It’s time for Nashua to step up
Based on what I saw and heard, I can say unequivocally that the Broad Street Parkway is by far the most significant event for Nashua’s downtown in the last 30 years.
For Nashua’s downtown, the Broad Street Parkway could change everything.
Actually, the proper statement is that it should change everything. But for the parkway to do all it should do for Nashua businesses and residents, Nashua needs to be bold. It needs to be creative. Perhaps most importantly, it needs to identify and execute key strategic initiatives designed to maximize Nashua’s potential.
The new road should have a huge impact on downtown. It unlocks Nashua’s previously landlocked Millyard district. It completely changes the access route to downtown, removing Broad Street and Amherst Street east of the turnpike as preferred ingress options. That, in turn, should reduce the traffic and eliminate the backups that occur routinely on Library Hill.
When one walks around the Millyard district and views the incoming road, one can see the change coming and begin to envision the possibilities.
From a development standpoint, the area is loaded with potential. There is enough land available – much of it with gorgeous views of the river and Mine Falls Park – to accommodate something as previously unimaginable as a small hotel or a conference center.
Some, apparently, envision a performing arts center in the district. In any event, the point is that the parkway so drastically improves the access to the Millyard district and the downtown that the sky is the limit for both areas.
But to fully leverage the economic development opportunity provided by the new road, Nashua needs to do something that it has rarely, if ever, done before. It needs to think big. It needs to shed its negative self-image as a city in the shadow of Manchester and embrace a new identity that will keep it on the map for years to come.
The parkway should be the first step in this new direction.
Nashua’s downtown has absorbed some pretty tough blows over the last few years. The Great Recession was hard on small businesses everywhere, but the sight of empty storefronts on Main Street is a discouraging and daily reminder for many of us of how difficult times are for small businesses.
The relocation of Alec’s Shoe Store – which, as Great American Downtown Director Paul Shea pointed out in a recent Telegraph article, is really a terrific success story – is, for the downtown, a painful loss.
But as it so often does, out of adversity springs opportunity. The access provided by the parkway makes the former Alec’s location an interesting opportunity for the right retail business. Shoppers will no longer have to fight their way to through traffic to shop there.
While this thought may stir up some controversy, maybe it is time to selectively lure the right national retailer to the location. Portsmouth has used this technique beautifully, luring a few niche retail chain stores to its downtown.
While these stores compete with local retailers, they also become destinations for shoppers because of their national reputations. They draw more people to the downtown. In the wake of Alec’s move to Exit 8, Nashua’s downtown badly needs another destination store.
Many will say that Portsmouth is different from Nashua, and in fact it is. It has both the ocean and summer tourists.
But what really differentiates Portsmouth from Nashua is its mindset. Portsmouth thinks big. It embraces bold ideas. It has a brand-new performing arts center and is building yet another parking garage to service its downtown.
In Portsmouth, they get things done. In Nashua, it has taken 25 years to get the Broad Street parkway constructed.
Despite the ridiculous delays in getting the new road built, maybe the timing for its opening is good. The economy is clearly picking up. Foreclosure rates are plummeting. The residential market is surging. Businesses are growing. The work done by the city on Main Street should be concluded in a few more months.
Criticize the aesthetics if you like, but the fact of the matter is that the sidewalk renovation was badly needed. Best of all, when the work is completed, we will already have paid for it. Main Street should be ready to accommodate the growth it should see when the parkway is completed, without spending millions more on sidewalks.
Finally, commuter rail completes a bold vision of Nashua’s future. Truthfully, Nashua’s greatest economic advantage is its proximity to Boston. Commuter rail service through Nashua’s downtown would leverage that advantage.
Large technology companies could locate here and still have access to the talent pool that exists in Boston and Cambridge. Those folks are not interested in sitting in traffic. They do not want to commute in cars. They want to ride the train and stay connected during that time. Nashua needs to do whatever it takes to make commuter rail a reality. It is that important.
So there is a bright vision and a great opportunity for Nashua. But it is hard for us stubborn Yankees to imagine Nashua with a beautifully developed Millyard district, a vibrant downtown, and commuter rail that connects us with the Manchester airport and Boston.
It’s in our blood to be skeptical. But now is the time for us to make change. With some bold and creative leadership, an engaged populace and a strong economy, the vision is achievable. It is up to all of us to make the right decisions and take the right steps to make it happen.