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FRANKLIN, N.H. — On a summer night in 2013, Todd Workman marched into this city’s antique opera house.

Standing before members of a local booster club, Workman rattled off points at an intense clip, a new sentence beginning before his last was finished. His hazel eyes darted and his hands wove and cut the air like a conjurer as he explained that he wanted to do something many believed impossible.

He wanted, he said, to turn Franklin around.

And he had the key.

“Permaculture,” he said.

Eyes widened as Workman made his pitch. He wanted to bring ecologically balanced development to Franklin. He wanted to create a circular economy where one business’s output was another’s input. He wanted Franklin to be a small-scale model of sustainability.

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For so long, the city of 8,000 had been hurting, its once-thriving mills giving way to vacant brick hulks and wind whistling down sidewalks where once there had been bustle. The city had tried everything to spur investment. Tax forgiveness and tax credits, redevelopment zones.

The proud city was going to crumble if someone didn’t do something.

Workman was an outsider. He didn’t live in Franklin. He was brash and dogmatic, an ideologue in khaki pants and a blazer. He was bull-headedly certain of his plan and himself.

Would it take a guy like that to save Franklin?

A mill town in disrepair

Franklin sits in central New Hampshire at the confluence of two rivers, the Winnipesaukee and Pemigewasset, that thread together downstream to form the Merrimack. Industrialists in the 19th century harnessed the rivers for mills that churned out woolen cloth, hosiery, hacksaws, needles, and paper. A downtown of stolid brick buildings and a classical revival library courtesy of Andrew Carnegie rose.

Mill managers lived in turreted Victorians in the hills above town. Below, cheek-by-jowl New Englanders housed mill workers who streamed downtown on weekends to take in a movie at the Regal Theater or skate at Odell Park or eat at George’s Diner. On the west side, tourists meandered up Route 3, then the gateway to the White Mountains, making a stop at the historic Daniel Webster homestead.

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One of the old mills along the Winnipesaukee River in Franklin, N.H.
One of the old mills along the Winnipesaukee River in Franklin, N.H. Sean Proctor/Globe Staff/Boston Globe

Franklin was grand, and then, like so many New England mill towns, it wasn’t. Interstate 93 bypassed it, industries packed up and moved south. Big box stores were built in the adjoining town along the interstate some 4 miles away. It might as well have been a million. Traffic through town slowed to a trickle. The pharmacy closed, then the jewelry store and the shoe store.

From time to time, investors came through looking for a deal. A Montreal developer bought one of the mills in the 1990s, planning condos and offices. But he sold it a few years later after a market study showed the meager rents in Franklin weren’t worth the cost of renovating.

City officials convened intensive meetings meant to dream up the city’s future. Elaborate documents emerged. They sat on desks.

The city crossed fingers that a huge proposed Canadian hydroelectric project called the Northern Pass would materialize. A converter terminal for a transmission line from Quebec was planned for Franklin. The $250 million facility would yield jobs and nearly double the city’s tax base. But the project got bogged down in politics, and there was no telling when, or if, it ever would come to be.

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Household incomes lagged more than 30 percent behind the state average. More kids than not came to depend on the city schools for lunch.

More businesses left; a tattoo parlor moved in.

One worn storefront became home to the Twin Rivers Baptist Church. It hoisted a sign above its doorway exhorting Psalm 34:8. “Oh, Taste and see that the Lord is good!”

An empty store front in downtown Franklin.
An empty store front in downtown Franklin. Sean Proctor/Globe Staff

Outside perspective

In the nearby lakeside town of Gilford, Todd Workman grew up in a home without central heat in the 1970s. His parents were do-it-yourselfers, as he recalls, who cut their own wood, grew vegetables using discarded tires as planters, and drank unpasteurized milk drawn from the Weeks family cows up the street.

His father was a stern figure who put him and his brother to work hauling logs for the stove, he said. Fun was something for later in life. He remembers his mother having a free-spirited intensity. On a hot day, she was quick to skinny-dip in a cold stream.

Workman skied and played soccer and tennis. He was solid in all three, but what set him apart, he believed, was his cool in clutch situations. Down a set in tennis, or staring down an attacking striker in overtime, this was when he felt most alive. He was named to his high school hall of fame.

Each summer, Workman watched his father, a teacher, reinvent himself to earn extra money. He rarely took the same job, preferring to craft a new identity — cutting firewood, carpentry, giving bicycle tours across New Hampshire. Workman thought of his father as a serial entrepreneur, master of any domain he set his sights on, and a man who wouldn’t be dictated to.

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After graduating from the University of New Hampshire with a degree in business administration, Workman took a job with Beneficial Management Corp. of America, a consumer loan company, working in offices in New York and across New England. For seven years, he jockeyed for commissions.

He did well, he said. But he felt like a hack. Anyone could do the corporate hustle.

Back home in New Hampshire, his family hadn’t been able to find a suitable facility for his ailing grandparents.

Workman bought one.

He moved his grandparents, his wife, and young sons into the 34-bed facility in Northfield, N.H. When his grandparents shifted to a nursing home, Workman sold the facility. He went back to loan-making, this time on his own, he said, and also bought vacation properties for rental and resale.

One day, after a visit to a property on Webster Lake in Franklin, Workman drove downtown. Workman’s father had grown up in the town next door and gone to high school in Franklin, but Workman had never spent time there.

Now, as he walked, he marveled at the compact downtown streets running out to the dramatic hills. At the Winnipesaukee River bending around the green of Odell Park. At handsome old buildings decayed and neglected, but still there.

Odell Park, which once was a popular skating destination, is among the areas hurt by development.
Odell Park, which once was a popular skating destination, is among the areas hurt by development.Sean Proctor/Globe Staff/Boston Globe

His mind buzzed. Why the heck, he wondered, isn’t this town getting it back together?

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Workman researched the city’s earlier efforts at revitalization. Each decade had brought forth a big idea — razing old buildings, developing the mills, recruiting employers.

“There was no superhero coming to Franklin,” he recalled thinking. “Maybe I can jump in and try.”

First, he needed a big idea.

One day, a friend loaned Workman a book, “Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual.”

The author, an Australian field biologist named Bill Mollison who studied deserts and rain forests in the 1970s, posited that civilization should be designed to mimic the self-sustaining ecosystems he observed in nature.

The concept, a mix of scientific principles, philosophy, and folk wisdom, first applied to agriculture, grew in popularity and was applied to landscape design, energy production, and transportation as its once-hippie-dippie appeal found a home among serious students of sustainability. Across the country, there were permaculture meet-up groups and conferences, neighborhood classes and college courses.

It was the idea Workman was looking for.

Other cities could nibble around the edges of green living, investing in small fixes like solar trash compactors and rooftop gardens.

Franklin would outdo them all.

He imagined a city transformed, a self-contained utopia that thrived on its own resources: electricity generated by the river, local agriculture, fewer cars, artists and businesses flourishing on local trade.

“We are now living in a post-growth society, and a . . . way of life needs to be created as a viable alternative,” he later wrote of his vision.

He couldn’t do it alone, though. He had done well financially, but not that well. He needed to convince others to follow his lead.

Building a movement

It turned out there was a wealth of literature about how to become a leader.

Workman studied Simon Sinek’s “Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Action” and Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point.”

One day, he clicked open an online video. It was a TED talk called “How to Start a Movement.”

In the video, Derek Sivers, a serial entrepreneur, stands in jeans and an untucked shirt before an audience. Sivers points to an overhead screen. It shows a guy dancing alone on a hillside. The guy is soon joined by another guy because his dancing is easy to follow, Sivers explains.

“The first follower,” Sivers says with a broad smile, “is what transforms a lone nut into a leader.”

Then along comes another dancer. And then some more. Dancing is no longer weird. It’s what everyone is doing.

“Now we’ve got a movement!” Sivers says to enthusiastic applause.

Workman was a lone nut dancing on Franklin’s hillside.

He just had to stick with it, until others joined in.

A fit for Franklin

Elizabeth Dragon has been Franklin’s city manager for seven years. She is 43 years old, has a degree in accounting and has busy days running the struggling city — reviewing payroll, fielding city councilor questions, securing grants.

When Dragon first heard Workman’s pitch, she was impressed. The ideas sounded like a fit for Franklin, and Workman struck her as intense, smart, and dedicated.

Jim Aberg, head of the city’s Business and Industrial Development Corporation, was astounded by the scope of Workman’s proposal. A former developer himself, Aberg thought Workman sounded like he was talking about a fixer-upper — only not a house, but a city.

At a meeting last summer in City Hall to talk about Workman’s plans, Dragon and Aberg wondered aloud whether Workman ought to take so much on all at once.

“Why not focus on one project and show people that you have success and then build on that?” Dragon recalled asking him.

Workman shook his head. There was no way of doing Franklin piecemeal. City officials had tried that way. Their way had not worked.

Now it was time to try his way.

“He said,” she recalled, “he had a vision.”

Traffic in Franklin has slowed to a trickle on Central Street.
Traffic in Franklin has slowed to a trickle on Central Street.Sean Proctor/Globe Staff/Boston Globe

Project takes shape

Workman began acquiring downtown real estate.

He bought the main artery’s Shepard Block, which most recently had housed an antique store, for $240,000 in spring of last year. Then he bought the Buell’s Block, a three-story building across the street, for $150,000 at foreclosure. He said he has leased a building next to the Regal Theater with an option to buy at the end of a three-year term. He put another, the Auerbach Building, under contract. He became a 50 percent owner in a former needle-making mill called the Riverbend property and secured funding to buy both the stuccoed Armory and Stanley mill buildings, he said.

He was spending more money than he wanted. He said he cashed out his retirement account. His outlay was about $900,000, but he also had monthly $5,000 to $7,000 carrying costs, he said.

He devoted himself full-time to pitching his plan. He approached friends and associates. He cold-called strangers.

Some politely nodded and wondered how he would manage so much change if he had only money to buy buildings and not enough to rehab them.

But others got on board.

A professional planner produced a blueprint for Workman’s permaculture plan, laying out a sweeping vision for Franklin’s crumbling downtown, complete with hydroelectric generators to harness power from the river and methods for collecting storm water for reuse. It called for an indoor mountain bike park, a local winery, and green spaces including an “edible forest” planted with hazelnut trees, blueberry bushes, and grape vines.

The New Hampshire chapter of the American Institute of Architects chose the Buell’s Block building as the subject of an annual design competition.

An artist set up shop in the Shepard, making sculpture out of discarded car bumpers. A foursome calling themselves the “Fermentation Collective” drafted plans for a brew-pub in Buell’s Block that would use locally sourced hops and malt.

A local college professor entered into discussions to build an “agro-ecology center” in the Armory where waste from the brewpub would be used to grow black soldier fly larvae, which would feed fish — whose waste, in turn, would feed hydroponically grown plants, like kale, herbs, and lettuce.

Even long-timers were coming around.

Tim Morrill’s grandfather used to run the boiler room in the Stevens Mill. Tim, now 31, grew up hearing about the glory days of Franklin he’d missed out on. Workman was talking about bringing them back.

“He’s full of knowledge. I don’t know how he keeps it all in his head,” Morrill said.

“Two hours will go by and I’ll think: This guy is totally amazing. His ideas are great.”

Workman had momentum.

Now he was ready to push even harder.

Tension with the city

In August, Dragon began hearing news that alarmed her. Workman seemed to be representing himself as an operative of the city.

Members of the regional planning commission told her that Workman came to them asking for help in planning the bike path network he had in mind. Believing that he represented the city, they toured the path with him and offered technical advice, which the group normally provides only to member municipalities.

At another point, Workman went to a laundromat owner in town and offered her city-owned parking spaces if she would allow the bike path to cross her parking area.

Dragon was taken aback but also did not want to alienate him. She wanted to give him latitude to do what he needed, just not at the expense of checks and balances that she and others had to abide by.

“No matter how desperate a community is for development, it’s not going to be willing to sign a blank check,” she said.

Workman saw it differently.

“We do have to step on the toes of the city,” he said. “We have to take on roles that the city should be taking on but doesn’t.”

The conflict boiled to a head Sept. 2 when the City Council took up Workman’s bike trail proposal.

Dragon raised questions for the councilors to consider, such as the costs and maintenance. She said she was doing her job looking out for the welfare of the city. Workman thought Dragon was pouring cold water on his plan.

The following evening, Workman fired off an e-mail to Dragon. “You seem more focused on attacking every aspect of my efforts as opposed to welcoming this ‘window of opportunity,’ ” he wrote.

“For this reason, I am no longer willing to engage in the revitalization of downtown Franklin,” he concluded. “I am done.”

A few days later, Workman sent another e-mail, this one with a subject line “Memorandum of Understanding” in which he sought greatly expanded powers for his organization, which he gave a name that sounded an awful lot like an official agency, the Franklin Falls Downtown Development Authority. He wanted assistance applying for grants and below-market loans, and part-time help from the city’s director of planning.

The city declined to sign but replied with an alternate memorandum, which provided that Aberg would collaborate with Workman.

Workman refused to sign.

“There was no appreciation of the sacrifice I am making,” he said in an interview. “They challenge and question everything I do and at best they say, ‘I hope you succeed.’ ”

Planning the next step

Relations deteriorated further through the fall.

Then one day in December, Workman realized he had been here before. This was overtime, and the ball was in play.

He placed a call to an expert he admired, Roger Brooks, a former tour manager for the Bee Gees who now was a marketing consultant specializing in shaping the public images of cities. Workman had bought his series of instructional videos.

Brooks himself was not available for consultation, but his chief operating officer took the call.

Workman explained his troubles. The chief operating officer said Workman needed to hold a series of public panels to make his plans clearer to more people.

The problem was not his vision. The problem was his message.

“It’s time to plow and come back harder,” Workman said a short time later as he sat surrounded by sculptures in his building’s art studio. “Why should I leave town when I have all this momentum?”

January brought Workman some good news. An area land trust expressed interest in backing an $8 million investment in the Riverbend complex where Workman hoped to bring mixed-income housing. If the deal came through, it would be big. He’d have an anchor tenant in one of Franklin’s largest unoccupied buildings.

But, by any measure, the grand vision of a sparkling, self-sustaining city was years, even decades, away from being realized, if it ever would be.

Despite any excitement Workman had managed to drum up, progress so far consisted mainly of pledges and promises. Even the seemingly simple project of the bike trail had yet to become anything more than a plan.

Workman says he has enough money to live for one more year working full time on the project before he will have to find new income.

And he has been brooding over blowback he has endured along the way.

He has contemplated allowing someone else on his team to deal with the city, a job he says that “getting on the same page, without compromising, will take more tact and diplomacy than I have to offer.”

But he says he remains committed. And Franklin, a city with little left to lose, seems determined to keep him around, despite all. Because he just might succeed.

“Based on his charisma and sheer force of will, I think he has a good chance,” city development official Aberg said.

“His destiny is in his own hands.”

Which is exactly where Workman wants it.

Toad Hall art gallery has opened downtown and hosted a show by Joseph Kildune (pictured).
Toad Hall art gallery has opened downtown and hosted a show by Joseph Kildune (pictured).Sean Proctor/Globe Staff/Boston Globe

Related:

Biddeford’s mills at center of downtown revival

Closing of Maine papermaker ends a way of life

Sarah Schweitzer can be reached at sarah.schweitzer@ globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @SarahSchweitzer.