By CAROL ROBIDOUX
Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY – Last night about 20 action heroes gathered at the Adam's Memorial Opera House to champion the next big downtown cause: Parking.
There were other issues on the agenda, action items extracted from last month's Downtown Civic Profile meeting, including promoting a downtown farmer's market, sprucing up storefront facades, improving crosswalks on Broadway, launching a merchant's association and finding a new home for the Friendship Center, a meeting place for recovery groups.
Marion Willis underscored that relocating the Friendship Center had to do with the smoking and socializing that goes on in front of the building, which can be a deterrent to foot traffic and counters the idea of marketing the downtown as a family-friendly shopping and dining destination.
“The number of motorcycles that congregate on spring evenings can be intimidating – it's not the fact that the groups are using the building. But it would be nice if they had a different place to congregate,” Willis said.
Planning Department director George Sioras told the group that he had spoken briefly with someone from the center following the Saturday profile meeting, who said they are willing to work with the town to find an alternate location.
Group moderator Michele Gagne from UNH Cooperative Extension suggested that discussion over a merchant's group should be rescheduled at a time when more business owners could attend.
Michael Lynch, owner of the Inkspot agreed that interest is strong, and said he felt that there was enough momentum to support a merchant's group that would enhance communication among downtown businesses, beyond the function of the Chamber of Commerce.
From there, the group collectively brainstormed some action steps to get things moving on the other fronts.
Letter writing and direct communication with town councilors and department heads was deemed the best way to get some immediate action on reviving faded crosswalks. Bringing concerns formally to the Highway Safety Committee was also discussed.
Cynthia Dwyer, executive director of the Sonshine Soup Kitchen, asked whether the state might contribute to solving safety issues since Route 102 is a state highway.
Improving the downtown aesthetic was also deemed a priority, one that would fall ultimately to shop owners, who could tap available funding through the Rockingham Economic Development Corporation for paint or sprucing up facades. Someone suggested that the first step would be to put pressure on businesses in violation of current sign ordinances.
Dave Nelson said the Planning Board has recently taken a look at existing ordinances after some complaints surfaced over signs that appeared to be too large or too “loud” and seemed to detract from the overall quaint downtown vibe.
“We have to teach people that signage is not the only form of marketing they can use to draw business,” Nelson said.
Parking is a constant hot topic, one that resurfaces with every renewed discussion over economic development. There are generally two schools of thought – those who believe there is adequate parking that's just hard to find, or those who believe the need is so critical that only a municipal parking lot will solve it.
“It really depends on who you ask. We have parking maps, and I think it would be good to take another look at the what the reality of the situation is,” Sioras said.
“Having a walkable downtown is part of the goal – people need to get used to the idea that they might have to walk three or four blocks to get to their destination. Scientifically speaking, there's probably enough existing parking. It just might not be exactly where people want it to be,” Nelson said.
Gordon Graham pointed to the way Derry is changing, and how that affects the need for parking.
“We're a dynamic town. We're on the cusp right now – we want businesses to come to town, but if you told them they had to meet the town's current zoning standards for parking, they wouldn't be able to do it,” Graham said. “And on a Friday night, when The Halligan, and Depot Steak House and the Opera House get cranking, it's hard too find a spot.”
The other action item – the proposed farmer's market – has officially been turned over to newly named market manager Beverly Ferrante, who said last night that plans were gelling, and the official site selection would be announced later this week.
“Pinkerton Academy is on board and we have eight vendors right now. We hope to get things going the later part of June, but no later than the first week of July,” Ferrante said. Updates on the market's progress would be posted on the town's website within the next few weeks, she said.
The group decided to continue meeting as a committee to make sure that action is taken on as many of the goals outlined during the civic profile as possible.
“After our civic profile 10 years ago, we continued to meet once a month, which triggered many of the renovations and improvements to the downtown we're trying to build on now,” Sioras said. “I think we should continue to meet and continue to work on these goals, for as long as it takes.”