It’s a cold November morning and Todd Workman is giving the grand tour of Franklin’s main drag. With the zeal of a kid who’s just built their first city out of LEGOs, Workman weaves in and out of partially vacant old brick buildings. He shows off restored tin ceilings, art deco architectural details. And there’s a salvaged bar for what he hopes will soon be a restaurant. He gestures to the window in the corner.
“Bands in there, so you can see some bands playing at the traffic light,” Workman says. “This is the direction we’re headed, we need lots of gathering places.”
Workman has a lot of big ideas for this little city. And he’s poured more than $1,000,000 into buying real estate for redevelopment projects. Since 2015, Workman, through his non-profit PermaCity Life, has brought new investment from local banks. He helped coordinate the redevelopment of the Franklin Light and Power Company building into 45 low-income units.
Workman, who grew up a town over in Gilford, says he wants to see the once industrial City of Franklin have a new life. One that’s centered around the river.
“You know, the mills were act one. What’s act two?” Workman says.
For Workman, a major part of act two for Franklin will be staged on the Winnipesaukee River. Workman and others envision what’s called a whitewater park, a recreational water feature for kayakers that takes advantage of Franklin’s location at the convergence of three rivers.
“So we can build our town around the whitewater park,” Workman says. “We already have 15,000 - 18,000 cars a day go through here but no reason to stop.”
Just up the street at a small diner, owner Cathy Hubble, mid-way through a busy breakfast rush, says there might be a better way to go about rethinking the city. She welcomes the redevelopment, but she’s not sure it's the best first step.
“Maybe they have to start from the bottom and work their way up,” Hubble says. “Maybe instead of starting all these new projects we can fix what’s wrong first. But I think that there’s a lot of denial in Franklin.”
Hubble and others I spoke with would like to see Franklin focus on the problems it already has before moving to notions of new restaurants and whitewater parks.
Franklin has a stagnating population of around 8,500 people with close to 20 percent living below the poverty line.
Last year Franklin also struggled with a school funding crisis. And Hubble points out what she sees as another issue facing the city.
“Some people in the city are in denial that we have a homeless problem,” Hubble says. “They’re saying that we don’t have homeless. But we do.”
Hubble says she has compassion for homeless people in the area. At one time she was without a place to live and knows how it feels. But she encounters many people struggling with addiction who she says have stolen from her, or disturb customers in her restaurant. She’s even cut back the hours she’s open because she says she doesn’t feel safe at times. If things keep on the way they are, will she be in Franklin in a year?
“No. I’ll leave,” Hubble says.
Just a few doors over, Desiree Dominguez McLaughlin runs the laundromat in town. The place has become more of a community center though, with a play area for children and a small library. She says she’s seen a lot of change in the 13 years she’s worked here.
“Since we opened we noticed a spike in homelessness when the opioid crisis really first began,” McLaughlin says.
Last year, McLaughlin and others in Franklin began to feel restless about the homelessness and drug issues facing the city. Many in Franklin began referring to an area frequented by homeless people a stone’s throw from downtown as “Heroin Hill.”
“So I started a Facebook group event that just said: ‘We’re going up the hill.’ And I’m so glad we did that,” says McLaughlin. “Because it really did open a lot of avenues for me and it raised awareness.”
McLaughlin along with about 20 other residents and local police visited the encampment to check on people. She also reached out to local churches and charities to see what could be done to help.
McLaughlin says she likes that Todd Workman and others are trying to bring new life to Franklin, but it’s not something everyone can take part in right now.
“There are a lot of people who do not have access to even that kind of a vision,” she says. “They’re trying to get up in the morning and get their kids on the bus, go to their job and then probably go to their other job.”
McLaughlin sees the working class reality in Franklin on a daily basis. And she’s also well aware of how the forces of gentrification can leave them out.
“It’s going to happen anyways, there’s a movement moving forward,” she says. “Moving up, [it] started in Boston and it’s coming up this way.”
Back at Workman’s non-profit headquarters, he says he believes his approach will work for the city: That a more prosperous Franklin can bring relief by way of increased tax revenue and more funding for schools.
“You know, the homeless population, the opioid crisis, making sure that we have a quality school system ... all those things are really important,” Workman says. “We have to stick within our skillset, I mean, we’re here as a non-profit catalytic downtown development organization.”
Meanwhile, other investors are willing to make a bet that the state’s smallest city can attract new residents who are willing to pay market-rate rents. In December 2017, Chinburg Properties, a developer which owns several properties throughout the state, closed on downtown Franklin’s largest piece of real estate. The 186,000-square-foot JP Stevens Mill is set to be converted into 125 loft style units, right on the river.
Workman says this project is key to Franklin’s success.
“I mean, it’s gonna take another two or three years before it comes together, but this isn’t speculation anymore,” Workman says. “It’s not a dream, it’s not a concept. It’s all here.”
Workman believes things will get better for Franklin and he says he’s not alone in his efforts, with other nonprofits, officials and business owners working to re-envision the place.
Until then, the hope is that people will pay attention to the undercurrent of prosperity in the Three Rivers City.