By CAROL ROBIDOUX
Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY – A workshop detailing the possibilities for development of the Route 28 Tax Increment Finance district included thinking outside of the big box store.
Central to the project, which covers some 250 acres of shovel-ready real estate along Route 28, is a tract of land still referred to in casual discussion as “the Wal-Mart site,” a throwback to a development plan by the chain store giant that fell through a few years back.
Despite persistent rumors that Wal-Mart's plans may be back on the drawing board sooner than later, Stu Arnett, who is guiding the process of economic development for this particular project, said Wal-Mart has yet to make any formal offers. Meanwhile, designing several land use options – with and without a 140,000-square-foot big box store – is prudent.
Referring to various options presentation by designers Alan Saucier and Bill Flynn of Saucier & Flynn Landscape Architects of West Lebanon, Arnett pointed to the possibility of creating a configuration smaller office units – could be for medical office use, or office condominiums with living space on top. Also in the mix of possibilities were a hotel, a garden center, a coffee shop, and several smaller chain stores.
The puzzle the Planning Board must wrangle with is how to deal with the pockets of unbuildable wetlands that run through the entire tract.
Saucier and Flynn had a plan for that as well. After some consideration, the green space actually can be viewed as an asset rather than a liability, or referred to as “undevelopable,” said Saucier during the presentation.
“It has inherent value as open space, and here you can see how the open space begins to connect to the larger open spaces within the town,” said Saucier, pointing to a color-coded TIF map.
“One thing we're going to challenge you to think about is how that open space can be treated, giving property owners a value added feature, and not just a place to dump storm water,” Saucier said.
Walking trails that connect from one lot to the next could actually be attractive to businesses that are universally becoming more health conscious, an aspect of the proposal that resonated with several Planning Board members, including Maureen Heard.
“Many companies now are having wellness initiatives, and this configuration would encourage companies to come here if they had the ability to offer their employees the open space for walking or jogging at lunch time,” Heard said. “Our country has realized obesity and health issues are terrible problems. All this open space connected could be used for a multitude of things. It could be marketed as beneficial to a company that wanted to move in.”
While Saucier and Flynn pointed out that they designs presented were more food for thought than set in stone, board member David McPherson wondered whether building, given the glut of already available office space might be redundant – and more enticing for prospective companies.
“My concern is we are really a north Boston market, and just outside your area you're looking at, along Tsienneto Road, there's a new office medical building and an addition being built next to it, “ McPherson said.
He referenced several similar business park developments in the region that are losing tenants and floundering economically, and asked who Arnett felt might be looking to build when there are plenty of abandoned spaces to choose from.
“There are still significant advantages for some companies, especially those that are privately owned,” Arnett said. “And unlike some of the larger buildings that have become less functional, we're talking about smaller spaces, allowing someone to do incremental growth. This plays to the New Hampshire advantage.”
Arnett also told the board that having several plans drawn up is a necessity, should a potential buyer want to see what's available.
“If someone comes in tomorrow and says I want to do 'Option 1,' they're perfectly allowed to do it, so we wanted you to know there are now some options,” Arnett said.
Flynn said it's impossible to guarantee that developers will flock to Derry, but it's important to do everything possible to entice them.
“It's difficult to understand what the future trends are going to be. This is the first year Wal-Mart is going to close more stores than they will open. The whole retail industry is in flux. The concern would be by building that big box up there, there's less flexibility. We're looking at how to recapture suburbia, which is one of the big trends in development right now,” Flynn said.
He told the board not to lose sight of the great opportunity posed by the diversity and flexibility of the TIF district – green space and all.
“We have to operate under the knowledge that it's a competitive time, and there are other communities looking for investors to take their money. So it's important for you to identify a theme, an identity that sets the bar to attract development,” Flynn said. “We're asking you to rethink what this TIF could be. Think of it as an asset to the community, and not just another development piece.”