Actionable ideas developed at First Impressions Forum

By Edith Tucker

The Berlin Sun

GORHAM — A nine person team of first-time visitors reported their observations when they visited Gorham earlier this summer at a First Impressions forum held last month at the Medallion Opera House.

Some 40 townspeople turned to hear from what the volunteer staff members from UNH Cooperative Extension plus two partner nonprofit organizations had observed when they visited downtown Main Street and the Libby Recreation Complex on a summer weekday. All of the collected assessment data is now available on an online interactive map at arcg.is/WjfHC.

The forum’s possible outcomes were described as improving the downtown’s visual appearance, strengthening the downtown’s marketing and promotion and enriching the downtown’s climate for new businesses, residents and visitors.

All the visiting observers were community development professionals with experience in rural, urban and suburban landscapes, main streets and downtowns.

Project manager Geoffrey Sewake of the Cooperative Extension (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) outlined the eight key findings the team named as the downtown’s strengths: the hidden gem of Exchange Street; landscaping around the town green; parking availability; parks and recreational opportunities on land owned by local, state and federal government; extensive pedestrian infrastructure, despite signs of wear; public town-owned and school district buildings; a variety of businesses and restaurants; and the very scenic but often difficult to find Androscoggin River.

Opportunities for improvement include things that either do not now exist or are on hand but have considerable room for improvement: no place for visitors’ dogs’ needs to be accommodated; bicycle amenities, such as racks and/or dedicated bike lanes; a community or village “brand;” community art, such as colorful banners and murals; wayfinding to Exchange Street; some deteriorating sideways and walkways; traffic and speeding that makes Main Street feel unsafe for walkers; and the need for more wayfinding (signage).

After this material was introduced to the cross-section of townspeople, who ranged in both age and in years of living in the North Country, Sewake asked the group to break up into 4 groups of 7 to 14, plus facilitators, to discuss the themes that had emerged when the visit team held its debriefing: village and community identity; four-season recreation; multimodal infrastructure and river district.

Each small group was asked to react to what its members had learned of the visiting team’s observations and to focus on coming up with ideas that could be implemented in the short- and mid-term.

Some of the ideas that were generated included installing bike- and guitar-share racks, putting up colorful holiday lights on the common, developing a policy for dogs, developing signage for hikers seeking to buy goods and find trailheads, and forming a committee to see what other towns about the same size have done with success. (For example, Bethel, Maine, has a paved walking-snowmobile path that boasts a spectacular bridge over the Androscoggin River.)

The four-season recreationalists envisioned a community ski hill with a rope tow, a splash pad for youngsters on the common, a watersport portage, tubing on a short section on the Androscoggin River, and a website on which local online resource information would be available.

The multimodal infrastructure group discussed developing an integrated signage system plus a strategy that would allow downtown traffic — motorized, pedestrian and bike — to be far more “organic.”

The river theme group discussed access not only to the Androscoggin but potentially also to the Moose and Peabody Rivers and also touched on such longstanding issues as occasional flooding, barrier berms and possibly recreating wetlands.

Everyone agreed that cleaner, less obviously polluted waters have brought new opportunities for such sports as kayaking, paddle-boarding and canoeing but also the need for detailed, in-depth research as well as substantial grants.

Enthusiasm ran high at evening’s end as a spokesperson for each group reported its top three to five areas to pursue. Sewake promised to make a record of the evening’s discussions and to help those committed to the process to keep moving forward.

The local First Impressions steering committee was made up of nine residents, business people and town employees: steering committee lead Abby Evankow, Jennie Brown, Town Manager Robin Frost, Victoria Giron, Lori Morin, Paul Robitaille, Brian Ruel, Misty Strevig and Denise Vallee.

Both the Town and Country Motor Inn and the White Mountain Cafe donated ample refreshments.