ROCHESTER — Redevelopment and revitalization have been buzzwords for years in the downtowns of both Rochester and Somersworth.
As each city embarks on processes to potentially greenlight the RSA 79-E tax incentive program for three key vacant buildings — one building in Rochester and two in Somersworth — officials say those buzzwords are seeming much more like reality.
“We’re thrilled,” said Somersworth City Planner Shanna Saunders, expressing optimism about how the Hilltop City proposals could spur much more growth in her community. “I don’t know what else to say. It’s great.”
RSA 79-E is a state law that encourages investments in town centers and the rehabilitation of underutilized buildings. It allows a governing body to grant property owners looking to improve a structure a period of relief from the increased property taxes they’d pay due to their upgraded structure’s new assessed value.
The Rochester proposal, if City Council approves it this summer, will be the city’s first 79-E project since the One Wakefield Street mixed-use project five years ago.
It involves the brownstone Rochester Bank and Trust building at 22 South Main St., which is admired for its exterior appearance but is among the long-vacant buildings often derided by local leaders and residents.
Norm and Stacie Vetter, local residents and owners of Norman Vetter Poured Concrete Foundations, bought 22 South Main St. last November in order to turn it into at least one high-caliber restaurant on the first floor and roughly half a dozen market-rate apartments on the second.
One of the Somersworth proposals would help brothers Patrick, Sean and Tom Kelly create Stripe Nine Brewery, a craft brewery, taproom and brick oven pizzeria, inside 8 Somersworth Plaza. The former Care Pharmacy building has stood vacant for eight years, while the encompassing plaza took another major blow last month when the state relocated its liquor store to High Street.
The other Somersworth proposal seeks to add a residential second story atop the one-floor commercial building at 8 Government Way behind City Hall, although owner David Baker of Somedowntown LLC recently withdrew the application so he could revise the engineering plans and refile. The building has featured various restaurants and businesses over the years, most recently All Dolled Up Beauty Boutique until the salon’s closure in 2018.
The applicants say property tax relief would help them accomplish their goals and enhance the cities’ economic vitality. The latter point played important roles in their decisions to choose Rochester or Somersworth, in addition to the fact the communities were attractive because they have lower competition and cheaper commercial real estate compared to cities like Dover and Portsmouth to the south.
“Really what Stacie and I are trying to do is give a little kickstart to the downtown,” said Norm Vetter, who won’t alter Rochester Bank and Trust’s facade and will incorporate the building’s first-floor and basement vaults into the restaurant. “Somebody’s got to take a little step and try to do something to get downtown going. With the help of the 79-E program, it really makes it beneficial for us and it does for the city as well.”
The Vetters’ proposal seeks 11 years of tax relief to help offset $1.4 million in renovations they hope to complete in 2020. The tax relief totals $281,341.98 over that period, starting with $21,966.46 in relief in year 1 and escalating to $29,521.09 in relief in year 11.
Stripe Nine Brewery seeks five years of relief to help offset more than $300,000 worth of refitting and repairs to the circa-1960 storefront. Patrick Kelly said the repairs include the unexpected replacement of its concrete floor, which collapsed recently when crews cut drains for the brewery operation. Kelly hopes to open Stripe Nine in early September.
The withdrawn 8 Government Way proposal also sought five years of tax relief to help offset a partial demo and the creation of three new apartments on the building’s second floor, an estimated $271,622.57 project.
Dollar figures for the Somersworth proposals’ requested tax relief weren’t immediately available before this story went to press.
Saunders and Jenn Marsh, Rochester’s economic development specialist, both said they hope the projects serve as catalysts for additional redevelopment interest in the growing cities.
In Rochester in particular, it represents the first concrete proposal — no pun intended, given the Vetters’ foundation business — to come forward as the city takes a more strategic approach in filling its dozens of vacant structures.
“I think it’s showing that it’s feasible,” said Marsh. “I think it’s huge. We need that first project. It’s going to bring some excitement to the city for sure.”