Keeping downtown Keene relevant a constant work in progress

2017-11-25 | Keene Sentinel

Nov. 25 --O n a recent Sunday in downtown Keene, a young man in a ball cap played cello in front of Creative Encounters, a frame and arts shop. A handful of listeners sat on benches or stood nearby in the shade of a large tree, absorbing the music, which seemed to weave bluegrass and Bach into a harmonious whole.

A man popped out of a nearby shop with a package of chalk. He crouched with his two young kids on the sidewalk in front of the busker. They covered the pavement in pastel arrows, animal faces and various other shapes, as shoppers and strollers stepped carefully around them on their way past stores and coffee shops and clothing boutiques.

Aside from the occasional passerby dropping a dollar into a box at the cellist's feet, the scene was devoid of transactions. Nonetheless, it encapsulated just the sort of energy that leads to an economically healthy and vibrant downtown.

More than an agglomeration of commerce, a 21st Century downtown should be a "hub of activity," said Mary Ann Kristiansen , executive director of the Hannah Grimes Center for Entrepreneurship .

"It is critical that people want to go there ... that people are drawn there, that there's parking, that there's activities they want to participate in" --whether that's shopping, dining, catching a show or just wandering for a bit, she said.

The interplay among different sectors -- including retail, dining and the arts -- along with attractive buildings and plantings, gives downtown Keene its spark of life, business owners, civic leaders and other longtime observers of the local economy said.

"People live, work and play in the downtown area," said Ward 2 City Councilor Carl B. Jacobs , who serves on Keene's Downtown Revitalization Committee. "Very few (downtowns) have all three, and I think all three is what makes us vibrant."

At the same time, those observers said, to maintain and improve the downtown's vitality going forward, the city and its residents must consider several issues, from increasing parking and enhancing walkability to rethinking retail and reimagining the role of a Main Street in the era of Amazon.

Ebbs and flows

When Mitchell H. Greenwald came to Keene in 1970, " Main Street was the shopping center," he said. "It was the main hub of all retail in Keene ." Shoppers bought on Main Street then what they buy at Target, Walmart and T.J. Maxx today.

With his wife, he opened a clothing store on Main Street in 1971.

"It was a very thriving downtown," said Greenwald, now a Ward 2 City Councilor, a member of the revitalization committee and owner of a real estate company with its front door on Main Street . "Christmastime, it was elbow-to-elbow shoppers."

But by the early 1990s, retail downtown had begun to falter, he said. The Colony Mill Marketplace , which opened in 1983, lured some businesses away from the Main Street corridor with indoor shopping and attractive, modern stores. And about the end of that decade, Greenwald said, discount retailers started popping up outside the city center. Soon enough, downtown lost its big retail anchors, like Sears and Woolworth's.

"There (were) some hard times downtown," Jacobs said, remembering vacant storefronts.

But, he said, "This community really rallies. So, there were a number of things that happened."

For one, the city overhauled the downtown "steetscape," creating what Jack Dugan , head of the Monadnock Economic Development Corp. , called "the look that is downtown."

And as stores vacated, restaurants, bars and coffee shops took their place, ushering in a "turn in the character of downtown," which Greenwald said has persisted to this day.

"The town began to take on new life, and I think you still see that today," said Daniel Henderson , now director of corporate partnerships and strategic initiatives at Keene State College . Henderson arrived in Keene in 1987.

"When I first moved here, when you went downtown at 5 o'clock, unless there was a show going on at The Colonial (Theatre) ... it was dead."

In the early 1990s, Henderson helped form a nonprofit group to buy and fix up the dilapidated Colonial Theatre . A number of events, including the Keene Pumpkin Festival, started around that time as well, he said.

"The habit of coming downtown began to become a part of the social fabric of the community," he said.

Today, The Colonial serves as an anchor for downtown, attracting patrons -- many from more than 30 miles away -- who spend, dine and shop while they're in town.

"We know for a fact that when we have a show going on, downtown is buzzing and every restaurant is full," said Alec Doyle , the theater's executive director.

Doyle cited a recent economic impact study by the nonprofit group Americans for the Arts. In fiscal year 2015, according to the study, people attending cultural events in the Monadnock Region spent an average of $21.32 , on top of the cost of admission, generating $5.3 million in spending.

The Colonial isn't the only cultural attraction in the city center. MoCo Arts on Railroad Street offers art classes for young people. MoCo is building a new facility off Roxbury Street . And several blocks outside the downtown footprint, Keene State College's Redfern Arts Center hosts a variety of performances.

Another draw, Dugan said, is the Monadnock Food Co-op, which opened in April 2013 . The co-op leases a modern brick structure on Railroad Square developed by MEDC.

"It helps when there's hundreds and hundreds of people going to the food co-op every day, or hundreds of people attending an event at The Colonial Theatre ," Dugan said.

It also helps when some of those people already live nearby. In the evening, downtown residents add to the bustle.

"It's creating a longer, more active day for downtown," Dugan said, citing new and upcoming developments, including condominiums and senior housing on Railroad Square and the residential and commercial project under way at the former site of Keene Middle School on Washington Street .

Retail woes

Shifts in the downtown ecosystem -- paired with long-term national trends -- have been hard on some.

"One thing going for Keene is the number of restaurants it has," said Roger Weinrich , owner of Good Fortune Jewelry on Main Street . "... Keene probably is more of a dining destination."

At the same time, he said, small retailers are struggling.

A walk down Main Street takes a shopper past candy shops and jewelry stores, clothing boutiques and a furniture showroom, a bookstore and a specialty sport and shoe outlet, among other establishments.

And it's true that few storefronts lie vacant, Weinrich said. But the ever-mounting competition from online retailers, combined with challenges like limited parking and high property taxes, has dogged stores like his.

"I like to believe (downtown) is in a sort of transition period, where we're sorting out what kind of businesses can work well downtown and what kind of businesses can't," he said, adding that this is a somewhat optimistic spin on what he called a "challenged" situation.

As stores have moved out, Weinrich said, service businesses like insurers have trickled in, providing a steady stream of employees to patronize restaurants and cafes, but perhaps not drawing as many people to the downtown core as a funky, one-of-a-kind shopping experience.

"Our business is a fairly strong destination store" that brings people from afar, he said. "When we get a service business, it decreases the traffic."

Similarly, Tracy Keating-Gunn , owner of Life Is Sweet, a candy and cupcake purveyor on Central Square , said retail fulfills a key function in the downtown ecosystem: It gives people a reason to stroll.

Without crafts to ogle and windows to browse, she worries many out-of-towners will simply park, grab a burger and drive off.

Next steps

The most vibrant downtowns, Hannah Grimes' Kristiansen said, come out of a "core culture" of engaged people trying to "fix things, even if they aren't broken."

"As communities, they keep trying," she said. "They don't quit trying to make their downtown better."

When it comes to Keene, the people interviewed for this story offered a variety of ideas for improving downtown, from aesthetic tweaks to wholesale new conceptions.

For one thing, Main Street's walkways were designed and built before restaurants offered outdoor seating, Jacobs, the city councilor, said. Plus, there's nowhere really for bikes to go; they can ride illegally on the sidewalk or venture out into traffic.

Jacobs expects sidewalks to be a key focus of the Downtown Revitalization Committee. Comprised of Mayor Kendall W. Lane , three city councilors and other members of the community, the committee convened earlier this year to assess the state of downtown and consider ways ensure its vitality into the future. As part of that process, the city convened a " Downtown Vision Forum " and ran an online survey earlier this fall to solicit suggestions from the public.

Gary P. Lamoureux , an at-large city councilor and committee member, would like to see more green spaces and playgrounds to attract young families, as he has seen in larger cities.

The Colonial draws performers and crowds from all over, Doyle said, but at 900 seats, it's too large a venue for many local acts. So, The Colonial is exploring plans to set up a second, smaller performance space more appropriate for up-and-coming bands and community theater productions.

Meanwhile, the arts-education organization MoCo Arts has a new building going up on Roxbury Street . And right next door, a mixed-use development underway at the former Keene Middle School building on Washington Street , could add to downtown's cultural opportunities.

Developers of the project, dubbed The Spot, have said they plan to repurpose the school's auditorium for a performance space. Potential tenants they have mentioned for the rest of the building include a nightclub, a restaurant with entertainment offerings and a recording studio.

And Machina Arts -- a Keene-based arts, events and design company -- kicked off a series of monthly art and live music shows at the Hive, the Hannah Grimes Center's co-working space, this fall.

"We're focusing on smaller local bands, as we really want to give them the opportunity to play in Keene ," Danya Landis , the company's co-founder, told The Sentinel in August.

Weinrich hopes to see a full-time downtown coordinator who can recruit new businesses, plan events and collaborate with the various leaders who now work on behalf of downtown. The Keene Downtown Group , a coalition of business owners and other stakeholders, expects to hire a part-time coordinator sometime next year, according to Keating-Gunn, who chairs the group.

Kristiansen even threw out a moonshot solution to sluggish winter traffic: heated sidewalks to melt the accumulating ice. But perhaps the biggest issue is parking and the layout of downtown.

"The perception of a (parking) shortage" can deter potential shoppers, Keating-Gunn said.

It's a concern echoed by Weinrich, who said two-hour meter limits cut after-lunch shopping outings short.

Rather than cramming more spots onto Main Street , Weinrich and Keating-Gunn suggest a central parking hub some blocks away, where visitors will know parking is plentiful and Main Street's just a short walk.

That could be the foundation for a more ambitious vision, Weinrich said: a carless Main Street .

A broad pedestrian boulevard that blends quaint New England architecture with the liveliness of a modern city center could set Keene apart from other charming mid-size communities in the region, he said.

Whatever the future looks like, people are working on it.

"Keene's downtown is pretty amazing," Jacobs said. But "that's not by any means to say we should sit on our laurels."


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