Claremont businesses upbeat as Pleasant Street renovations wind down


Valley News Correspondent

Published: 08-11-2022 12:07 AM

CLAREMONT — To paraphrase an overused line from a popular movie: They built it; now will they come?

As construction crews put the finishing touches on the nearly $5 million project to rebuild the city center portion of Pleasant Street, businesses that have endured lengthy closures of the street over the last year are optimistic that a reinvigorated downtown commercial district is on the horizon. The hope is that a combination of new businesses and more foot traffic will improve things for everyone as the city once again tries to remake the image of its downtown.

“I am hoping that with the improvements and new infrastructure that we will be able to fill the empty storefronts with businesses that will stay and that we will create a gathering place for people downtown,” said Tina Smrkovski, who has owned Reed Optical on Pleasant with her husband since 2009.

Smrkovski’s views echoes other business owners interviewed on Pleasant Street and Opera House Square, who said they were happy with the look of the improvements — which include wider sidewalks, benches, landscaping, angled parking and one-way traffic. They also are pleased that the disruptions are behind them and are optimistic the project’s stated goals will become reality.

“I opened last September and it has been in construction since, so I think nothing but good things can happen now,” said Theresa Darling, owner of TC Pantry, which serves a variety of pot pies and other comfort food. “Now that the road is opened up, we are definitely doing better. I think it looks amazing.”

In the nearby Petal Patch 2 (the original Petal Patch is in Newport), owner Samantha Charles also opened her business during the height of construction in March. As someone who grew up in the Claremont/Newport area, Charles said Pleasant Street has been “dead” the last 10 or 15 years with a number of businesses closing, but she is confident things will change.

“I definitely feel this will bring things back,” Charles said. “You are starting to see more people on the street.”

This effort, funded through a $4.8 million bond approved by the City Council, is not the first attempt at revitalizing downtown Claremont. About 20 years ago, the Main Street Program took a different approach using donations but with the same goal: Bring businesses and people back to downtown. Born out of a successful effort to stop the demolition of a 19th century building at the corner of Pleasant and Summer streets for a chain drug store, Main Street saw several successes, including renovation of the Brown Block.

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Perhaps its most enduring project is the annual flower planting on Opera House Square, which continues as an annual volunteer effort. The current mix of businesses includes restaurants, small shops selling a variety of items, a few nonprofits, a hair salon and a tattoo parlor.

The City Council’s 2020 vote to bond the redesign and reconstruction of Pleasant Street between Opera House Square and Glidden Street was the culmination of a process that slowly built momentum over several years, Planning and Development Director Nancy Merrill said.

Surveys, workshops and the city’s master plan all pointed to an area that people said did not support small businesses in a way that would drive more customer traffic.

“New businesses opened up, but many did not survive,” Merrill said. “The customer base was not there. At one point, we realized what was there was not working.”

Merrill said it was more than just empty buildings.

“We heard that for years. People were talking about no identity here. That this is just a drive-through place; not a place they think about to go and do things.” he said.

Forums led by the design firm McFarland Johnson of Concord in 2019 drew sizable crowds, and while there were differing opinions on how the street should be changed, there was universal agreement that large trucks should be banned. The design’s overarching goal was to turn the street away from something that was heavily trafficked with vehicles to one that is more inviting to pedestrians.

Merrill said their goals were more modest than trying to restore the downtown’s fortunes of 50 years ago, when it was an Upper Valley shopping destination.

“We knew water and sewer had to be replaced. The question was what are we going to put on top of it,” Merrill said. “I think our hope is by making it a more comfortable place to be, people will feel safer crossing the street and businesses can be outside (with the wider sidewalks.)”

Melissa Maranville, who opened Granite State Hobbies five years ago on Pleasant Street, said she weathered the street closures fairly well but is nonetheless thrilled everything is reopened.

“I think it is great,” Maranville said, adding that exiting the angled parking will take some getting used to but is certainly easier than the previous parallel parking. “I love the wider sidewalks and benches. It will get more people downtown walking. It looks 100% better. I think it is going to be a good fit and help get more businesses downtown.”

Merrill also pointed to new ownership of some downtown buildings, including the Union Block on the corner of Pleasant and Opera House Square and the Odd Fellows Block as another positive sign.

“When you see the kind of investment we are seeing in buildings, it is usually a good sign,” she said. “People don’t invest in something they don’t think will have value later on; that is not going to grow equity.”

Two new restaurants are planned for possible opening before the end of the year. In the former Revolution Cantina on Opera House Square, renovations are underway to create a speakeasy-style eatery. And at the corner of Pleasant and Franklin, building owner Keith Rowe is lining up contractors to convert the first floor into a restaurant with nightly entertainment, including music, comedy and perhaps poetry reading.

“I think we need something like that here,” Rowe said.

Merrill said it is not just Pleasant Street that the city hopes will change downtown but other improvements and plans, including the nearby MakerSpace on Main Street, the new 83-unit Monadnock Mills on Water Street and plans to create a new home for the West Claremont Center for Music and Arts in a vacant building on Opera House Square next to the opera house.

“In order for this to be successful, it all has to work together,” Merrill said.

Laurel Eaton, owner of Violet’s Book Exchange on Opera House Square, said she looks forward to when the entire project is finished and agrees with Merrill that it is only one piece of the puzzle to improve downtown.

“It will be great with all the other things happening as well,” Eaton said in an interview inside her store. “Everything coming together is going to make a difference.”

New lights were being installed last week, and workers were finishing the sidewalk work. On Saturday, a block party is scheduled from 3 to 8 p.m. to celebrate the project’s completion. In the fall, city-owned parking lots between Broad and Pleasant and off Franklin Street will be repaved and striped.

“I think ultimately when everything is finished down there and the new lighting is in and the striping and the new parking, I think people will find it to be a much more welcoming place,” Merrill said.

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at