo Avenue and Railroad Square until a concrete proposal is presented. Why? Well, consider the involvement of Monadnock Economic Development Corp. MEDC and its president, Jack Dugan, have a long history of turning grants, loans, tax credits and other sources into development opportunity, which has been a boon to both public and private projects. City leaders seem content to trust Dugan will come up with a project that will enhance the downtown and promote the arts. That may turn out to be true. We certainly wouldn’t bet against it. But according to the few documents available referencing the topic, Dugan’s hope is to have a concept ready to be discussed in about 15 months.
And recall MEDC’s most visible downtown effort: the redevelopment of the former railroad land on the east side of Keene’s downtown. What began with grandiose plans for a baseball stadium-centered development morphed over two decades, including at times multi-level parking garages, an indoor ice rink and more, and eventually became the Marriott hotel, offices, senior housing and the Monadnock Food Co-op, along with a few smaller uses. All that may be for the best; these uses are valuable. But they’re not what was originally pitched.
In other words, these things don’t always go as first envisioned and they can take years to get off the ground, much less to complete. That’s a long time to ask downtown shoppers, visitors and, yes, the homeless, to cross their legs and hope.
City leaders ought to be looking to find a solution for that need now, and surely there must be viable options not at the transportation or even in the Gilbo Avenue corridor. If not, they can figure out how it fits with any plans MEDC eventually puts forth when the time comes.