Momentum building for city putting $400,000 into second phase of WOW Trail but details of TIF spending on riverwalk still up in air

LACONIA — After weighing the recommendations of the Downtown Tax Increment Financing (TIF) District Advisory Board for the eighth time at a special meeting this week, the City Council inched closer to approving a borrowing to finance construction of stretches of the WOW Trail and downtown riverwalk.

After winnowing its original proposal to five projects, the board recommends investing $400,000 to extend the WOW Trail between Main Street and Fair Street, $25,000 to add signage and kiosks to the riverwalk and WOW Trail, $181,000 to connect the Main Street Bridge to the riverwalk behind the Landmark Inn, $121,800 to extend the riverwalk through the adjuacent Walgreen's property, and $300,000 to carry the riverwalk from behind the old police station (now Binnie Media) up to the Church Street bridge.

In August, the council agreed to spend $275,000 improving the area at the foot of Main Street, in order to ensure that the improvements were incorporated into the design for reconstructing the Main Street Bridge. In October the council approved spending $35,000 to extend a 10 inch water main from Main Street to Veteran's Square to service the former Evangelical Baptist Church, which is being converted to a restaurant.

Altogether the estimated cost of the seven projects is $1,337,800. They would be funded by borrowing $1,350,000 against the annual revenue to the TIF account at an estimated interest rate of four-percent over 20 years. The TIF account has a current balance of $311,353 and projected revenue of $173,687 in 2014 and an additional amount each year thereafter for a total of $4,250,212 during the next 20 years. City Manager Scott Myers has assured the council that the revenue accruing to the TIF fund is sufficient to service the proposed debt and, within a reasonable time, support another borrowing.

The council deferred its decision on what projects to approve and expenditures to authorize, but agreed to revisit the issue when it meets on December 23. Although the projects may be approved by simple majority vote, a two-thirds majority vote will be required to authorize the borrowing to finance them.

At the special meeting this week, Councilor Brenda Baer (Ward 4) questioned investing in the WOW Trail while Councilor Henry Lipman (Ward 3) suggested that the riverwalk along the north bank should be completed before beginning work on the stretch on the south bank.

Although Baer expressed her support for the WOW Trail, she doubted that it would contribute to revitalizing downtown, which is the purpose of the TIF fund. Warren Murphy, past chairman of the Planning Board and resident of South Down Shores, also said that while he favored the trail, he advised against applying public funds to the project.

Public investment at an unprecedented level would lend an additional measure of momentum and legitimacy to the project, the next phase of which is planned to cross the western shore of Paugus Bay, where many property owners at South Down Shores are set on resisting it.

On the other hand, the Belknap Economic Development Council, which prepared a study projecting that once complete the WOW Trail would bring $1.8-million a year to the city, and the Main Street Initiative urged the council to fund the project.

Alan Beetle, president of the WOW Trail, told the council that the private WOW Trail board has raised $300,000 and with $400,000 in municipal funding could raise the additional $200,000 required to construct the second phase of the trail, from Main Street to the Belmont town line, in 2014. Without the city's contribution, he said that the project could take between four and six years.

Lipman proposed deferring expenditure for the segment of the riverwalk running through the Walgreen's property on the south bank of the river, explaining that it "doesn't go anywhere" because those to either side of it are not yet on the construction schedule. His view was shared by the Main Street Initiative, which in a written statement called for completing the riverwalk on the the north bank before investing any TIF funds on the south bank.

However, Planning Director Shanna Saunders said that she since easements on two adjacent privately owned lots are being negotiated and the city owns the Meredith Bridge Cemetery the riverwalk along the south bank could be completed to Fair Street Bridge relatively soon.

The Main Street Initiative repeated its request to complete the section of the riverwalk connecting Beacon Street West (the former Allen-Rogers property) to Main Street, intended to cross the mouth of the Perley Canal near the Main Street Bridge, which the advisory board did not include on its list. Saunders explained that the project was omitted because the original plan for the crossing was a "concept" and an alternate route was later chosen.

Saunders said that Chinburg Builders, the developer of Beacon Street West, originally intended to reconstruct a building over the canal that collapsed under a snowload and incorporate the riverwalk in the project as a cantilevered walkway over the water. However, the firm abandoned it plan to rebuild and chose to convert the large commercial building on the property to apartments. As part of its site plan, Chinburg proposed an alternate route for the riverwalk, which the Planning Board approved in 2008. Instead of following the riverbank, the pathway will pass through the residential complex to join Beacon Street West significantly north of the bridge.

John Moriarty, president of the Main Street Initiative, said that he learned that the route had been changed in advance of this week's meeting but chose to present the recommendation in hopes that the original route will ultimately be followed.

Jack Terrill, a resident of the Beacon Street West condominiums, told the council that the segment of the riverwalk bordering the development should be fenced on the north side. "We have a trespassing issue until we establish a perimeter," he said, adding that with a fence "we (residents) would have a backyard of our own."

Saunders and Kevin Dunleavy, who chairs the advisory board, were surprised by the request. Dunleavy told the council that in designing the riverwalk fencing on the side away from the water was not anticipated. Beacon Street West is only one of a number of privately owned properties on both banks of the river where easements have accommodated the riverwalk.