Most important in considering what Keene’s downtown should be, moving forward, is figuring out what it is. There’s the picturesque, tree-lined main thoroughfare. There are zoning overlays and ordinances that mostly keep it looking right for its quaint, old New England roots. There are restaurants and services aplenty, plus increasingly fewer retail operations. Galleries and coffee shops, bakeries and banks dot the landscape. But there are empty spaces, too, and elements — such as a welcome center or large-scale performance/convention venue — that have been requested, but not materialized.
Jack Dugan, president of Monadnock Economic Development Corp., proposes a big-picture plan for a core of downtown focused largely along Gilbo Avenue. It would include a much larger skate park; a 1,500-seat covered performance pavilion; a welcome center; a pedestrian-only area; artist residences and work spaces; and maybe an old train, with a dining car that houses a modern eatery and a sleeping car that doubles as an Airbnb. Across Main Street, along Railroad Square, would be an improved amphitheater along the bike path, and a new building for more artists.
This is the “arts corridor” proposal that’s been the talk of the city for the past few months. Since being announced, it’s been met with a mixture of excitement and skepticism. The common refrains from doubters have been that the plan is “Keene trying to be like (insert your favorite artsy city here: Portsmouth; Northampton, Mass.; Burlington, Vt.; Providence)” and that it’s an “if we build it, they will come” dream. The latter complaint often refers to the pavilion, though the idea of the retrofitted train cars — a sentimental favorite of Dugan’s given the location’s railroad history — has raised some eyebrows as well.
The plan also includes closing part of Gilbo, extending Wilson Street and making St. James Street a two-way road. It would definitely change downtown traffic and parking. There would be noise to consider. Project construction would be disruptive, certainly. And then there’s the cost.
Dugan said this week the cost to the city would be minimal. In fact, he said, the bulk of the estimated $30 million price tag would be what he calls “soft money” — that is, funds that are loaned, then returned, plus more than a pinch of state and federal grants, tax credits and other sources. What makes it work right now, he said, is the combination of resources he’s used in the past, such as tax increment financing and New Markets Tax Credits, plus some new resources available specifically because parts of Keene have been deemed economically distressed. The west side of Main Street, along Gilbo Avenue, is a census tract the state designated last year as an economic opportunity zone. And Cheshire County was added this past year to the Northern Border Regional Commission’s list of counties eligible for economic development help. That the city qualifies for such distinctions is concerning, but in this case, perhaps, something to be taken advantage of.
Because of those funding mechanisms, Dugan says, there will be little debt accrued in building out the project. It will also, at least temporarily, add to the city’s tax base, since several buildings and tracts that are now tax-exempt would need to be designated as for-profit, owned by an offshoot of MEDC, to receive the funding. That would include the areas of Gilbo Avenue and Railroad Square Dugan hopes the city will sell to MEDC, along with the Transportation Center. It also includes the large dirt lot along Gilbo now controlled by Keene State College, and the building behind St. James Episcopal Church that houses the church’s thrift store. Those properties would go on the tax rolls for at least seven years, after which Dugan envisions them being returned to their original owners or otherwise sold.
The question is whether those seven years of taxes are worth tying up the properties long-term, with some of them maybe returning to non-taxpaying status. Consider those spaces aren’t generating any tax dollars now, and likely wouldn’t far into the future. If the city’s outlay for the project is minimal, it could be well worth it for that alone. And the proposal aims to bring additional visitors to downtown events and attractions with the hope of benefiting local businesses that are facing increasingly fierce competition from online enterprises.
Then there’s this: Among the biggest complaints of the city’s critics is that there’s not enough business offsetting residents’ taxes, not enough jobs and not enough growth. Keene’s population has been stagnant and aging for the past several decades, and major employers have been slowly moving their jobs elsewhere. If this plan makes Keene a more attractive location for young workers to live, offering a more-rounded, vibrant cultural experience, it may serve as a draw for the skilled workers employers seek, and in turn spur business growth.
In that sense, perhaps it is an “if you build it” project, but Dugan knows better than anyone what’s holding back development in Keene, and there aren’t any other meaningful plans on the table.
This project may incorporate some aspects of cultural development from elsewhere, but in the end, it seems to be trying to build on Keene’s existing strengths. Keene isn’t trying to become “artsy.” Widespread support for recent building projects and events such as the Walldogs festival show we already are.
Is this the right plan for so big a chunk of Keene’s downtown? Also, does the planned project fit with what the city has laid out in its master planning? Would any rezoning need to occur? How will it affect existing businesses, traffic, parking and other issues?
It’s an intriguing and promising plan, but there’s a long way to go, and it’s good that the process calls for upcoming public input.