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N.H. city hopes to make a big splash with a whitewater park and a renamed downtown

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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 File 2015

When Mill City Park, New England’s first whitewater park, opens in New Hampshire this September, it could mark another debut as well — that of Franklin Falls, N.H. That’s what the city of Franklin is planning to rechristen its downtown district, which includes the new waterpark, in an effort to capture some of the energy and history inherent in its riverfront setting.

Franklin has long been defined by the waters rushing through it. Sitting at the junction of the Winnipesaukee and Pemigewasset rivers, which meet to form the mighty Merrimack, Franklin’s fast-flowing currents powered its many textile and paper mills and, in turn, its late 19th-century economic boom. But after the last of those mills closed in 1970, the city languished, with many of the old factories sitting vacant for decades.

Still, the rivers continued to course through the city — and in their churning, frothy waters, some could see a new 21st-century identity for Franklin. The Winnipesaukee River drops roughly 77 feet over a little more than a mile, creating whitewater rapids that have long attracted adventurous rafters and kayakers. The problem, said Marty Parichand, founder of Outdoor New England, is that peak paddling conditions don’t overlap with the summer tourist season.

“Paddlers who enjoy whitewater, they’ve been coming here for a very long time,’’ Parichand said. “[But] in the middle of summer, we don’t get a lot of folks coming over this way, because our river’s really low,’’ as Lake Winnipesaukee is held at a steady water level.

Inspired by communities in Colorado, Parichand began to envision a whitewater park with engineered waves and rapids that could attract outdoor water sports enthusiasts — and their friends and families — to Franklin 365 days a year. In 2015, he pitched the idea to city officials as a potential lynchpin to their downtown revitalization efforts, and the plan picked up steam.

Construction is now underway on the 13-acre park, which will include water features such as perpetual waves and three classes of rapids, plus a mountain bike pump track and skills course, a natural playground and wading area, a parkour course, and a rock-climbing wall, all connected to the Winnipesaukee River Trail. An economic study by the state estimated the park will bring 160,000 visitors a year and generate $6.8 million in direct spending.

Outdoorsy Colorado communities served as more than just an aesthetic inspiration, said Judie Milner, Franklin city manager. “We looked at all of the other whitewater parks that exist throughout the United States, none of them in New England yet, and what they did economically for the towns and the communities that they were in — communities that were just like us, that were trying to reinvent themselves because some industry had left a long time ago,’’ Milner said. “In every last one, the economic impact on the community was positive, and positive in big ways.’’

Mill City Park, which is being funded entirely by grants and donations, is a key part of a larger downtown revitalization process — one that includes converting some of Franklin’s old brick mills into housing. Chinburg Properties, for example, is transforming the former JP Stevens Mill into more than 100 loft-style units.

And while planners hope the name Franklin Falls can stir the imaginations of enough outdoor enthusiasts to bring a renewed vitality to downtown, the new moniker isn’t entirely new. “If you go back in the maps far enough, you’ll find ‘Franklin Falls’ before you find ‘Franklin,’ at least in respect to the downtown,’’ Parichand said. “It seems like a slam dunk, both as a nod to our history and the idea of a rebirth through outdoor recreation.’’

There’s no set date for “flipping the switch’’ on Franklin Falls, Milner said, and the city has yet to submit a formal request to the Post Office. But downtown businesses have been supportive of the name. “I think it’s a great way to draw attention to our ‘new’ downtown area while at the same time pulling in our history,’’ said Jo Brown, owner of The Franklin Cafe.

“This kind of thing has worked successfully in other communities in New Hampshire as well,’’ Milner added, noting that well-known Weirs Beach is actually part of the city of Laconia.

While Franklin is merely rebranding its downtown district, other communities have gone a step further and renamed their entire towns.

About 25 years ago, for example, North Tarrytown, N.Y., was reeling from its own economic stagnation, brought on by the closure of the General Motors plant that employed many locals over the years. The village is famously regarded as the setting for Washington Irving’s 1820 short story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,’’ and some residents felt the community ought to embrace its place in literary history. After a failed first effort in 1988, residents in 1996 voted overwhelmingly — by a margin of 1,304 to 710 — to officially change the village’s name to Sleepy Hollow, N.Y.

Tom Capossela is a longtime resident who voted against the name change but has since come to accept it (unlike a few folks who still brandish “North Tarrytown Forever’’ bumper stickers). Capossela remembers arguing with a friend of the family around the time of the vote, saying his grandfather “would roll over in his grave’’ if they changed the name. “And he turned to me and said, ‘Your grandfather was smart enough to know that this is going to benefit the village,’ ’’ Capossela said.

That it has, said Anthony Giaccio, village administrator. The village formed a committee to enhance the Halloween experience at attractions like Sleepy Hollow Cemetery and the 17th-century Old Dutch Church, looking to Salem, Mass., as a gold standard of spooky tourism. While the pandemic foiled plans to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Headless Horseman’s literary debut, events like haunted hayrides, ghost tours, and the Great Jack-O-Lantern Blaze now bring an estimated 100,000 visitors to the village in a typical fall season — from all over the world, Giaccio said. “We pretty much run events from the beginning of September to the end of October, even into November,’’ he said.

For locals, the October tourist invasion borders on intrusive, Capossela said, but the business it brings is well worth it. “Since the automobile plant shut down, we needed the influx of money, and we got it with the Halloween season,’’ he said.

Of course, one of the more famous — and perhaps contentious — municipal name changes in recent New England history took place in 1989, when Manchester, Mass., officially added the suffix “by-the-Sea’’ to its name. Put forward by a beloved former town official named Ed Corley, Article 53 passed at Town Meeting by just two votes, 97 to 95.

The idea that the town changed its name to distinguish itself from New Hampshire’s largest city is “a semi-suburban myth,’’ said Erika Brown, publisher of The Cricket, the local weekly paper. “Nobody’s confusing little Manchester on Cape Ann with a big city in New Hampshire,’’ Brown said. But the effort’s boosters genuinely loved the town, she said, and rather than remain one of 21 different Manchesters, “they wanted to kind of make it unique with a different name.’’

Like Franklin Falls and Sleepy Hollow, the name Manchester-by-the-Sea also had historical precedent. Manchester had established itself as a furniture-making center by the mid-1800s, but when wealthy Boston Brahmins discovered its shores, the town soon became a favored summer colony for Gilded Age getaways. The first mention of Manchester “by the Sea’’ was in 1877, at the annual Elder Brethren Picnic, Brown said — an event that still takes place at Tuck’s Point every year. Among the attendees was recently retired Boston publisher James T. Fields, a contemporary of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. “He’s credited as the first one to call it Manchester-by-the-Sea,’’ Brown said, “but the point is, the name had been around; they were just reclaiming a nickname that already existed for over 100 years.’’

The Fourth of July parade in Manchester-by-the-Sea (formerly Manchester, Mass.) in 2014. —Globe File

The community is still somewhat divided over the name more than 30 years later, but in a way that feels refreshingly low stakes by today’s political standards. “It gave people in the community a pretty light-hearted thing to kind of be on one side of or the other,’’ said Brown — who adds that she would have voted against the name change at the time, had she been at the town meeting. “Some people bristle, and it might sound snooty, but the truth is we’ve been living with it happily for a very long time,’’ she said.

Back in Franklin, Dan Darling, executive director of Franklin Opera House, has been eagerly following the progress of the whitewater park for a long time as well. Darling and his wife landed in Franklin nine years ago; they were looking to buy a house within driving distance of Boston and found one they loved — and could afford — in New Hampshire’s smallest city (population 8,700).

“It was economically depressed, but I noticed that it had this community theater and this opera house,’’ Darling said, so he figured it couldn’t be all bad. “My wife and I both said, well, let’s just be part of the revitalization of Franklin. And so we really dove in.’’

Now on the board of the local historical society, Darling likes the choice of Franklin Falls for its historical authenticity — but he also appreciates the energy the name conveys. “I think Franklin Falls evokes visions of action and of activity,’’ he said. “If the city went through the process to officially, legally change the name to Franklin Falls, I’d be all for it.’’

Whether or not Franklin Falls makes it onto an official map anytime soon, Milner is hoping the new moniker will beckon to visitors and claim a spot in their mental maps of the Granite State. “When you’re on the river, you feel like you’re in the White Mountains — you feel like you’re out in the wilderness,’’ Milner said. “Then you get to the end, the takeout, which is the end of the run, and you’re in Franklin’s downtown — right at the base of what will be Franklin Falls.’’

Jon Gorey blogs about homes at HouseandHammer.com. Send comments to [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @jongorey. Subscribe to our free real estate newsletter at pages.email.bostonglobe.com/AddressSignUp.

Correction: An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect title for Ed Corely of Manchester-by-the-Sea. He was a town official. The Globe regrets the error.