Sunday, June 28, 2009
Smuttynose Builds its Dream House - Part 4 - Newmarket Mills (a)
In July, 2003, my partner Joanne and I took a drive to Newmarket, where our friends Peter Hamelin and John Pasquale were developing their plan to purchase and reopen the famous Stone Church music club. Located about twenty minutes from Portsmouth, Newmarket is an old mill town situated on the Lamprey River, a tributary of the Great Bay. Compared to other thoroughly gentrified communities up and down the Seacoast, Newmarket has always been refreshingly, even defiantly, down-to-earth, populated with a diverse mix of people: folks with roots that go back generations, along with recent immigrants; working-class people, professionals, college students, artists and random bohemian types. It is both well-grounded and artsy in an appealingly unpretentious way.
Although Joanne and I were in Newmarket that day to hear about Peter & John's plans for the venerable Stone Church, the conversation eventually drifted to our own vague ideas for a new facility for Smuttynose. John, who lives in Newmarket and was involved in local politics, asked if we would consider looking at the mill buildings that dominate the center of town. He told me that they were vacant and that the town was actively looking for someone to come in and develop them. In August, 2003, we took our first tour through the old, abandoned mills and we were astonished by what we saw.
Newmarket's mills are a relic of New England's early, water-driven industrial revolution. Built from quarried split granite between the 1820's and the early 1900's, these massive structures were originally used to mill cotton. Later uses included shoe manufacture (Timberland got its start in the mills next door), hydro-electric generation, distilling, and most recently, the manufacture of sheet mica and electrical insulating material, but regardless of the use, they have always been the economic heart of the region, employing thousands at their peak. By 2003, the mills on Main Street housed a single small manufacturer; the mills across the Lamprey River had been converted into residential condominiums; but the bulk of the space - over 70,000 square feet in buildings in a picturesque setting alongside the river - had been vacant for more than a decade.
It is easy to see how seductive the idea was of breathing life back into these beautiful structures, especially with a traditional manufacturing use such as artisanal brewing. Walking through their vast, empty spaces, you can imagine when these buildings were filled with workers operating clanking machinery and pulsed with energy. And although these buildings did not perfectly meet the criteria outlined in the previous post, the notion of transforming these historic mills had an irresistable appeal. John introduced me to the Newmarket Community Development Corporation (NCDC), which owns the mill property on behalf of the town, and we embarked on what would turn out to be a two year-long journey that ultimately did not bear fruit.
Our plans generated a considerable amount of excitement in the community and the region, with a fair amount of positive press. Here's an example from the Exeter Newsletter in June, 2004, shortly after we signed an option to purchase the property. Here's another from the Portsmouth Herald on the same topic. It's obvious that everyone was swept up in the possibilities at this point. We had over sixty thousand square feet of buildable space to work with, even after removing large portions of floor to make room for our two-story high brewing vessels. And because of the location, in the heart of Newmarket, ourplans evolved to encompass more public uses than we have originally envisioned, including not only a new brewing facility and a pub, but other uses that these buildings and their location seemed to call out for - a cafe, office and studio space, and even a small boutique hotel. Conceptually, it all made sense, with all the parts fitting together to form a whole.
But the hard work or making all those pieces fit into the larger scheme of things was just beginning. We had hired an architecture firm in Boston to help us do a feasibility study, and we commissioned some early engineering studies of the site. Over a two year span, I attended countless meetings with various parties who had an interest in our project, and was met with a consistently high level of enthusiasm. Yet, in retrospect, there were clear signs from the very outset that our plans to redevelop the Newmarket Mills were doomed, if only I had been able to recognize them.
Next post - things fall apart...