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Downtown Concord today. Courtesy photo.




Main Street project still on hold
Downsized vision will be voted on July 30

07/17/14



 If you don’t live in the Concord area, nobody would fault you if you don’t remember how the Capital City’s Main Street project got started. 

It was more than two years ago, and a lot has happened with it since. 
To recap, in the spring of 2012, Concord was one of only a few cities nationally to receive a prestigious federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant.
The $4.71 million in federal funds was slated to cover more than half the costs of an extensive downtown makeover. In the beginning, an advisory committee was created and extensive public input was sought. In total, the project was estimated to cost $7.85 million.
The proposed project was innovative and transformative. It would make downtown Concord safer, more business-friendly and accessible for people with all physical abilities. It would have wide sidewalks and less traffic, plus plenty of public gathering space and aesthetic charm. 
As it stands today, multiple setbacks have delayed groundbreaking, including costs that were significantly higher than expected. 
“I’ll be honest, nobody thought it would take this long. It was one of those situations, it was one of those things that was beyond your control a little bit,” said Brett St. Clair of Louis Karno & Company, the firm handling Main Street Project communication.
From the end of June to the middle of July, Concord City Manager Ed Roberge led a series of public meetings for City Council members and other stakeholders, culminating in a final City Council public hearing July 14 that drew more than a full house and lasted for hours.
The City Council will vote July 30 on four resolutions that could move the project into a construction phase this summer — or not. The changes that have been proposed eliminate some of the design’s original bells and whistles, and the base project is expected to cost more than $10 million. 
 
Main Street tweeks
The changes to the downtown Concord plans were worked out from February to May and made largely behind closed doors with the contactor, Severino Trucking Company of Candia, which was chosen by a special bidding process in February after the project went through two failed rounds of bidding. The secrecy concerned many residents.  
“It’s an extensive process, and I know there’s been some comment on that process that, boy, that seemed like that was somewhat behind the doors, confidential,” Roberge said in front of City Council June 30. “Some of the innovations that were introduced, it was important to remain confidential, as well as the pricing components.”
Roberge also talked about which elements of the original design had been eliminated. 
For one, the distance to be renovated has shrunk — it will no longer include sections from Concord Street to Storrs Street in the south or Center Street to Storrs Street to the north. That cuts $1.9 million from the cost. 
“The area in question is outside central business performance district,” Deputy City Manager Carlos Baia told the Hippo. “All of the plan now falls within that district. ... It’s pedestrian-oriented, whereas zoning beyond that is more highway- and car-oriented, so it made it a logical point to shorten the project.”
Another major change is doing away with a proposed sidewalk heating snow-melt system. Originally, that was going to be built in a partnership with Concord Steam, a private company that had planned to build a new steam plant. The city was going to use the plant’s excess water to heat sidewalks for free, but that private entity was not able to put that deal together, Baia said. Other natural gas and snowmelt systems options also proved too costly. 
Instead, developers proposed a “red carpet crew” — a staff of four whose sole function will be removing snow from sidewalks and parking garages, making sure downtown is swept and clean.
“Those costs would be much, much less than any other snow melt option,” Baia said. 
That saves the city roughly $4.5 million, Roberge said. 
Other project changes include using concrete for bump-out areas instead of granite and doing away with crosswalk upgrades on side streets, updated “smartlight” lighting fixtures that would have allowed for WiFi capability and audio, ornamental fencing and planters, “big belly” trash and recycling cans, and special loam soil for trees. The downtown clock tower will also remain where it is instead of being moved to a new location. 
 
A new construction schedule 
Besides design changes, how and when the construction will happen is proposed to shift. Originally, the work was supposed to occur at night, while most businesses were closed. Now, work would happen from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. 
Work is slated to be done during three summer construction phases.
During the first two phases, one-way traffic would be directed to one road while the other side is worked on. There will be extra, free two-hour parking on the open side and ramps leading to storefronts on the closed side so customers can get into shops. 
“We’re trying to mitigate interferences and proposing innovative accessibility to storefronts,” Baia said. 
Construction will proceed up the road, with two to four weeks spent in front of each property, depending on the work that needs to be done. When one side is complete, work will flip to the other. 
Contractors are set to mobilize work in the northern section of the project. Next year, the south end from Pleasant Street to Center Street will receive the same treatment, and the final season will be dedicated to finishing the landscape and streetscape items. 
The timeline is contingent upon weather, and if weather does delay construction, there isn’t much funding flexibility. 
“You got two options: Either reduce scope at that point, or go back to City Council for more dollars,” Roberge said at the June 8 public meeting. 
 
Locals highly divided
The City Council public hearing on July 14 was standing room only.
Business owners and residents flooded the room, and by 10 p.m, the meeting, which started at 7 p.m. and was dominated by public comment, wasn’t anywhere close to ending. 
“How many people would still like to testify?” Mayor Jim Bouley asked the crowd after a couple solid hours of speakers. Seven people raised their hands. 
If one thing was clear from the meeting, it was that Concord residents care about what happens to their downtown, but they are also extremely polarized on the issue. 
There were some who want to see the project disappear. 
“My sincere belief is that Concord property taxpayers already shoulder a heavy tax burden, and this project exacerbates that problem. I’m in favor of scrapping the entire Main Street [project] before it’s too late,” said resident Jim Baer. “This project is not based on need, but on special interests with agendas.”
Then there were a few on the other end of the spectrum, who asked the council to spend more money, invest bigger, and add some of those flashy bells and whistles back. 
“We feel there is a need for a wow factor in this project,” said Chamber of Commerce President Tim Sink. “One of the items that would have been a wow factor was the fountain at city plaza, and for various reasons that didn’t make it into the plan, but an area that might provide a wow factor is uplighting in some of the fixtures in downtown Concord.”
Stephen Duprey, president at Foxfire Property Management and The Duprey Companies, agreed. He said colored lighting would be the single most beneficial item to add back into the plans. 
“It should go forward,” he said. “To be very honest, I think you should spend more money. … Main Street defines a community.” 
Others still were in favor of the project but had a few specific concerns — many merchants were disappointed to see the snowmelt system go, and some wanted more parking.
Pam Peterson, owner of Gondwana Clothing, worries about moving construction to daytime hours.
“A lot of us downtown who are alive and vital because of foot traffic and only foot traffic … are dependent on people walking in. I am very concerned if our customers can’t get to us,” she said.
The administrator of Downtown Concord’s Facebook page, Nicholas Joseph, said he was in favor of the project but the city hasn’t done its job showing it will be a revenue-generator or exhausting funding options. 
“Money can be found elsewhere. Crowdfunding is a huge thing right now. There is a potato salad kickstarter campaign that has raised $50,000 as of tonight. … Other crowdfunding sources could be the chamber reaching out to the rest of the state. And why would I bring up the rest of the state? Because we’re the Capital City,” he said.
 
As seen in the July 17, 2014 issue of the Hippo.





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