Community architect addresses villages’ futures at Rotary talk

Architect Steven Cecil, standing, speaks to a crowded house at the Fullerton Inn last week. Brian Morris photo.

Architect Steven Cecil, standing, speaks to a crowded house at the Fullerton Inn last week. Brian Morris photo.

By Shawn Cunningham
©2015-Telegraph Publishing LLC

An architect who specializes in helping people think about the futures of their town centers attracted a crowd of 45  to the Fullerton Inn in Chester last Thursday night. While most were from Chester, residents of Ludlow, Londonderry, Springfield and Grafton also came to hear the Chester Rotary Club-sponsored presentation.

In addition to looking at Chester’s “assets, challenges and opportunities,” Steven Cecil worked with an economist to analyze the demography and retail economics of the town comparing the demands of a population like Chester’s to the actual sales of the town’s businesses. What they found was a surplus of sales beyond what the population could sustain.

Cecil prepared a presentation specifically addressing Chester, above. Click to enlarge. But also town centers in general, below.

Cecil prepared a presentation specifically addressing Chester, above. Click to enlarge. But also town centers in general, below.

The conclusion that Cecil takes away from this is that a significant portion of the commerce being conducted by Chester’s businesses is being done with people who do not live in Chester.

“Chester is not big enough to have a full market,” said Cecil, noting that certain types of businesses need a larger population base to thrive. “But actual sales indicate that it is reliant on people from nearby towns and from away.” To illustrate this, Cecil pointed to the amount of furniture and antiques sold as being beyond what a town of 3,000 could support. “These sales are to people from somewhere else.”

“Find your competitive advantage and grow it,” Cecil urged. “Look for critical mass, Town Centers strategieswhether it’s restaurants or antiques or whatever.”

Noting that New England is a slow growth area and that rural portions are static, Cecil pointed to finding ways to attract visitors to town as having great potential. “There are significant rewards for communities that are willing to take new directions,” said Cecil. “Tourism towns import money.”

Looking at several communities that have revitalized their village centers, Cecil pointed to a couple of drivers for successful downtowns. These include arts, culture and food. “You don’t have to have the Boston Pops,” said Cecil, noting that a summer arts festivals like Portsmouth, N.H.’s are powerful draws. Following a question from an audience member, he added that public art — one interesting sculpture — can be the catalyst for a sea-change toward not only tourism but for attracting new residents.

Cecil also gave the example of a small town in New Jersey that had success with subsidizing artists to come to town and work as a driver for attracting visitors. He also pointed to Easthampton, Mass., a town where it is inexpensive to live, which is attracting artists and thus visitors. Looking at how this could get done, Cecil pointed to New Market , N.H., which created a community development authority and redeveloped its abandoned mills using local financing.

“Local and regional foodways are also important today,” said Cecil. “Restaurants are a key component to attracting visitors and new businesses.” Noting that when companies that employ skilled workers look for places to set up shop, they look for a good quality of life and that includes good restaurants. “Retail never leads, retail only follows,” Cecil continued. “Restaurants lead.”

“Retail never leads, retail only follows. Restaurants lead.”

“People want character and heritage and Chester has that in spades.”

“A town center is all about walking.”

Discussing the approaches that several communities have taken to these challenges, Cecil gave one note of caution. “Don’t change your essential ‘thing,’ ” said Cecil.

What is Chester’s essential thing? “People want character and heritage and Chester has that in spades,” said Cecil. “Stick with the character you have.” Cecil also noted that zoning is the way to keep the quality of a place and that includes issues of mobility. “Take care of the parking and make the village center walkable,” said Cecil. “A town center is all about walking.”

In addition, according to Cecil, the town should have a “wayfinding strategy” to make it hospitable to visitors. Citing the example of Plymouth, Mass., where signs directing visitors to its famous rock expose them to the village center rather than sending them the shortest possible way, Cecil noted that good signage sends people through an area that you want them to visit while it  helps visitors know what there is to do and see and how to get there. “Being friendly to visitors is important,” said Cecil.


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  1. Diana Ashworth says:

    Here is an expert telling us not to change Chester’s ‘thing.’ Meanwhile, it seems a lot of people are trying to bring in a Dollar General store, which is the essence of changing Chester’s ‘thing.’ Our town is filled with historic houses, a quaint Village Green, and artsy shops – all with a walkable downtown. So, like the man says, we need to bring visitors to the downtown – signs that point to the historic district (both downtown and the Stone Village). And a booklet with historical tidbits which would allow people to take a guided tour of some of our older and unique houses. This would be so inexpensive to do and the payback would be enormous.