Claremont: A City Growing and ProsperingMar 29, 2023 08:15PM ● By Pamela Brown Photography by Lars Blackmore
Claremont may be considered a small New England city, but over the past year it’s making a name for itself through significant growth and exciting new changes. “Claremont has been on a long-term plan for City Center revitalization since the 2000s. We’re so grateful to those who saw Claremont as a place to invest in and grow their business, as well as provide new housing,” says Nancy Merrill, director of planning and economic development. “Claremont has a great history, and the layout and buildings in the historic district offer a lot of opportunity for new uses and vibrancy. The city has focused a lot of attention on its goals and plans on supporting the rehabilitation of vacant buildings as they transition to new uses.”
Confidence in the Future
Receiving a HUD sustainable cities grant in 2013 allowed Claremont to change its urban zoning to reflect historic uses and remove zoning barriers for mixed use. “To see private investment that includes housing, commercial uses, making, and tech suggests what was old is new again,” Nancy notes. “Several of the city’s historic blocks, such as Brown Block and Farwell Block, underwent restoration and are now fully tenanted.”
Nancy is grateful to businesses, investors, and developers for showing confidence in the city’s continued growth. “They represent both local citizens expanding businesses and those who see a future here. Housing needs in our region have also become a critical issue for residents and businesses, so the timing on the Chinburg Properties Monadnock Mill project really filled a need. This type of improvement often leads to interest by others in and outside of our community.”
The revitalization has been a collective effort. “It goes back to a Main Street group in the early 2000s, supported by the city administration and elected officials throughout the years. Downtown revitalization has been a primary focus in our citizen-led master plans and the City Council has supported infrastructure investment as well as the Community Revitalization Tax Relief Incentive (NH RSA 79-E) to support development,” says Nancy.
Despite the significant amount of both public and private investment in the district, Nancy says there’s more to accomplish: “While we still have storefronts to fill, these projects show a confidence in the future of Claremont and its economy. To see it continue is both gratifying and a testament to the beautiful little city of Claremont.”
Improving the Quality of Life in Downtown
Eric Chinburg is dedicated to working with Claremont to make its community a unique place for people to live, work, and play. “The investment into the downtown continues to help build the experience and amplify the message of the great quality of life in this part of New Hampshire,” says Eric, president of Chinburg Properties in Newmarket, New Hampshire. Specializing in transforming old buildings that can reemerge as icons and economic engines, Eric’s team recently completed work on the long-vacant Monadnock Mill, transforming it into 83 apartments, which were all rented in six weeks. “We felt that infrastructure had been put into place to support this type of housing, and we see a whole new young professional class: medical workers who can commute to Dartmouth Hitchcock, local Claremont teachers, and empty nesters who were looking to downsize,” he explains. “If you create housing that attracts new residents, there will inevitably be a level of economic impact.”
next project is the Moody Building, a former turn-of-the century hotel
downtown.“It’s such an iconic local property in which we see so much
important Claremont history. Over the next few
years, we plan to invest in updates to the façade of the building as well as interior design upgrades.
We recognize that Moody is a crown jewel in the heart of the downtown, and we plan to give it new polish over time.”
Eric emphasizes the importance of New Hampshire’s sense of community in these towns when the mills were the lifeblood of the economy. “To preserve them is to preserve the essence of New Hampshire. The buildings have beautiful architectural details such as exposed beams, brick or granite, and huge windows and often overlook the bodies of water that powered the mills.”
Working in a community that’s “open for business” and fosters a proactive collaborative approach is important to Eric. “We appreciate how we’ve been supported and encouraged by the city and the community. We see other businesses that have been on the leading edge of helping to revitalize Claremont and we’re proud to be among them. We build from each other,” he says. “It feels great to see how these changes are a catalyst for more business development and economic impact in the downtown. It’s very symbiotic.”
Eric is committed to making Claremont the best it can be. “People are moving to Claremont. There’s a feeling of pride among residents, and new businesses are popping up aside long-term business that are also hopefully seeing an influx in their customer base,” he says. “Every time we do another project, we commit to that community, and we know that people will be living their lives and working out of these spaces for many years to come, and so we want to do it in a way that will create the best possible lifestyle and experience.”
Music and Arts in a New Space
Claremont Creative Center (CCC) will soon call the former historic and long-vacant Claremont National Bank building, next to City Hall on Opera House Square, home. “It’s going to be a beautiful renovation that results in a modern space that everyone in the community can enjoy, and the only venue of its type in the Upper Valley. It’s in the heart of downtown Claremont, walkable for more than 50 percent of Claremont residents,” says Melissa Richmond, executive director of West Claremont Center for Music and the Arts (WCCMA). “WCCMA is well-known for its diverse programming, from funk bands to string quartets and genres of music across the world. Having this purpose-built space in this prime location makes for fertile ground for the music lovers of all types, ages, locations, and backgrounds.”
Through a collaboration with the Claremont Development Authority (CDA) and WCCMA, the CCC will be a creative space for arts education and performance. “It’s important for the community to come together through projects like this. The creative arts are a strong social and economic driver for a vibrant, healthy community. Investments made come back strong in being a desirable place to live, patronage at local businesses, and happy residents,” says Melissa.
Renovation will comprise two phases with plans for a late 2023 opening. Phase one includes renovation of the first floor; phase two is fundraising to finish the other floors.
While incorporating modern aesthetics and comforts, historic elements of the bank will be preserved, such as parts of the marble floor and ornate plaster ceiling. Upon completion, the custom-built facility will include a performance space with a kitchen, a private area for visiting artists, and an arts education space with practice rooms and classrooms. “There are nooks for reading and piano practice stations, and art space and technology to support the needs of students and teachers,” Melissa adds.
A native of Claremont, Melissa is proud of the revitalization. “This is a great community. It excites people to see the improvements to Pleasant Street and other initiatives,” she says. “After the disconnection we’ve suffered over the past few years, this is how we rebuild—celebrating and creating joy together in community spaces. Music and arts are an incredible way to heal our tired souls. Claremont has been building for this moment for decades and soon all the fruits of our labor will be at our fingertips.”
Breathing Life into Historic Downtown
Andy Lafreniere’s appreciation of his hometown runs deep. “I love this community. My roots are here. It’s home,” says Andy, owner of FreniereEnergy Advisors and vice chair of the Claremont Development Authority. Playing a role in the town’s revitalization is important, he says. “Claremont is the story of a maker community reimagining itself. I’ve always felt called to be a part of that.”
In 2020, Andy and his wife Deborah purchased and renovated the historic 1948 Barnes and Rouillard building. “You lose a sense of place and charm of old mill towns like Claremont when you lose historic buildings. We took an older building at risk and renovated it for better use,” says Andy.
Most of the building’s original detail was preserved, such as interior woodwork, slate roof, and copper gutters. Today the building houses numerous businesses including Claremont Custom Framing, owned by David and Cindy Putnam, which provides custom framing, fine-art photography services, and art restoration. Andy, also a junior partner, notes David and Cindy’s belief in their project.
“We saw an opportunity for this building to be revitalized, and David and Cindy’s belief in our project and willingness to move his shop of 45 years and invest in a new one is a critical part of why our project worked.” David himself has a long record of volunteerism in Claremont and appreciates the small-town experience. “Here I can make a difference,” he says, appreciating the new space that serves as both a frame shop and gallery for art from professional regional artists. “It’s a much better working environment that makes it easier to be creative for our customers.”
Andy and David will continue working to create conditions that attract businesses and move the community forward. Says Andy, “I encourage everyone to add their voice in building the future success of this community. I feel we’re turning a corner.”
After years of serving in various capacities and volunteer efforts, David, too, is proud of the changes. “But I’m prouder of all those who have worked hard to make them happen,” he says. “These changes are a culmination of years of effort by many hands. They give me, Andy, and all of us a sense of pride in our community.”
For more than 14 years, the Ink Factory has been a staple in Claremont. “I’m proud to call Claremont home. I’m happy to have a positive impact,” says General Manager Jeff Barrette, a lifelong resident whose custom screen printing and embroidery business has occupied three locations in the town.
Jeff and his wife Sarah opened the clothing company business on Pleasant Street, but upon outgrowing the space moved to Water Street. A former general contractor, Jeff appreciated the opportunity to renovate and preserve the historical integrity of the former 1800s Monadnock Mills Boarding House, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 2022, the business moved to its present location at 45 School Street, a former 18,000-square-foot building that served as a former armory for the National Guard and later as a recreation space for the Junior Sports League. Again, Jeff handled the renovations. “It’s about beautification. I’m a lover of old things and this has Claremont history to it. I roller-skated in this building when I was a child,” he recalls.
Having a business that doesn’t rely on foot traffic and can be located anywhere, Jeff emphasizes he chose downtown Claremont because of the available property and its central location. “Downtown is more inviting than it has been. We’re primarily a business-to-business company, so we know most of the businesses and have a great relationship with most,” says Jeff, hoping all the changes will inspire new eating and entertainment options. “The addition of Crowbar Hardware, a 1930s-style speakeasy, has been a great addition. I believe New England as a whole will see growth in the coming years and Claremont is positioned to benefit more than other places. I’m confident that our investments are well placed here.”
Preserving Claremont’s History
Seeing the work Chinburg Properties has invested in downtown Claremont inspires Josh Savage. “I’m thrilled with what he did, and I’m excited to be part of that change,” says Josh, owner of the Barn Café with his wife Chelsea.
“We’ve really made an impact in the community, not only with the rehab of our café building that was the former Stone Arch Bakery but also with the purchase of the building formerly known as the Marro home center building/Rogers Motor Company. We’re trying to make sure everything we’re doing is helpful to the preservation of the history of Claremont.”
Josh credits Chelsea for the design of the café. “We saw the potential of the building and we put in the resources and time. We took the bones that were there and gutted it and transformed it into something that we would love to see in Woodstock, Vermont, or Hanover. It’s a testament to our vision of where Claremont is headed,” he says. Josh also made upgrades to the Marro building and is installing four EV charging stations, the first ones in Claremont. “We’re concerned with what’s best for the community and we’re doing what we can with what we have.”
Seeing how Claremont has struggled over the years like other mill towns, he appreciates how the city has taken initiative. “The historic district is a beautiful area. What’s not to love? Here you see the beauty that Claremont really is and has and we need to preserve that,” says Josh, who feels downtown represents the heart and soul of Claremont. “The small-city feel combined with some great people working hard to make the area great is an absolute win-win. We are community oriented. Our goal is to make changes that benefit everyone.”
High Tech is Alive and Well in Claremont
Mikros Technologies, headquartered in Claremont, was the recipient of Product of the Year from the New Hampshire Tech Alliance for the TU3 that helps test computer chips in extreme temperature environments, a critical part of their manufacturing.
“The award helped us gain important recognition across the tech sector, the Upper Valley, and the state. We’re anchored heavily in Claremont and are thankful for the opportunities the award has provided to speak about the many great things happening here,” says Drew Matter, vice president. “Claremont has its history in precision manufacturing, and there is still a strong labor force here with skilled machinists and technicians that can support advanced manufacturing.”
Founded in 1991, Mikros is a world leader in thermal management, designing and manufacturing high-performance liquid-cooling systems for data centers, artificial intelligence systems, electric vehicles, lasers, semiconductor testing, and other high-tech applications.
Located on the Connecticut River, Mikros is in a prime location for its business development. “Mikros will enjoy more opportunities to host tech leaders from around the world in a beautified New England city with great history,” says Drew. “We will also benefit from an increasingly strong workforce that can help contribute to our design and manufacturing work as we grow in years to come.”
Drew is looking forward to Mikros’s contributions to the city’s growth through increased jobs and other assistance. “We’re thankful for the support of Claremont’s leadership, and we support their efforts to serve and grow this city in return,” he says. “Downtown Claremont is beautiful, and the opportunities to grow this into a bustling community are very real.”