In Nashua, construction workers are completing the nearly two-mile Broad Street Parkway, which connects the F.E. Everett Turnpike at exit 6 to Nashua’s Millyard district.
City officials are touting its potential to develop riverfront property, and breathe new life to Nashua’s downtown. All of this comes at a time when vacant storefronts dot Nashua’s Main Street and a coveted anchor store announced it was leaving by next year.
Money magazine named Nashua the best place to live in 1987, and again in 1997.
That ranking paired with its historic charm drew people from other states. But the city failed to meet its trumpeted promise after two recessions hit and companies like Hewlett Packard and Fidelity downsized.
Bob Cagen owns Myoptic, a boutique optical shop on Main Street. He’s weathered the ups and downs for close to two decades.
“If a city doesn’t have a vibrant downtown; if it has a ghost town, businesses will not open factories, high tech places. And that’s a big tax base.”
Cagen believes Nashua’s best days aren’t part of its past. He sees changes ahead — and not only because of the $2.7 million project to rebuild the sidewalks that run past his shop. But also from a far bigger project underway.
The new 80 million dollar throughway will route cars from the F.E. Everett Turnpike from Broad Street into the western edge of downtown.
“You’ve entered the Broad Street Parkway at this intersection…”
That’s project manager John Vancour speaking at a tour that local city leaders organized to entice developers.
“The roadway goes about 1.8 miles to the terminus.”
About 50 or so business people are some of the first to step on the fresh pavement. The visitors make their way onto a charter bus for a narrated tour.
“Lots of renovation of downtown, small spaces, straight ahead…”
Community Development Director Sarah Marchant narrates the tour on a microphone.
“Straight ahead you’ll see a construction site, the Broad St Parkway will be at end, fully functional intersection..there is access to all these properties for redevelopment purposes.”
Marchant wants her audience to look beyond any ramshackle buildings and re-imagine the city’s potential.
“This Ultima Nimco building in front of you is currently owned by the city. It has about 3-1/2 acres, river frontage all along the backside. There’s access to Mine Falls Park and direct connection the Broad Street Parkway.”
Marchant plugs a key word here: access. That’s because in the last decades, businesses like law firms and insurance agencies abandoned their downtown locales to get closer to the highway.
“We’re competing against a world that still builds everything around the automobile,” says Lowell’s Matthew Donohue, one of the investors on the tour. He owns commercial property downtown and is eyeing others for a mix of retail, housing and business.
“We’re looking at where the millennials and boomers are moving, which is the same place, and we really like this small New Hampshire city because it has a small town feel with all this urban energy,” Donahue says.
Probably the best place to experience that homey, but hustling center of commerce is the family-run shoe store on Main Street. It’s that rare shop where the salesperson who fit your kid’s first baby shoes is asking where your child is going to college.
Alec’s Shoes has been in Nashua’s downtown for 70 years. But second-generation owner John Koutsas announced he’s moving by next spring.
“Obviously it was a tough decision. But it wasn’t a tough decision from a business standpoint.”
Koutsas, who owns the property on Main Street, says he wants to grow his business. And so he bought another building in Nashua with 200 parking spaces and great access: It’s off exit 8 on the Everett Turnpike.
Across from Alec’s Shoes is DesignWares gift shop, a fixture since the 90s. Owner MaryLou Blaisdell says she’s not the only one the shoe store’s departure impacts.
“There’s not a day that goes by that you don’t’ see many Alec’s shoe bags walking back and forth. Those customers come in droves. That, we all play off of.”
Koutsas says to lure more pedestrians to the sidewalks, downtown needs more mom-and-pop shops that offer the basics: good customer service and products you can’t find at the mall. But he admits that’s not easy to do.
“The proliferation of online retailing has prevented people from opening up independent locations. To open one would require millions and millions of dollars of investing in shoes at the scale we do it. It just won’t happen anymore.”
Blaisdell of DesignWares tries to put a positive spin on Alec’s departure. She says it represents a new page for downtown.
“We have a committee of downtown people that are visiting other cities within a two-hour radius to see what other independents might look at Nashua.”
Blaisdell says the city also needs to create more housing downtown, so people can walk to shops and restaurants. That’s been a strong focus for Economic Development Director Tom Galligani.
“People are recognizing they can get higher rents then they could five years ago. In five years, you’ll probably see up to 500 new housing units in downtown Nashua.”
It’s been a month since the bus tour brought potential developers closer to the wide stretch of greenspace along the Nashua River.
“People are shopping right now, but they haven’t come to the check-out line,” Galligani says.
The Broad Street Parkway is expected to open by late fall. By then, Galligani is hoping investors will view downtown Nashua from a new vantage point.