Downtown business leaders think city spending $400k on sprucing up Main Street 'gateway' is misguided priority

LACONIA — The Main Street Initiative, representing downtown business and property owners, has expressed misgivings about the plan for constructing "Gateway Plaza" at the Main Street Bridge over the Winnipesaukee River. Earlier this week the executive committee of the organization voted unanimously to oppose the project, which is slated to be presented to the City Council for its approval next week.

The project was recommended by the Advisory Board of the Downtown Tax Increment Financing District, which is chaired by Kevin Dunleavy, director of Parks and Recreation and includes Planning Director Shanna Saunders.

Under the plan, the concrete fronting Grace Capital Church and the parking garage on one side and Sawyer's Jewelry on the other would be replaced with brick pavers and both areas would be landscaped with shade trees and raised planters. Conceived as a pedestrian plaza, it would include together with granite benches, timbered seating, trellises, sculpture and lighting. The traffic island on the bridge itself would also be landscaped. The project is estimated to cost between $417,000 and $455,000 depending on the type of materials used.

Saunders said yesterday that because the project requires irrigation, drainage and lighting, its design must be incorporated into the engineered plan for the reconstruction of the Main Street Bridge. She said that the N.H. Department of Transportation expects to put the reconstruction of the bridge out to bid in September or October and will need the plan for the plaza "within a couple of weeks."

Reuben Bassett, co-owner of Burrito Me restaurant, said the project is "too expensive and too small." He agreed that improvements should be made, but questioned whether investing in a pedestrian plaza at one of the busiest intersections in the city was an appropriate use of funds. "It should be scaled back and made part of a larger project."

In a separate motion, the executive committee asked the Advisory Board to lend priority to the completion of the downtown riverwalk, particularly the stretch along the north bank of the Winnipesaukee River between the bridges at Fair Street and Church Street. The committee also recommended that the Advisory Committee collaborate with the WOW Trail to develop interchanges and signage between the trail and the riverwalk.

Saunders said that while the scope of the "Gateway Plaza" project could be reduced the cost savings would not be significant. She said that infrastructure — irrigation, drainage and electricity — required to support the landscaping, not the benches and seating, accounted for the largest share of the costs. At the same time, she said that the project would be presented as part of a larger initiative funded by using the annual revenue from the downtown Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district, which is budgeted at $173,688 in 2013-2014, to service principal and interest payments on a borrowing.