Like many other New Hampshire communities, the city of Franklin has tried for decades to recover from a lost mill economy resulting in an aging population, struggling schools, and a downtown with lots of vacant storefronts.
The state’s smallest and one of its poorest cities has ambitious plans for growth, making it an appealing backdrop for candidates in the 2020 presidential primary race.
But how well are these candidates, who are promising to restore the nation, addressing the issues that matter most to Franklin?
A crowd of a few hundred people are gathered in the auditorium of Franklin High School on a chilly Sunday morning earlier this month to see Pete Buttigieg.
We wanted to get a better understanding of what’s actually happening in Franklin. So after the event, we went to meet with local leaders.
Just down the road at the center of downtown is The Franklin Studio, a coffee and gift shop owned by City Councilor Jo Brown.
Brown grew up in Franklin. And after 30 years in the Air Force, she and her husband moved back to be closer to family. Then they decided to open the shop.
“Actually we were one of the first stores that came in and stayed,” Brown said. “We’ve had a lot of pop ups. It is an investment, and my husband and I can tell you about that.”
Brown is involved in several community development projects hoping to grow Franklin’s economy.
She’s also working with other local leaders to bring in trade training to Franklin schools to encourage students to stay and work in manufacturing facilities in the area.
It’s one part in her broader plan to make Franklin a more attractive place to live for young people.
“We’ve got a lot going on in this next year. It is going to be really exciting,” Brown said. “There’s a nice, young couple or so that’s going to come in and say I like your storefront, and I’m going to say here’s my price and it’s yours.”
She’s following the 2020 primary closely. As a local leader, she’s heard from several campaigns, some of which have worked out of a conference space at her store.
Buttigieg will have her vote, but she’s not looking for him or any other presidential candidate to save Franklin.
“I’m not sure that there’s a whole lot that they could do directly,” Brown said. “I do think it does need to come through the state, and it does need to be worked out through the cities.”
When it comes to the presidential race, she’s interested in hearing from candidates on issues beyond the reach of local policymakers — like health care, immigration and national security.
Marty Parichand, owner of the Outdoor New England sports store next door, is also looking for ways to improve the city. But he’s still waiting to hear more clarity from candidates on one particular issue – climate change.
“Just as a person who loves being outside and wants my kids to enjoy that, when we struggle or fight about climate change, you know it’s concerning to me,” Parichand said.
Parichand’s love for the outdoors is one of the reasons he moved to Franklin about a year ago. He looks at the river flowing through downtown and sees it as an opportunity to build a whitewater park.
“It’s really a unique concept that we have whitewater rapids when the flow’s high enough that dumps into our downtown,” Parichand said. “So it’s kind of like an urban rafting experience or an urban kayaking experience. But we’re really starting at the foundation of rebuilding Franklin.”
The plan for the whitewater park is to attract more visitors and eventually businesses. And he sees ways the federal government plays a role in the revitalization of the city.
“Everything from land and water conservation funds, to historic tax credits, to new market tax credits, to CDFA tax credits – all of those things that help communities like ours are really important,” Parichand said.
He’s concerned that political leaders on the national level are too divided to accomplish much when it comes to climate change and economic development in rural communities.
“If we all work together here in Franklin, we’ll be able to meet or exceed our goals. And putting our political affiliations aside, we can get that done and increase our quality of life here and in the surrounding communities,” Parichand said. “But I don’t see that playing out on the national level.”