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Friday, September 24, 2010

New report shares ideas on how to improve downtown

NASHUA – There’s increased amounts of traffic in downtown, but not enough of those cars are stopping to shop.

The ones that zoom through pose a threat to pedestrians.

The once-smooth brick sidewalks have started to heave in places; in other downtown areas, trees are wilting and dying.

“The once beautiful brick sidewalks pose a safety hazard to pedestrians and are in dire need of repair. Competition from other shopping areas and downtowns is adversely affecting Downtown Nashua,” according to a new report summarizing a downtown committee’s first year of work. “The evolution of big box stores and increased on-line shopping, in combination with the economic decline starting in 2008, have had a detrimental impact on Main Street as can be seen by the increased vacancy rate. The bloom is off the rose, so to speak.”

Some of these sentiments may not be new, reflecting concerns long held by downtown merchants and their customers.

However, they are highlighted in a 66-page document, which addresses ways to improve downtown and how to pay for those improvements. The report reflects the committee’s first year of work and includes input from two public sessions held last spring.

“Although there are many wonderful attributes of Downtown, there has been a noticeable decline in recent years,” reads a summary of the current state of the city’s downtown.

Recommendations in the report would have to be approved by the board of aldermen before taking effect.

“The amount of cars travelling through Downtown on Main Street has dramatically increased over the years creating a safety hazard for pedestrians as well as detracting from the Downtown experience,” the report states. “The one-way streets no longer enhance, but actually impede the flow of traffic.”

How to pay for restoring the bloom that has fallen off the downtown rose has been the key question the committee addressed. The mayor appointed the committee following a proposal from a group called Great American Downtown to create a special tax district such as the one in downtown Manchester. The Business Improvement District would fund improvements through imposing a tax on property owners within the district, mapped out as roughly from the Hunt Building southward along Main Street to the Hunt Community, and stretching out a block or two in either direction.

The BID Committee evolved into a Services Advisory Committee after the tax district was rejected as the principal funding source.

In the draft report, the committee outlines five funding sources: revenue from an increase in parking meters and leased spaces downtown, a 50 cent per $1,000 tax on properties within the district, a commitment of 4 percent of federal block grants the city receives each year, private fundraising and advocating for downtown projects on the state transportation department’s 10-year plan.

No current parking meter revenue would go into the improvements, said Marylou Blaisdell, a downtown merchant and committee chair.

Money collected from the meters’ current rates would still go into the city’s general fund, Blaisdell said. Only an increase in meter fees would go toward the district, she said.

“Parking rates in Nashua are the lowest in the area,” and haven’t been increased in nearly 10 years, Blaisdell said.

The report suggests increasing meter fees in the heart of downtown from 50 cents to $1.50 an hour; to $1 per hour for areas just outside of the central area and decreasing fees to 25 cents an hour at the School, Garden and Maple Street lots, plus in outlying on-street metered spaces.

After speaking to downtown groups in other cities, committee members decided to phase in the downtown improvements, with the area stretching from Railroad Square to Kinsley Street forming the first phase, Blaisdell said.

Property owners in those areas would be assessed the new 50 cent tax, she said.

“We’re not asking customers to take the burden of this at all,” Blaisdell said.

Merchants are showing their commitment through the new special tax, which is in addition to local property taxes the property owners already pay, she said.

The committee, which includes downtown business owners, unanimously endorsed the recommendations, Blaisdell said.

“We really believe in this and we’re stepping up to the plate,” said Blaisdell, who owns DesignWares at 206 Main St.

Much of the report is based on feedback from merchants, who cited parking, lighting and repair of the brick sidewalks as major areas of concern, among other things.

The report will be discussed with downtown merchants at a meeting scheduled for Oct. 12, Blaisdell said.

Patrick Meighan can be reached at 594-6518 or pmeighan@nashuatelegraph.com.