In Rochester, the city’s atmosphere is a little more musical. Upright pianos, painted and decorated by local artists, are scattered throughout the city. There’s one downtown, one at the Rochester Community Center, another at the Lilac Mall. Residents and visitors are encouraged to admire the pianos and maybe tap out a song or two on the keys.
The idea behind the public art project, now in its second year, is to reflect with art the economic and creative momentum building in and around the Lilac City’s downtown. That momentum is thanks in part to the city’s ongoing collaborative work with UNH Extension’s Community and Economic Development (CED) team.
“It’s about understanding that we’re a team. Between UNH Extension, the city and all the citizens, revitalizing downtown is a group effort,” says Jennifer Marsh, an economic development specialist with the city.
A city of about 30,000 people located between the Seacoast and White Mountains regions, Rochester is ripe with potential, according to Marsh. Realizing that potential is both an ongoing process and a group effort, and the first step was figuring out what they have to work with.
For Rochester, that meant taking part in CED’s First Impressions program in 2016. The program pairs similar communities, and representatives from each evaluate the other’s downtown. The process helps towns and cities learn about their assets and opportunities for improvement and empowers leaders and volunteers to put improvement plans into action.
"I can’t imagine us going through this revitalization effort without the help of UNH Extension."
The First Impressions program gave officials and residents lots to work with, says Emily Pelletier, president of Rochester Main Street. A volunteer committee charged with rethinking the city’s approach to branding, economic development and community vibrancy grew out of those initial First Impressions sessions. That committee is still going, and the piano art project is one of its early successes. “We’ve been meeting every month for the last year and a half,” says Pelletier, who co-chairs the committee. “There have been some cool community engagement opportunities. We’ve put out collage boards for residents to share their vision of Rochester’s future. There’s a big push. The city and the people want change to happen, and that momentum is there.”
In 2017, Pelletier, Marsh and other city officials took part in CED’s Community Engagement Academy. An interactive three-day program for community development professionals and citizen volunteers, the academy’s sessions focus on helping municipal leaders develop tools to bring citizens together and engage the public in charting a vision for a community’s future.
Those tools have been invaluable to working with volunteers, Pelletier says. “We have to be sensitive to people who are giving us their time and their voices,” she says. With skills learned at the academy, she says, “Everybody’s voice is heard, and they’re all involved in the change that’s happening.”
That change includes big projects like the artfully decorated pianos and smaller but no less impactful efforts, such as one volunteer’s project to clean up, paint and touch up downtown storefronts. “He got approvals from a handful of local businesses to paint, take down old lettering, clean up some messes, move stuff out of the windows of vacant storefronts and otherwise brighten things up,” Marsh says. “It was a great project.”
Those improvements are attracting attention outside of Rochester. Earlier this year, New Hampshire Magazine designated Rochester as “a city on the rise.” The city also recently received a New Hampshire Municipal Technical Assistance Grant to help residents and officials examine housing and zoning options for downtown.
“We’re always suggesting these kind of opportunities to communities,” says UNH Extension state specialist Molly Donovan.
According to Pelletier, the CED team’s help has been invaluable. And though there’s already much to be excited about, she knows there’s more work to be done.
“I can’t imagine us going through this revitalization effort without the help of UNH Extension,” she says. “None of this is going to happen overnight; it’s going to take five years, 10 years. But the city, the community, nonprofits and businesses, we’re all at the same stage. We want this to happen, and it’s amazing to watch it unfold.”