It’s hard to sell anything without a road.”
That may not seem true in a retail sense these days, with so much selling occurring online. But it remains as true as ever in selling a community to prospective businesses.
Thus, the statement above, from Mark Tigan, chairman of the Winchester Economic Development Corp. — said with equal parts optimism and wistfulness last week — as the development group’s longtime Holy Grail took a big step toward reality.
Work on the park’s critical infrastructure began last week, six years after the town approved an initial feasibility study for the project. WEDC began working with town officials in 2012 to turn the former gravel pit off Route 119 into an industrial complex, which it calls Stone Mountain Business Park.
But efforts to create a business park with which to draw commerce to town date back much further than that. A 2008 charrette on reimagining the downtown suggested turning the former A.C. Lawrence Tannery property into a business park. That site had been eyed for business development since the company abruptly closed and left town in 1987, but contamination on the site eventually made local officials look elsewhere.
The town acquired the former gravel pit behind Evergreen Cemetery more than a decade ago, and the WEDC was created shortly after to guide the $1.1 million infrastructure project.
When the infrastructure is completed next spring — including Tigan’s desired road — the 63-acre industrial park will be able to support 250,000 square feet of manufacturing and office space and up to 1,000 jobs on five building sites.
If filled, the park will provide a double shot of economic vitality.
“We have a high poverty rate and high unemployment rate in Winchester,” Tigan said in 2015. “There are a number of people who are unemployed looking for better jobs.” So employment is one goal. The town has long lagged most of the region, and state, in median household income. This year, it ranks 211th of the state’s 235 communities, and last in the Monadnock Region.
The other goal is lowering the town’s tax rate, which in 2019 was $35.64 per $1,000 in property value, fifth highest in the state.
“Our mission … is to alleviate the size of the residential property tax,” Tigan told The Sentinel’s Caleb Symons last week. “We’d like to increase our tax base.” As of 2018, 77 percent of the town’s taxable property was residential, and only 17 percent was commercial (the rest is public utilities, current use or other).
The infrastructure work that’s now begun on Stone Mountain Business Park will take a while. The just-as-daunting task of drawing tenants still awaits. But the town has some advantages there. Relatively close to Interstate 91 and Keene’s Dillant-Hopkins Airport, there’s ready access to transportation. The park will feature town water and sewer, and electrical costs could be lowered by access to electricity generated by two solar farms that will be built adjacent to the property.
It remains to be seen whether this will provide the boost for which the town has longed. But it’s certainly promising, and other than funding sources for the project, it’s been solely the hard work of those in town — not just the WEDC, but many town officials and others as well — that has brought it to fruition.
It’s been a long road, but the destination may now be in sight.