The changing face of downtown Dover

The Robbins Block storefronts are now gone and a five-story Orpheum is rising in their place. The hardware store, lower right, is still there. From the top left are the library, community center, and district court.

When I moved to New Hampshire 32 years ago, downtown Dover – like many other city centers across northern New England – had definitely seen better days. The old textile mill dominating the heart of the city was largely boarded up, and the retail stores that remained did so out of faith and loyalty and family tradition. How could they hold out against the big-box stores at the mall?

And then along came some visionary developers like the late Joseph Sawtelle and David Bamford, as a turnaround slowly took hold. Sawtelle restored the mill as it welcomed offices and incubated entrepreneurial businesses, while Bamford rebuilt mixed-use retail and housing on Central Avenue – some of it tastefully looking more natively New England than what it replaced.

Now that I’ve been a Dover resident the past 19 years, let me say it’s wonderful living within walking distance of a living downtown, one with a small-town feel. As I tell my wife, when we venture out for a weekday brunch, many people drive halfway across the continent for this.

Big change is in the air, though. That center is shifting from being primarily a financial, retail, and office center to more of a residential destination, presumably for young adults, child-free couples, singles, and retirees – people looking for an urban setting close to the ocean and mountains.

Part of the shift has already happened with the top floors of the two biggest mills being converted to apartments, a reflection of soaring residential demand in our part of the state. But now it’s getting serious.

For a city of 30,000, having four significant and mostly residential buildings going up in the central business district is exciting, even before we get to the waterfront development about to unfold across the Washington Street bridge. (Admittedly, some of us do miss the quaint covered bridge for children and other pedestrians that was there when I moved to town 19 years ago, but I’ll go with the tradeoff – landing the children’s museum was a definite coup.)

This doesn’t just happen by accident. A lot of incremental steps over the past two decades have made this a more desirable place to live. And now it’s kicking in big time.

The former Strafford Bank building sits at the corner of Lower Square. The Barley Pub is gone, replaced by the Thirsty Moose.

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