Granted, Main St. could use a lift
Steve Duprey, a member of the Republican National Committee, teams up with Democratic U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen to appeal to Ray LaHood, the Republican transportation secretary appointed by President Obama. With plenty of help from others, and a clever YouTube campaign, the team wins a $4.71 million federal grant to help finance improvements to Concord's Main Street. It's hard to overestimate the good that this show of bipartisanship will accomplish. The grant will pay for 60 percent of the $7.85 million cost of a project that will transform Main Street and bring its infrastructure into the 21st century.
Concord's Main Street and downtown are attractive but in decline. Thrift stores, tattoo parlors and consignment shops are not a sign of a healthy central business district. Downtown merchants are nearly unanimous in their belief that, for their businesses to prosper and the city's economy to thrive, it's time for a major investment in Main Street. The form that investment will take will be up to the members of a task force drawn from the community. Mayor Jim Bouley plans to begin appointing members to the task force in a matter of weeks.
The task force will use the streetscape improvement plan, along with its controversial three-lane design for a portion of Main Street, as its starting point. Nothing, save for Bouley's promise that no plan will be adopted that results in a net loss of downtown parking spaces, is set in stone. Concord won the competitive grant in part, however, because its plan calls for making more, and perhaps nearly all, of Main Street accessible to the people with disabilities. At a minimum, the west side of the street will be raised to eliminate the two steps up to the sidewalk that now present an insurmountable obstacle with mobility problems.
Main Street Concord, now Intown Concord, and the defunct Concord 2020 organization learned from the mistakes made by other communities when they created the Main Street redesign plan of two years ago. It doesn't cut off any portion of downtown, as Laconia did with disastrous results. Instead, its plan incorporated ideas used during the redesign of the main streets in Littleton and Manchester, including the Queen City's three-lane approach to a portion of Elm Street. Both have brought people downtown, been a boon for business and been a resounding success.
Peel up Main Street and an urban archaeologist would find a maze of cables, pipes and wires, some of them many decades old. The street was going to have to be dug up at some point to replace them - in the worst case scenario, in piecemeal fashion as one system or another failed. The street improvement grant will allow that critical infrastructure to be upgraded and modernized while simultaneously improving pedestrian safety and the feel of downtown. High-speed fiber optic cables and piping to allow for heated sidewalks will be installed, as, we hope, will pipes to allow buildings on that 12-block stretch to switch from steam heat to natural gas if the need arises.
The pendulum has swung back from the suburbs, shopping malls and office parks of recent decades to the central city. It's where more people want to be. Improvements made possible by the federal grant will draw them and allow downtown to soar instead of dive. Eagle and Bicentennial Squares are truly beautiful community spaces, but they are off Main Street, not on it. They need to be connected by a beautiful street, one rescaled to be more people-friendly. Compare, for instance, the feel of Warren Street to Fort Eddy Road.
The mayor has set an aggressive schedule for the project. Construction is slated to start next spring. There will be ideas to explore and much to debate between now and then. We encourage you to weigh in.
We congratulate Duprey, Bouley, Shaheen and all the others who helped Concord win this highly competitive grant that - if done right - could spark an aesthetic renaissance and economic boom for downtown.