November 2, 2010

In Search of the Center

Union Leader Correspondent
LONDONDERRY -- As planners and developers refine their $1 billion vision for a 600-acre town center called Woodmont Orchards, some residents yesterday considered the question of where the heart of Londonderry currently beats, and what, if anything, they’d change about their town in the name of having a designated downtown.
Arguably there are few better ways to find the center of any town than to enter the “find center city” command on a GPS system, which will direct your car in this case to Buttrick Road, just a brisk walk from the intersection of Routes 102 and 128.
“This?” said Rebecca Stepanik, who was surprised to learn that she might be standing in the center of all things Londonderry as she exited the CVS pharmacy.
John Vogl, GIS manager, pinpoints Londonderry's town center.
“For me, the center of town is over by Shaw’s supermarket and the Apple Tree Mall. It’s kind of a problem pinpointing, when you don’t have an actual downtown,” said Stepanik.
"As a former resident of Vermont, Stepanik said the promise of Woodmont Orchards as a lively and tangible solution to the town’s lack of a downtown actually makes some sense. 

“We moved just before everything changed, and I will say that now that we’ve been back to visit, the development turned out to be quite nice. 
There are a lot of restaurants and stores. I’ve seen it work, so maybe it will be good for Londonderry,” Stepanik said. 
Over at the Shaw’s plaza, however, Jane Blake begged to differ with Stepanik about the center of town. 
“I’ve lived her more than 30 years, and I still feel like the center of town is where the churches are, over by the Grange and the Lion’s Club,” said Blake. “That’s where people always socialized in the old days.” 
She, too, has heard about the Woodmont Orchards plan, but isn’t so sure it’s needed. 
“We’ve got everything we need here — there are all kinds of retail and restaurants already, and plenty that have failed,” she said. “Actually, when I think about the center of town, I think of the Coach Stop Restaurant — you know, it used to actually be a coach stop,” Blake said. 
Coach Stop Restaurant & Tavern Assistant Manager Melissa Griswold can see how the old Colonial home turned eatery might represent a logical town center. 
“It is at a major cross road,” said Griswold, who has been with the restaurant for four years. Of course, her advantage in knowing a downtown when she sees one is that she lives in Derry — one of the few towns in these parts that has a walkable downtown. 
“What I think a downtown should be is a place with lots of little shops and restaurants, all within walking distance. Here, that’s more in the direction of where Home Depot is, where the shopping plazas are,” Griswold said. 
She noted that while many people think of the town’s municipal complex as the hub, there is virtually no retail or restaurants in that direction — just schools. 
“While the idea of Woodmont Orchards sounds good, from the little I know of it, I think they ought to be thinking about sustaining the existing businesses, and how to make them more successful,” Griswold said. 
Following her lead to the Londonderry Police Station, Lt. Bob Michaud was there waiting to explain that there is no town center. 
“Londonderry covers about 54 square miles, all the way from The Yard on Mammoth Road just past Manchester, down to the Windham town line close to Route 111. Not having a designated downtown is not a hindrance, in my opinion. From a police department standpoint, we just divide the town into sectors,” said Michaud. 
Of course, no one knows the map of Londonderry quite like John Vogl, Geographic Information Services manager for the town’s Community Development Department. If there is a map generated in town, Vogl is generating it — whether it’s to mark a proposed development site, define a tax map, locate a wetlands boundary, or roll back to a simpler time, when town centers were not all that complicated. 
When asked, Vogl instantly puts his finger on the geographic center of town: Otterson Road, the institutional center of Londonderry, which intersects with Route 128 equidistant from the Dunkin’ Donuts due north and the fire station, to the south. 
If you want to get technical, Vogl has a map for that. He points to the intersection of Route 128, 28 and Old Mammoth Road, once considered Londonderry Village, where most of the town’s population resided, not far from a trolley stop. 
For the final answer, it’s best to refer to the Heritage Commission, which clearly defines the town center as Londonderry Common, known for its war monuments and bandstand, which plays a central part in Old Home Day. 
That, for Caitlyn Kenny, is where the true heart of her hometown will always beat. 
“From the time I was a kid, that’s always the place I think of as the center of everything,” said Kenny, a 2006 graduate of Londonderry High School and recent college grad. 
Tough economic times have brought her back home, at least until she lands a job and saves up for med school, which is her current twoyear plan. In the meantime, she would be in favor of the town’s plans to create a town center, such as the proposed Woodmont Orchards. 
“They say that they want to draw young families to town — that would be a good idea. 
I’d love to see a place where you could sit down and have coffee, maybe walk around and consider all your options for where to have dinner. And after that, it would be a good place for kids or students to go to find things to do. When I was growing up, you basically had to go to Manchester to find something to do,” Kenny said. “I’d definitely stick around for that — especially if there are jobs.” 

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