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Breathing New Life Into Somersworth

Published Tuesday Sep 3, 2019

Author Judi Currie

Downtown Somersworth. Photo by Judi Currie.

For Somersworth Middle School Principal Dana Hilliard, winning the 2019 NH Middle School of the Year award is a testament to the Hilltop City’s reemergence from economic decline and a recapturing of its sense of community. A lifelong resident of the city, Hilliard isn’t just the middle school principal, he is the three-term mayor and the city’s biggest cheerleader.

“For much of my childhood, it seemed like we were wandering through a dark forest. We knew we were Hilltoppers, but what did it really mean? Somersworth’s reemergence has 100 percent to do with the city embracing what it always was,” Hilliard says. “A city that honors its history, with residents who support each other and embrace newcomers.”

Like many New England communities, Somersworth relied on one big employer. Home to General Electric for more than 70 years, the city was dubbed the “meter capital of the world.” In 1964, the city boasted the highest average annual wage in the state. As the workforce at GE dwindled, from north of 3,000 to south of 300 by the time it sold the plant in 2015, the city’s economic fortune followed a similar route.

“This community has always been the underdog. Somersworth has been viewed as the Berlin of the Seacoast, with all the problems that a once-great industrial giant has as it tries to move on from its history,” Hilliard says. “But this is a very exciting time for Somersworth because we are reemerging in the state and on the Seacoast.”

Hilliard says that over the past six years, the city has returned to its roots. “For 30 years, we were chasing Dover and Portsmouth, but we are not on the ocean, we don’t have the size of Dover. We will never be those cities; but we don’t have to.” He says the city had to accept its role as a bedroom community and focus on rebuilding a sense of community and working together.

As both a mayor and a principal, Hilliard is ideally situated to bring stakeholders together. Where NH’s education funding model can tear communities apart, pitting council against school board, Hilliard says Somersworth has healed those old wounds and set the standard for collaboration.

Superintendent of Schools Robert Gadomski agrees, “We get things done that would otherwise not be possible, including the budget, improving our facilities and extending educational programs.” He says a sense of community doesn’t exist everywhere. “People in Somersworth have a lot of pride in this city and want to support it. It is wonderful to see as a superintendent.”

It also is what is recognized in the NH Middle School of the Year award presented by the NH Excellence in Education Awards Board, which stated the school created a climate and culture where staff and students experience a sense of autonomy, belonging and connectedness. But for Hilliard, the real reward is the opportunity to connect with youngsters as they navigate what he suspects are the most challenging three years of their lives.

“Our aim is to make it the best three years,” Hilliard says. “These students are biological time bombs, yet this is the time when they are most open to listening. They want that adult guidance and contact and it is really rewarding to know that you can help shape them with the values that will improve our society.”

One Hurdle at a Time
Somersworth has faced more than its share of challenges, but leaders say the community is rising to meet them. Beginning in 2015, Somersworth’s school budget took a big hit, as the nearby town of Rollinsford negotiated to send its middle and high school students to Maine instead, taking about $1.2 million dollars in tuition with them. Throughout the four-year withdrawal process, budgets had to be cut to meet the tax cap. The council did provide overrides in some budget years and the school department found creative ways to cut costs.

In 2014, a year before the effect of the opioid epidemic was felt statewide, Hilliard declared a crisis in his city. He created a drug task force to bring together stakeholders to determine what resources were already in place  and what else was needed. The panel’s recommendations included K-12 drug education curricula, distributing information about resources and supporting recovery organizations that wanted to operate in the city.

Scott Schuler, regional director for Transformative Healthcare NH, the city’s emergency response provider, says there has been a great effort to reduce the stigma of addiction and mental illness but more needs to be done. “The crisis opened our eyes to how substance use disorders affect business,” he says “The more we do with mental health the better we are with prevention.”

Goodwin Community Health, which provides access to primary, dental, prenatal and behavioral health care as well as community wellness and public health services, has also provided significant resources and support for the recovery community.

Goodwin offers medication assisted recovery for those addicted to opioids and works in collaboration with SOS Recovery Community Organization.

“Eventually, every societal problem is a school problem. Public education is responsible for picking up all the pieces,” says Gadomski. “But every community in New Hampshire is feeling the impact of homelessness, the opioids, and single-parent families. We’ve got a lot of families that have needs right now.”

To address those needs, Gadomski says the district partners with community support groups, United Way, the Somersworth Prevention Coalition, Strafford Learning Center, school resource officers and counselors. He says they also provide professional development training focused on identifying trauma and find ways to work with and support the parents as well.

“We are not just trying to reach every child and find out what they need, but also to reach out to determine what parents need as well. It’s a challenge, schools cannot do it alone, we have them for seven hours a day, so we try to educate the parents as well.”

Redeveloping a Mill Town
With an eclectic mix of buildings, the downtown has historic charm, particularly where High Street meets Market Street. The grand Victorian that is home to 45 Market Street Bakery and Café (pictured) is an architectural showstopper. But one block over on Main Street are stark reminders of the challenges ahead in the form of empty store fronts and an underutilized shopping center.

Farther down Main Street, the former General Electric plant, now owned by Aclara, still produces smart meters. Although the company is growing and employs about 300 people, the more than 411,000-square-foot facility sits on about 9.5 acres, with parking lots surrounding it and street parking along the front. While ample free parking is a problem many communities might think they want, the empty spaces make the area feel desolate.

The Main Street corridor is an economic revitalization zone, offering tax incentives to developers willing to invest in the area. Within that zone, the Somersworth Plaza is a prime target of the city’s redevelopment efforts. Working with PlanNH, the city held a two-day charette in 2017 to look at ways to remake the shopping center. One idea called for turning the center of the plaza into a lush park with walkways between the side streets, and space for events.

City Manager Bob Belmore says the work of PlanNH and the charette helped to define what residents want. “It assisted in steering the ideas and vision to form the basis of the redevelopment and gives a starting point to how developers will look at the property,” he says. “It’s really a blank canvas.”

A request for proposals was issued in 2018 but the city did not receive any bids, says Shanna Saunders, director of planning and community development, noting that the turnaround time may have been too short. However, the RFP triggered interest from developers who came to the city to learn more. She says the city plans to issue a new RFP in the fall, better timed for the development community and with a longer timeframe for bids.

In the meantime, a new plaza tenant is already stirring excitement. Saunders says a new brewery called Stripe Nine will be opening soon. “New Hampshire is the ninth colony, so [its] the ninth stripe on the American flag,” Saunders explains.
Although the NH Liquor Commission closed its store in the plaza earlier this year, it opened a new larger one along Route 9 near the Dover city line. The old space already sold to a developer who is weighing his options, says Robin Comstock, the city’s economic development manager.

The NH Liquor Commission’s new location along Route 9. Photo by Judi Currie.

A former bank building adjacent to the plaza was recently sold to a specialized pediatric dentistry practice that works with children with disabilities.

And at the very top of the Hilltop City, a historic structure that stood empty for more than a decade is finally undergoing redevelopment. Chinburg Builders, best known for rehabbing large mill buildings, is transforming the Hilltop School into 22 market-rate apartments and six to eight small, single-person offices. Developer Eric Chinburg says he received his building permit and began selective demolition and clearing. He says he hopes to rent the apartments by next spring.

The former school’s 4,500-square-foot gymnasium, with 25-foot ceilings, will maintain its historic character and be leased as a single space. “It could be a shared workspace or work well for a company that wants a fun dynamic open space. The balcony will remain and could be additional work space,” he says.  

Chinburg also owns and operates the Canal Street Mill, which offers a mix of residential and commercial space. One of the larger tenants is Blue Dolphin Screen Print and Embroidery, perhaps best known for printing New England Patriots championship T-shirts. Peter Meyer, vice president of sales, says the company also prints and embroiders clothing for summer camps, golf courses, large amusement companies and adventure parks. They have 67 employees and are hiring.

Blue Dolphin Screen Print and Embroidery. Photo by Judi Currie.

Form No Longer Follows Function
Taking a cue from the success of the mills, the city is looking to change its downtown zoning to allow more mixed-use. Traditional zoning segregates retail, residential and industrial, so Somersworth is looking at adopting form-based code that allows multi-purpose, mixed use and even mixed architectural styles.

Belmore says form-based code is more focused on the relationship of the building to the street. “In conventional zoning you are concerned about the use more than the building, but the use could continue to change year after year, why be so focused on use when the building will be there long after?” he asks.

To learn what residents would like to see, pictures are on display at city hall along with ballots. “We are asking the public to look at different styles and rank what they like and don’t like.” Saunders says. “We will build the code off of that, bring it back to the community and see what we want to adopt.”

The Miracle Mile Migrates North
While the empty storefronts along Main Street present a challenge, 10 minutes away is a vibrant commercial stretch that includes several big box stores as well as local establishments. When Dover emerged from the economic downturn of the 1970s, the retail corridor along Route 9, from about Wentworth-Douglass Hospital to the Somersworth line, became known as the “Miracle Mile” for driving that city’s recovery. That retail zone now extends well into Somersworth, with Fiddlehead Farms, Goodwill and Staples all relocating from Dover into Somersworth.

The Route 9 (High Street) corridor is also home to the city’s first brew pub, Bad Lab Beer, Walmart, Home Depot and Tri-City Plaza, which includes Market Basket and national retailers Lumber Liquidators, Dress Barn and T.J. Maxx.

Across from the Tri-City Plaza, the new NH Liquor & Wine Outlet, strategically located to serve the communities of Somersworth, Dover, Rochester and nearby Maine, is expected to generate $10.5 million in annual revenue. In the first week, sales were up 21 percent compared to the same time last year at the previous Somersworth and Dover locations.

The Medical Mile
Somersworth also is home to several medical practices along Route 108, which runs from Dover to the Rochester line, and has been dubbed the “Medical Mile.”  One reason the area has attracted so many practitioners is its proximity to southern Maine. Saunders says Somersworth has emerged as the ideal location for medical practices because it is centered between Frisbie Memorial Hospital in Rochester, Wentworth-Douglass Hospital in Dover and York Hospital in York, Maine.

The Somersworth Community Based Outpatient Clinic, operated by the Veterans Affairs Administration on Route 108, which serves around 3,000 veterans is being replaced by a larger clinic building not far from its current site.

Also home to Favorite Foods, Velcro and ContiTech Thermpol, the 108 corridor is slated for improvements within the state’s 10-year highway plan.

Robust Housing Market
Although the city is just shy of 10 square miles, there is still plenty of undeveloped land, and Belmore notes that the city is growing its residential offerings.

The Villages at Sunningdale, a redevelopment of a former golf course, began in 2015 and now includes 40 homes. Joseph Falzone, owner of 12-Month LLC that developed the village, says he expects to complete another eight to 12 homes this year and is on track to finish the entire 86 homes by 2021. Four homes, currently on the market, are priced at around $350,000.

As part of the project, 12-Month made improvements to Millennium Park, including a new playground. Falzone says the company also created a walking trail from the development to the park, and installed sidewalks from the development to nearby Idlehurst Elementary School.

Improvements to Millennium Park include a new playground. Courtesy of the City of Somersworth.

Francoeur Properties in Somersworth is developing Greenview, with up to 20 highly energy-efficient homes. Collin Francoeur says his immediate plan calls for seven homes, and three already have sold. “This is something no one else is really doing in the area,” he says. “Through the use of a thermal bridging and other technology, the electricity bill for these homes will be 50 percent lower than the typical bill. Owners can add solar panels to go completely Net-zero.”

A home under construction at Greenview. Courtesy of Francoeur Properties.

The rental market is expanding too. The John Flatley Company, owners of the Tara Meadows apartments on Tri-City Road, is adding 124 new apartments. The 270-unit complex is just a mile from the Spaulding Turnpike and adjacent to Market Basket at the Tri-City Plaza.

Marketing a Reenergized City
With so many recent improvements, the city hired Boston firm Open the Door, run by Somersworth native, Christina Pappas, to redesign the economic development section of the website, making it easier for businesses to access the information they need.

The city also has a new logo. While it is not doing away with the 1700’s era city seal, the new image has a modern feel, shows where in NH the city is located, includes the 1729 incorporation date and the Hilltop City moniker.

People are starting to take notice of the city’s renewed energy and city officials are making sure they are connecting with the business community. “We have a lot of investors and businesspeople who are interested in Somersworth. We convene quarterly and talk about what is going on in the city, what their needs and interests are. That approach is perhaps somewhat unique to this city,” Comstock says. “I am often connecting them to each other so they can collaborate.”

Robin Comstock, Somersworth economic development manager, stands with some of the mixed-use development posters on display at city hall. Photo by Judi Currie.

She says developers who are buying property in the central business district are moving toward upscale housing. “As a result, we have doctors and high-level people from the shipyard moving into our downtown who will create demand for the products and services that we all want. They support our restaurants, bakeries, coffee houses, small retailers and new brewery,” Comstock says.

Developing A Destination
The city has taken the opportunity to showcase the downtown improvements by hosting a food truck festival, drawing a crowd nearly equal to the city’s population of 11,797 in its first year. The Seacoast Food Truck and Craft Beer Festival, organized by The Falls Chamber of Commerce, is now in its third year.

Mayor Dana Hilliard, left, at the city’s food truck festival. Photo by Jenne Holmes.

Somersworth boasts three function facilities, including the VFW 1899 Ballroom and Function Hall, which underwent a complete renovation in 2014. Housed in a former church, it has a 165-seat capacity. The Hall at Great Falls has seating for 120 and hosts events and performances. The Oaks Golf Course grand ballroom seats up to 250 and overlooks the public golf course.

Another hidden gem is the Summersworth Historical Society and Museum that contains a comprehensive collection of city memorabilia, from football trophies and uniforms to diner placemats and theater posters. There is a large section devoted to General Electric and the history of the original textile mills. Plans are underway for a Veteran’s Park adjacent to the museum. The current site, known as Stein Park, will be expanded to include monuments recognizing the branches of the armed forces.

The Welcoming City
A point of pride in the city is its increasing diversity. One of the challenges facing city schools is the percentage of non-native speakers, but for Somersworth the challenge of integrating a large immigrant population quickly became an opportunity to embrace a wave of newcomers. “This city has always had one of the most diverse populations,” Hilliard says. “That is where its strength comes from.”

The newest immigrants are Indonesian. Thousands have settled in the Tri-City area, with many in Somersworth. For nearly a decade, the city has hosted a celebration of Indonesian culture. Originally called Jakarta Fair, the Indonesian Festival has led to strong ties between the city and the island nation and led to “The Little Indonesia Project.” Phase one is to construct a gate that will act as a welcome sign and a symbol of the relationship.

The Welcoming Gate, which will be the first of its kind in the U.S., will have a strip across the top that will change periodically to celebrate different Indonesian islands, starting with those that are connected to the  immigrants. Plans also call for way-finding signs in city parks and popular gathering places.

Cultural exchange is not a new concept in the Hilltop City, though. The Somersworth International Children’s Festival, formed nearly 40 years ago to foster civic pride in the community’s cultural heritage, continues to present an opportunity to learn about the generations of immigrants and their contributions to the city.

Somersworth also has gained a reputation for welcoming the LGBTQ community. Gerri Cannon made history as one of seven transgender individuals elected to municipal posts nationwide in 2017, when she won a seat on Somersworth School Board. She was elected to the NH House of Representatives in 2018.

Taking a leadership role in promoting open dialog and tolerance is Emmett Soldati owner of Teatotaller, (pictured, with events and former GM Palana Belken, left) a café, bistro, event venue and community gathering spot that bills itself as “a queer hipster oasis of tea, coffee, and pastry goodness.” In 2018 Soldati added more seating as the café has become a destination for community gatherings and entertainment, from drag shows to poetry readings, to presidential candidates.

Soldati says Somersworth was dubbed the “Rainbow City” by the local newspaper produced by Seacoast Media Group, and is leading the way in how to be a queer-friendly city in 21st century. The city, which has an openly gay mayor, flies a rainbow flag at Citizens Place, a small park adjacent to city hall, and in January celebrates Diversity Month in the schools. “Somersworth is unique in New Hampshire, from a political and religious and small business perspective, in making a commitment to promote and celebrate the LGBTQ community,” Soldati says.

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