Date: Aug 30, 2018 Publication: Eagle Times Link
NEWPORT – Newport’s Sunshine Initiative is less than a year old, but efforts to revitalize the “Sunshine City” are gaining ground.
In January, 12 people met at the Salt Hill Pub one Friday morning to see what could be done to bring back the bustling, vital town Newport used to be. Blank storefront windows looked out on pedestrian-less sidewalks; enrollment at the high school has been dropping for years.
“Main Street is kind of hollowed out. A lot of the jobs have left and the opioid crisis has hit really hard,” said Jay Lucas.
“I grew up in Newport; I’m a Newport guy,” said Lucas, who lives in Portsmouth but spends a lot of time here. As he was driving through town thinking about the Newport he remembered — a place where every store front hosted a well-known locally-owned business — he thought, “I’m going to change this.”
An email led to another email, and then to that meeting in the Salt Hill Pub. “Since then we have really grown the organization,” said Lucas. “Our meetings are getting larger, with around 75 people showing up.”
The Newport Sunshine Initiative (NSI) now meets once a month in the Sugar River Bank community room, and Lucas estimates 150-200 are actively engaged in the group’s many projects.
There are lots.
Top of the list is restoring the Old Ruger Mill on Sunapee Street. Built in 1905, the mill was given National Historic Register status in 2016. A private company has purchased the 70,000-square-foot building and plans to develop it into market-rate apartments.
“Back in April it became clear there were several items on the town warrant we wanted to get behind,” said Lucas. The Old Ruger Mill project was one. “We needed to pass 79-E [a tax relief program], so the owners could get tax relief while it’s being worked on.”
RSA 79-E designates a revitalization district allowing people who build or renovate in that district to have their taxes frozen at the pre-renovation level for five years.
Another heavy item on the town warrant was creating a community center, a place for the town’s youngsters to play, take classes, and have something to do in a healthy atmosphere.
A third item was getting solar energy to serve the municipal buildings and the school.
“We got behind them and made hundreds of calls,” said Lucas. “We developed a slogan, because the items were numbered 11, 12, and 22: ‘Vote yes for 11, 12 and 22. A better Newport for me and you.”
“It worked!” said Lucas.
At town meeting in April, voters approved Newport’s solar project, the largest municipal solar project in the state, by a 652-235 vote. The town has, since then, made plans for a 2.2-kilowatt solar array on town land, and entered a 25-year Power Purchase Agreement with local solar developer Norwich Solar Technologies .
In the end, all three of the items NSI supported passed; some by hundreds or thousands of votes, and one by only 14. However, NSI is only just getting started.
Among the projects currently in the works, the NSI recently approved funding to hire the town’s first economic development director. The position will be half “secretary of commerce,” to encourage business ties and development, and half “school to work” coordinator.
Like a lot of rural towns, Newport is suffering from the loss of its young people. An important component of economic development is growing jobs that attract them, and also training young people for good jobs. The Digital Initiative in the high school, beginning this September, partners digital firms based in New York City with high school students in Newport. The students will learn skills that enable them to perform digital work remotely while living in Newport.
People who are interested in getting involved to improve Newport are invited to a forum at 10 a.m. Sept. 24, at the Sugar River Bank Community Center, where experts will talk about how to get grant money for revitalization projects. Representatives from several different echelons of government will be there: the Small Business Administration, Housing and Urban Development, the Northern Border Regional Commission, and state agencies.