Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Franklin Looks to the Future

Respecting the Past, Building for Tomorrow, Franklin Sets a Course for a Brighter Future

  • Franklin's Early History

    The city of Franklin lies in the northeastern part of Merrimack county. The territory embraced within the bounds of the present city of Franklin originally comprised a portion of the towns of Sanborton, Salisbury, Andover and Northfield. Less than a 30 minute drive from the Capitol city Concord and 30-45 minutes from big lakes and the White Mountains, it is ideally situated for an active family.
    Archeological and historical records establish the region today known as Franklin as one of the most heavily used sites among first peoples in New Hampshire. It is of little wonder really, the confluence of three rivers, The Merrimack, the Winnipesaukee and the Pemigewasset all established this area as one rich in natural resources and game. While this would firmly establish the region as a central part of Native American life in the area, it would also presage a struggle for the rich area with the arrival of settlers from Europe. With few exceptions the region now encompassing Franklin, is historically one of the most noted for struggles and violence between Native Peoples and European settlers in New Hampshire.
    The first permanent settlement of the town was made in 1748 when a fort was built and occupied for several months. Philip Call and his son Stephen are ascribed the honor of having been the first permanent settlers within the bounds of the present town, at that time a portion of Salisbury.
    A short ten years later a family moved into town who would ultimately change the course of NH history and place their mark on the history of the nation. . . the family Webster. Though there is some dispute over names, Henry Cabot Lodge?s work seems to clarify that one Ebenezer Webster, son of Thomas Webster of Massachusetts Bay Colony, moved to what is now Franklin with his cousin John. To Ebenezer would be born two sons, Ezekiel and Daniel Webster. The later to become one of the nation?s greatest orators and passionate abolitionists. One great measure of Daniel Webster, the man, is how many lay claim to his legacy: Phillip Exeter Academy, Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, all lay claim to the Webster legacy, each seeming to ignore the impact of the other on the development of Webster's greatness. However, there seems to be no question that the rigor, idealism and character of Daniel Webster were largely forged right here along the banks of the mighty Merrimack River in Franklin.
    The natural resources brought to bear by the three rivers were not wasted by early settlers. In addition to the rich game resources they offered for the sustenance of body they would quickly be harnessed for manufacturing purposes.   
    According to "The History of Merrimack and Belknap Counties, New Hampshire". Edited by D. Hamilton Hurd and Published in 1885, The first mill in this town was the old "town-mill," of the original town of Sanbornton."
    Soon followed one of the first planning mills in this part of the country, the erection of which the historical record indicates, was celebrated with copious amounts of "Potato Whisky". Other mills followed, notably a granite mill erected in 1822 by John Cavender and others at Franklin Falls; The Franklin Woolen Mills, erected in 1863; a hosiery mill; and, the Winnipiseogee Paper Company mill.
    Against the backdrop of this flurry of development a struggle took place to create the town of Franklin from portions of the surrounding towns. Like similar struggles today, and historically, the lines of the public debate were drawn officially around convenience for the citizenry, but the real struggle, as always, was about money, resources and territory. Ultimately those who sought to carve out a separate town prevailed and in December of 1828 Franklin was officially incorporated. In 1895 Franklin was officially designated as one of NH's cities. The power supplied by the river and these mills made Franklin an industrial powerhouse among NH cities and towns and firmly established its dominance. With easy access to the power of the rivers for the purposes of manufacturing Franklin would continue to flourish through the hay day of the Industrial revolution.

    Historic Changes Sweep the Country

    Like many American cities built in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, rapid growth and the need to create housing for a dramatically increasing population created a burst of unplanned development and crowding. Because of this, Franklin developed a very dense central core and, for all intents and purposes, became a walking city. Most residents did not have cars and perceived no need for them. Life was lived in a small enclave where their physical, spiritual and monetary needs were, at least in a modest fashion, met. Small local stores dotted the landscape of the city providing easy access to the necessities for residents and within a 1/2 mile radius of the city center more than six different churches provided spiritual guidance to a population comprised largely of blue color laborers, many of them immigrants - a large number of them from Poland.
    It is easy to fall into the trap of either romanticizing or condemning life as it was for those who lived in Franklin during this time. Easy . . . but not useful. In truth, life was a mixed bag. Weekdays brought little more than long hard hours of backbreaking labor but on weekends there was a sense of community and place that a only tightly knit community can provide. Ethnic clubs, churches, dance halls and the Franklin Opera house all flourished and served as places where a hard working breed of men and women could find joy and solace and express their need for community.
    For more than a century this formula worked for Franklin but, in what seemed like the blink of an eye to many residents, Franklin was caught in the whirlwind of social change. In the mid 1900s the world changed and Franklin would confront a crisis, first of geographic and social happenstance and later of confidence. Ultimately, it would be their sense of community that would see them through - but not without a generation in the economic wilderness.

    Shifting Economic and Social Sands

    During the later half of the 20th century, Franklin began a period of decline, precipitated by two monumental changes in American life: The end of the Industrial era and the rise of the automobile.
    One of the monumental changes of the late industrial era was the building of the Interstate Highway System. The brainchild of Dwight Eisenhower and his advisors, the Highway system was sold as a national defense project but the real agenda was commerce. Movement of product across the US was encumbered by an antiquated system of roads and Eisenhower saw a day when commerce would flourish as a result of easy access to systems of transportation that moved beyond restrictive routes imposed by the rails. The building of the Interstate Highway system would be one of the great achievements of history but, as is always the case with historic change, it would also create winners and losers in its path. Interstate 93 would pass right through Franklin but access to it, and to the commercial growth it would create, would belong to surrounding towns.
    The Interstate highway system catalyzed a love affair with the automobile already in motion. But the Interstate system was also emblematic of other social and economic changes taking place in America. Life was speeding ahead, highways were replacing railroads, brain was replacing brawn, education was becoming the currency of growth and many industries were in the process of a decline that would lead them to other locations or to outright extinction.
    One by one the mills began to close, so too did many of the businesses that relied upon the commerce generated by the steady stream of laborers. By the 1980’s Franklin was a city in crisis. Left to its own devices by a state tax system that relies almost totally on local tax revenues for local needs, Franklin went through a tumultuous period of internal political upheaval, legal litigation as a part of the landmark Claremont Education suit and a crisis of self-confidence.

    Signs of Light in the Darkness

    Yet even during its darkest days there were signs that Franklin had not forgotten its essence. After a devastating fire destroyed the Grevior Furniture company in 1981, the community banded together to help Nate, Bob and Andrea "Andy" Grevior rebuild their company. The people of Franklin may have been down, but they were not out, and they were determined to stand by a family and a business that had stood by them since 1932.  Despite the fact that Nathan Grevior had not carried a single bit of insurance on his business; customers, suppliers, manufacturers and the local community bank, Franklin Savings Bank, stepped to the plate and provided the Greviors with the moral and financial support to rebuild. Today, one generation (and one more fire) later, Bob and Andy Grevior and son Jason, have rebuilt the business to nearly 30,000 square feet of inventory and sell furniture all over New Hampshire.
    The Grevior furniture story was not the only sign that a sense of community was alive and well in Franklin. Throughout the city small groups of people were banding together to work on problems - each group comprised of dedicated citizens but with little knowledge of what others were doing. These were the points of light from which the beam of energy now focused on Franklin would emerge.
    2001 was a watershed year in the Franklin Renaissance. In the early days of the new century some of the leaders among the various community efforts had started to talk about unifying their work. It was clear that for years various groups - ranging from educational support groups to the Chamber of Commerce and the Franklin Industrial Development Commission - had been laboring on their own to bring about a better future for Franklin. Each in fact had begun to lay granite blocks in the foundation of a better future. What was missing was the mortar for those blocks - the power of a concerted effort.
    What emerged was "Franklin First" a nacient organization to give focus to the many community efforts. Christopher Boothby of Franklin Regional Hospital and Sarah Stanley and Michael Seymour of Franklin Savings Bank were among the sparkplugs ready to ignite an engine that they hoped would soon be running at full throttle. While the engine was not quite ready to roar just yet there was no question that good things were happening.
    "We thought at first that it was just a PR issue," said Boothby, "we thought if we could just make others see Franklin the way we did, that would be enough. So we put out an RFP (request for proposal) for a public relations campaign." Among the people that Franklin First asked to submit proposals was Don Jutton of Municipal Resources Incorporated in Meredith. Jutton and the MRI team have been instrumental in on-going creative community redevelopment efforts throughout the state, including in Littleton, Berlin, Troy and Meredith. "Don showed up," laughs Boothby, "and threw cold water all over us . . . but he got us thinking and planning and working together. Where the others had come with impressive Power Point presentations and proposals, Don walked in with nothing, rolled up his sleeves and said let's talk ".
    Jutton himself describes the occasion much more diplomatically. "At first we had considered just not submitting a proposal, but, after some reflection, we threw caution to the wind and decided to go there and tell them the truth." That truth was that what Franklin needed was a full-blown effort to engage the whole community in planning for and developing their future. A focused process that involved bringing disparate voices within the community together to define where they wanted to go and then, charting strategies to get there . . . a process that invested them in the building of community.
    "A community is an organic system," Jutton said. "Economic development trails community development. Focus on building community, with an eye toward the future and economic growth will follow. There is no quick fix - its often messy and always slow." Jutton continued "We figured that we would tell them and they would choose someone else to work with . . . but they got it. Franklin is a Jewell in the rough and these folks are going to make things happen."
    What followed was a process that gradually gained a serious amount of steam in a very short time.
    Based on Jutton's encouragement, they embraced a model provided by the national Main Street Program, citizens, activists and community and business leaders came together in a group that has now adopted the moniker "Choose Franklin". They have made this group the focal point for all the ongoing efforts within the community. Separate committees within the whole address specific needs including communication, economic policy planning, capital improvements, community development and they share their progress, frustrations and setbacks with one another on a regular basis. "What we discovered," said Sarah Stanley "is that a little bit of communication goes a long way. We started a little monthly community email newsletter last year with a handful of email addresses and a page of information, partly as a result of losing the town's only newspaper. Today more than 400 people subscribe and it has grown to 15 pages of information, events and ideas."
    What they also discovered was that there were a whole lot of people out there ready to participate in building the consensus for moving forward. More important, they were willing to put their shoulders to the wheel to make it happen.
    Christopher Boothby described "Choose Franklin's" role as akin to the television show "Friends" a show about nothing.  "We do nothing ourselves but facilitate and support the efforts being made by others and help them to be successful and consistent with the developing vision."
    In 2001 Casey Family Services, a part of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, opened the first family resource center actually located in a school in Franklin and launched its "Franklin Celebrates" program in cooperation with the community. Aimed at providing additional support to the school system as it worked to improve the quality of education, the resource center provides homework help; support services for families; an after school enrichment program as well as a six week summer enrichment program and more. Cary Gladstone, coordinator of "Franklin Celebrates" points to a whopping 50% decline in the dropout rate as evidence that the concerted efforts of school officials, teachers, citizens and the family resource center is working. "This is a team effort, and we don't want to suggest that our program is the reason why the dropout rate has declined so dramatically," said Gladstone. "by working together we've all made this happen." All signs point to the conclusion that he's right: test scores are improving; 70% of graduates now go on to some form of higher education and students and teachers alike will attest to the fact that there is something special happening.

    The Healthcare Front

    On the healthcare front Lakes Region General Hospital merged with Franklin Regional Hospital creating synergies that would dramatically improve the quality and delivery of healthcare services, transforming a much beloved, but antiquated, community hospital into a modern healthcare facility. Today Franklin Regional Hospital has just completed a five million dollar investment in a state of the art operating room.
    Emblematic of the resurgence of community, after 30 years of dormancy the Franklin Opera House re-emerged with its first production, four sell out shows of Oliver. For three decades the Opera House had been used for town offices, the district court and the police department, to the extent that in 2000 a visitor to the beautiful building on Central street could hardly recognize where the stage had been. In 1995 a small group of dedicated volunteers had begun the process based on their vision of using the opera house as a catalyst for revitalizing the downtown and helping to create positive social and cultural changes in the community. By 2001 the Opera House was again emerging as a vital part of the community with performances ranging from classical music to bluegrass, professional theatre troupes as well as the ever-popular local community theatre group dubbed the "Franklin Footlight Players". In addition the Opera House has opened its doors to the Franklin schools as a venue for their performances.

    A Sense of the Possibilities

    The synergies created by this combination of activism and communication have rapidly become more and more apparent to the Citizens of Franklin. "I always said that I wanted to live long enough to see Franklin make a come back" says Bob Grevior, "and now it's happening . . . it's REALLY happening!" Grevior has recently donated a piece of land that is being converted into Trestle View Park by volunteers and the city. Trestle View promises to lure thousands of canoeists and kayakers to the finest stretch of year-round whitewater within 2 hours of Boston, up until now a well-kept secret. The park will include a bathroom and changing rooms for paddlers and parking and easy river access on the downstream side of the nearly 2 mile stretch of whitewater.
    Just down the street from Grevior Furniture the Franklin Community Library is filled with people of all ages, logging onto the Internet, browsing the new titles and the selection of paperbacks, audio books and DVDs. Next door is a new Thai restaurant with Pad Thai and hot and sour soup to die for; Across the street Bennett Phillips and Jim Crowley have received a coveted state historic preservation award for the work they did in restoring what is now the Franklin Antiques Market, a shop boasting three floors of antiques from dealers all over New England. Upstairs in the Franklin Antiques Building is "Hexa Interactive" a boutique high-tech marketing and advertising company that specializes in fusing marketing and technology to build powerful, productive, and integrated marketing campaigns and e-business solutions. Hexainteractive is indicative of the kind of professional, high tech company that Franklin is banking on and preparing for. Chris Geddis, one of the firm's partners is a graduate of Franklin High School who spent four years in LA and returned to the community to raise his children. Hexa Interactive started out in Manchester but recently relocated to Franklin. Geddis says he and his colleagues couldn't be happier. "We moved here for the quality of life but we got 3000 square feet of terrific commercial space in a gorgeous old building in the process."
    Down the street a bit is Franklin's own assisted living facility, the Peabody home. Close enough to town to be an integral part of the community and embellished with flower gardens in the summer and holiday lighting in the winter that make it a beautiful and inviting part of the urban landscape.
    Right next to the Winnipesaukee River, as it bends around through the city center, is "Franklin Falls Apartments" a pair of old mill buildings recently converted into luxury apartments by a local developer. Many of the wonderful old characteristics of the mill building, like its hardwood floors and huge windows have been preserved and updated and add a special touch to the apartments.
    These old buildings represent a unique historic and infrastructure resource for the town and one that is not being ignored. Jim Aberg, Director of the Franklin Business and Industrial Development Corporation has been playing an active role with "Choose Franklin" including chairing its economic development committee; leading the charge for an expanded industrial park, and working in concert with Planning and Zoning Administrator Dick Lewis to update and modernize the Master Plan for the city. FBIDC is located in one of the two old mill buildings in town still in need of investors and a revitalization plan. One other Mill building is in the initial stages of redevelopment, awaiting plan approvals.
    "All of this activity", says Michael Seymour President of the Franklin Region Chamber of Commerce, "has meant a dramatic increase in the number of businesses joining the Chamber and a concomitant increase in the quality of the services that we are able to provide. One of the most exciting new developments, " Seymour continued, "is a new five minute DVD created for play on cable stations and in presentations to interested businesses. As a key component of this piece we?ve designed a very innovative 30 - 60 second "donut" ad that will allow any Franklin business to insert their own commercial into the center of the piece around which the "Choose Franklin" message will be wrapped." Key to this innovative effort were four major media players, Metrocast Cablevision and Rutter Media who will play a role in seeing that the message gets out and Bresette & Company and Spruce Creek Television who were the principal players in the production of the piece.

    On the Move Again
    A drive around town gives the clear impression that Franklin is on the move again. "People who want a beautiful home are discovering that they can get three times the value here as they can in some of the towns to the south," said Fire Chief Scott Clarenbach. And he's right. Some of the most beautiful and grand homes in all of New Hampshire are to be found in Franklin and priced as affordably as you will find them anywhere. Recently a number of large Victorian homes have been gobbled up by savvy homebuyers, including the CEO of J. Jill, a national company with facilities nearby.
    As for those of us with more modest home ownership goals, there are few places where real estate is more affordable in a community that is on the move in the right direction. Housing stock is plentiful and priced right and new affordably priced housing for professionals is being constructed as well. Not far from the city core on Salisbury Road, Sterling Meadows a housing development created by David Marcello is nearly sold out. Sterling Meadows features new homes for many of the areas growing population of professionals.
    I searched all over Franklin looking for someone who referred to Franklin as a "city" . . . but invariably the word people used was "town" or, more often, "community". This in itself is a measure of the spirit that has put Franklin on the road to a renaissance. A deep and abiding sense of community, a sense of respect for the past, hope for the future and a spirit of activism and commitment among the citizens have come together to set Franklin on the right path, poised for growth that is planned, consistent with community values and welcoming. It just doesn't get any better than that.

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