Building a Visitors Information Center
Located in the parking lot behind the Middlesex Savings Bank
64 Main Street

Interviewed at Annabelle Shepherd's home, 210 Park Lane, April 4, 2002

Concord Oral History Program
Renee Garrelick, Interviewer.

Annabelle Shepherd a veteran of past town tourist task forces, a Selectman at the time when the visitors center was being proposed as the 350a gift to the town on Heywood Street and narrowly missed a 2/3 approval by Town Meeting, and donor of a gift of $100,000 that enabled the current Visitors Center to be built behind Middlesex Savings Bank, and actively engaged in the community fund raising efforts from residents.

Bill Jackson her son, a President of the Concord Business Partnership and member of the town Visitors Center subcommittee. He coordinated the building effort with Kevin Hurley of the Concord Business Partnership, and both were selected as Businessmen of the Year for 2001 by the Concord Chamber of Commerce.

Mary Johnson Chamber of Commerce President, long dedicated to the visitors center as a town issue. A member of past town tourism task forces to locate a visitors center, and of the town Visitors Center subcommittee, and a leader in its corporate fundraising.

Pat Padden Vice President, Middlesex Savings Bank. Treasurer of the Concord Business Partnership, an advocate for the Visitors Center, supporting first the location of public bathrooms at Middlesex and joining with Bill Jackson to have them included a building providing visitors information services.

The Visitors Information Center is scheduled to open on Memorial Day weekend, 2002. In order to appreciate where we are now is to know the many years, meetings, committees that have led to this point, and Mary and Annabelle have been very, very much involved in this kind of preparation.

Annabelle — We first became involved with this idea in 1985 when we were planning a celebration for the town's 350th birthday party and a visitor's center was to be a gift to the town. At the time, Mrs. Sellers had died, and she owned three lots on the corner of Heywood Street and Lexington Road. She had willed these lots to her chauffeur, and this man was interested in doing some development work up behind her house, and he offered lot 1 and 2 to the town. We investigated all the mechanics and the desirability of it. There was a town committee that I believe Rick Frese was co-chairman of, and we were moving ahead very rapidly with Lanny Day doing the architectural plans. It was going to be a substantial building because the Chamber of Commerce was going to have their offices there. We moved ahead not anticipating any opposition because we thought it was a given that this was a good idea. We had no idea the passion that people would bring to keeping lot 1 and 2 open. It was eventually voted to not to have a visitors center there. This was not to be the gift for the 350th, and to put lot 1 and 2 into conservation, which meant that it disappeared completely from a possible use.

At that town meeting we got the majority of the vote, but we needed two-thirds of the vote. There was just a passion that you all found out later when it came to lot 3. This passion still exists.

Mary — The town had wanted a tourism task force to study possible sites for a visitor's center including lot 3. I was chairman of the first task force and we studied 44 sites. We presented those to the Board of Selectmen. If you recall at the time, there was quite a bit of dissention going on, and we then went on to be appointed as Task Force II. I believe the chairman was Jack Kessler. We really had no new sites to add, but we still believed there were three possible sites, lot 3, the telephone booths at the corner of Main Street, and possibly putting something in the municipal parking lot. Then we went back to Town Meeting and at this point we felt that after having gone to the Board of Selectmen, lot 3 really was the better spot. There were some traffic problems if we had placed this near the phone booths on Main Street, and there would be traffic problems in the municipal parking lot. In fact all the sites that we studied came up with some kind of problem. And there was rising dissention about where it would finally be. We presented it to the Board of Selectmen and lot 3, Heywood Street, was our choice.

Annabelle — But before that the Selectmen kept being lobbied to do something about tourism and a visitor's center. So the Selectmen when in doubt appointed a committee to study it. So they studied tourism. We were not charged with looking for a site. We were to present all the facets of tourism. We played this straight. I believe Judy Walpole was the chairman. We interviewed people and we had representatives from all the historic houses and the National Park. We interviewed people from Salem and Plymouth about what they did and how tourism affected their town. We presented a huge, voluminous report to the Selectmen which only meant that a few trees were chopped down to create this report. We were specifically asked not to deal with sites but the value to a town of tourism.

Mary — As president of the Chamber of Commerce the first time around, it was an issue in 1985. It remained an issue until we finally got this spot thanks to Middlesex Bank. Jane Barrett was President of the Chamber of Commerce, and Welch Grape Juice said they would bottle grape juice and put a picture of the Minuteman of the front of the bottle and it could be used as a fund raiser. Indeed we did that. Lots of Welch Grape Juice was sold. I always remember the very end of it possibly four or five years later going down to the basement of the shop on the Milldam and hearing this crackle and pop. Bottles were exploding on the shelf. It was the beginning of the shop that was heard around the town.

Bill — I got involved when Kevin Hurley approached me probably in 1995 or 1996. I had just become president of the Concord Business Partnership. Kevin said the chauffeur had approached him about selling lot 3 and he approached Kevin to ask what he should ask for the site. So he was asking Kevin his opinion of the value. Kevin approached me and said, "Boy, what a crime that would be if that site got sold and a developer put a mansion there." He said it's a very simple concept why don't we as the Partnership spearhead acquiring the garage, putting bathrooms in, put in a visitors side and flip over from the little booth over to the garage. I thought this pretty simple plan made sense. So I told Kevin I would talk to the officers. At some point in the next few days, I happened to come here and I had no idea what happened in 1985 and I had no idea what had happened to lots 1 and 2. I sat our kitchen table and explained to Mom what Kevin's idea was. The look of horror on her face was shocking. She looked at me and very coarsely said, "You started your own business, you've got other responsibilities here, you've got two young children, don't go near that." I remember driving up Park Lane thinking well, I respect her judgment but she's missing how simple this concept is. I got back to the office and called Kevin and said, "Great idea, let's go for it." So that's how we got started. Several town meetings later as well as a lot of other meetings, it was an amazing journey those first few years. Another funny story I think I related as well was my son Tim was probably six or seven at the time and we were two years into this battle and we had already gone through the HDC mess a few times. He wanted to know what it was all about. So we stopped at the booth and got out and I was explaining the concept of the flip. We were going to get rid of this booth, it's got no heat, it's got no water, it's substandard and we're going to redo that garage over there. And Tim says I just don't get it and just at that time Joanne Gibson walked by across the street. So I said, "I don't get it either."

The 1996 Town Meeting approved the lot 3 site quite handily. So it represents the first time that a Town Meeting vote wasn't upheld.

Mary — I became President of the Chamber of Commerce again in 1997, and I did so for one reason. I was very interested in getting a visitors center. It was my primary concern even when I went off the first time. I really wanted to see it happen and I was willing to come back to the Chamber to fight for it. I have to say at that point I was working with the Partnership and I have a lot of respect for Bill Jackson. We kind of became a team and worked together. When one of us felt we might be falling a little low on energy and getting close to feeling very disenchanted, the other one gave that little shot to go on. I'll always be indebted to Bill. But, as the years passed the issue kind of stalemated.

Bill — I think it stalemated on lot 3. I concluded that we could not continue to fight for lot 3. We didn't have the resources. The minority that didn't want anything on lot 3 had resources and a will to fight this in the courts that I think easily could have been another decade worth of anguish and expense. That was a very difficult time as Mary mentioned, and lots of ups and downs, but particularly at the Partnership level where you've got people who were doers and don't like taking no for an answer. To be stalemated like that was very difficult. To back off of lot 3 was very difficult. But there was no question that this battle was going to go all to the way to issuing the building permit. Even if we'd ever gotten through HDC, everything would have been appealed. So we reached a point where lot 3 wasn't going to happen in my mind. That was a tough call, and I guess at that point there was also this bathroom committee appointed to study the bathroom issue for the Milldam. I think they worked for the better part of a year assessing sites and then the Middlesex Savings Bank stepped up and volunteered a portion of their property for the public bathrooms. Pat Padden was instrumental in that.

I remember asking you (Annabelle) what you think about how the bank would perceive it and how the town would perceive it if we tried to put the bathrooms and the visitors information area at Middlesex and you thought that was worth pursuing. I called Pat and he said they would certainly consider that and float it by the folks in Natick. The key to that in my mind was getting paid back for the money we had put into the acquisition of lot 3 and the soft costs associated with the designs and approvals for $330,000. Getting the money back from the vocal minority to put it toward the construction of the facility at Middlesex Savings would be a start. I don't think the bathroom committee, while they've done a very good job of finding a site and having the bank agree, thought where they were getting the money to build this thing.

So Middlesex sort of broke the logjam and donated the land and so the buyout of lot 3 gave us the money to start the process of developing something. So in 2000 it came before Town Meeting and it was unanimous.

Annabelle — Sally Schnitzer was very helpful. She was the Selectman sort of in charge of the project and she was extremely helpful. But I wasn't going to touch this project with a ten-foot pole. I really was very unhappy. I had experienced this degree of passion that people felt about it and it was generating a kind of ill will that is too bad for any town. So we hope that this will make it better.

Bill — We had had Brent ????? office involved in the design of the center at lot 3 and Brent got some stars in the process and wasn't overly thrilled about… One interesting piece of this on lot 3 is we had a design sharif??? one Saturday in January, 2000 with about 60 or 70 people sort of brainstorming for about five or six hours about design concepts. It was remarkable the concepts that people came up with. Again this was an attempt to come up with some alternatives since we'd been stymied by the HDC over Brent's design. This was an attempt to engage more people in the process and hopefully win over the HDC, all the time knowing it was going to be a tough sell. There are many different designs that came out of that. As part of that, Holly Cratsley, who ultimately is the designer of the visitor's center, took a really active role in that sharif??? in terms of inviting different professionals in town and because of Holly's presence they participated enthusiastically. Holly really became very, very interested in the visitor's center/bathroom facility and has donated tons of time. In terms of hours of service, they're now up to $52,000 worth of design time that they've donated for this project.

We were limited in terms of the amount of land that Middlesex could give to this project. We had also made assurances to the town over the years that this was going to be a modest-sized visitor's center and try to get over people's fears that this was going to be a Williamsburg-type of thing with the buses. The whole building including the bathrooms is only 700 square feet, so it is a modest facility. We had pretty much limited ourselves to something on the order of 700 square feet. It might have been slightly larger on lot 3, but certainly not much bigger than what's at Middlesex. The two bathrooms take up about half of that and so there is about 250-300 square feet for the information component of the building. I should mention Kevin here because he is really great at getting approvals and has worked countless hours on this. So with his efforts on the approval process and Holly's design, we made it through the HDC, Natural Resources, the floodplain issue, very complex issues that took the better part of a year. We stayed sort of low level and worked methodically through the boards and secured the approvals, but we came out with a design that I think, particularly now that you can see the brick going on and see the columns, is good.

Mary — When I just walked down there, it didn't look like a new building. It blended in and it looks like it's always been there.

Bill — As to the parties involved, Middlesex Bank has donated the back corner of their land which they will lease to the town for $1.00 a year. We did not want to get involved with public bidding procedures. If the town would try to build this facility, it was another whole different process. So basically the Friends of the Concord Visitors Center, Inc. has been privately building this project which when complete we will turn over to the town. The town will then negotiate an agreement with Chamber of Commerce for running that portion of the facility. The town will maintain the bathrooms and clean them twice a day with a combination of town staff and outside services. The legality of it is once the building is complete, there will be a signed arrangement with Middlesex Bank and the town for this $1.00 a year for so many years. We really haven't been involved in any discussions between Chris Whelan, the Town Manager, and Middlesex Bank. Then again there will be an arrangement between the town and the Chamber of Commerce with the operation of the visitors information portion. The role of the Partnership has been primarily Kevin and I just making sure the building gets built. We are members of the Partnership. Really just assuring and working with a number of others on the fundraising committee and having weekly construction meetings. Kevin is great at that because he has been through the approval process. In some respects we all have been, but he makes sure things happen with the approvals.

The construction portion of the project is around $400,000. The soft costs associated with the project, the $50,000 I mentioned for Holly and the engineering was roughly another $60,000. We got $150,000 back for our expenses on lot 3. The town put in $75,000 for infrastructure and services and so the balance had to be raised from private funds. Around $200,000 plus or minus has been raised by private funds.

Mary — I would say that if Annabelle Shepherd had not stepped forward this could not have happened. We owe this lady a tremendous vote of thanks. She made it possible for us to continue with her very generous donation. Annabelle gave us $100,000 which came as a total surprise and is a overwhelming gift to receive.

Annabelle — Well, obviously I really cared about this for a long time. It seems as though for it to be done, go for it. It seemed important to get on with it. Little-by-little fundraising was going to work, we know that, but it would have taken time and we couldn't have gotten started, I don't think, quite so readily.

Bill — At best we would have been groundbreaking this spring. Coupled with September 11 and the timing of this, it would have been this spring. That $100,000 with the money we had in hand allowed us to start with the comfort that we could at least get the building and the exterior built and the bank was comfortable that we still had some money to raise, but we could finish off the outside and get that done and still raise money as we needed to. But we would never had that confidence if we didn't have that money in hand. It would have easily been eight months delay or so without that money.

R.L. Jeannotte is doing the construction. They're doing a wonderful job. He did the West Concord Library addition, he did the Minuteman ???, Trinity Congregational Church addition, the West Union Church addition. Those who have worked with the Jeannottes just have great confidence in them.

I think the building might be done by Memorial Day. There are some gifts from different people we need to coordinate, plantings, etc. I don't think everything will be 100% done until late June.

Mary — The fundraising effort on this project has been interesting. The partnership I would say initially started the real fundraising. They've been a very interested group. At one of our meetings we decided to have a residential campaign and a business campaign. Annabelle took over the residential campaign and I took over the business campaign. It's not been easy but we did have some people who jumped on board immediately. We got $5,000 from the Concord Book Shop and $5,000 from Kusins which was just a wonderful contribution. After that I've been out on the street a great deal — a lot! It's not always easy but my heart's always been in it. I have enjoyed it and I'm still working on it.

Bill — I think we still need to raise about $30,000 more. We'll know a little better tomorrow.

Annabelle — I sent out about 40 letters just to individuals in Concord and I think probably 25 of them responded with gifts varying in size from $100 to $5,000 but just out of the goodness of their hearts. I thought that was pretty remarkable that in Concord people were doing that. Some of these people may never use this facility or may never have any occasion to, but they think it's important for the town to have it.

Bill — I'd like to mention that Bruce Gurall put up a sizeable amount of money when we were going through all the permitting issues on lot 3 that it wasn't clear that anything was ever going to be built. That's a tough thing to do to fundraise at that time. When you look at the breadth of people who gave money to the acquisition of lot 3 for a project that wasn't ever clear anything was going to have happen and then to have Bruce and others provide money for the design and approval process which was (a) very controversial and (b) wasn't ever clear anything was going to happen. That is not an easy thing to do. I'd like to give Bruce a lot of credit for sort of seeding us with money to keep us going at a time when it was really hard to make that phone call to other people to please send your checks.

Mary — That is so true, Bill, because in approaching the business community, I repeatedly got, "Well I gave the first time and I didn't see anything happen."

Annabelle — I think it's hard to explain that that's where the money came from for lot 3 was from the business community who had contributed to the purchase and development of lot 3, and now they were finally because it didn't happen were going to be keeping a portion of (voice too low).

Bill — The driver for Bruce was a bad experience he had when he was in Manchester, NH with a child and couldn't find a public restroom. He has just been appalled at what he considers to be a world-class community and as a parent with a child that needs a facility in downtown Concord and having no place to go wouldn't have restroom facilities. He's never earmarked the money for the restrooms but it's clear he wanted to see the restrooms get built.

Tons of people had donated money to buy the land, then there was money raised to gain approvals which was very hard money to raise. Some people have given both times and some are new people giving.

Mary — I think from the onset after the bank had made the land available, we saw this as a gathering place in the community. Any time you walk by the Middlesex Savings Bank on a lovely day, there are people on the lawn, particularly you see the plant sale that the garden club has rain or shine. They have been very interested in the project. They'll now have a porch area that can be used. I think it will be used by a lot of people in town more than just visitors. But certainly we're going to be more welcoming to visitors and this has been of utmost importance to me. Having worked on the Milldam I did not feel that we were visitor friendly. I felt we closed the door many times, and it was not right.

Pat Padden — Primarily the fact that this had gone on for so long got us involved. The fact that it had become a divisive issue in the town with the Heywood Meadow site where many of us including me thought was a good location, and a good gateway to the town for a visitor's center especially given the fact that there was that old garage there. But when it was apparent that those two sides were never going to come to an agreement, and it was requested of us to consider restrooms on our site, it just seemed like a natural. We said yes and made plans to go ahead. It really wasn't that long after that that Bill Jackson called and said, "Well, as long as you're having the restrooms, then let's do a visitors center." So we proceeded. Interestingly, the first kind of representation of what was there was significantly smaller in scale and it wasn't meant to be a true representation but someone had taken a copy of the pump house over by the court house on Walden Street and superimposed that on our site. That's obviously nothing like what's well under construction now.

The bathroom facility committee had identified a handful of sites that they thought would be appropriate and convenient for tourists and for locals who were down in the Milldam area or at any of the sites. This certainly was one that made a lot of sense to a lot of people, and as such we thought it was something we should do. We do have plenty of space here. Our lawn is used a lot in the nice weather for people to just set up a quick picnic or just relax. That corner of the lawn had some plantings and things and maybe it was time for a little TLC down there anyway in terms of some of the plantings that were there, but it did in the end seem like a natural thing to do.

So when Bill Jackson came with the additional request it just all flowed together. Not that it was my call in any way shape or form. Our main office is in Natick and I talked to a few of the senior executives down there who discussed it for only a short period of time and said why not, let's do it. Let's make that another tie of this bank into the town and we'll offer the land. It was not a difficult approval.

It's been fun to watch. There was a little frustration during the winter in that before the weather got too tough they did pour the slab and had all the utilities for the site, then it just sat idle for a month or six weeks because there was a longer lead time than expected for granite and brick, so they didn't want to put up the frame and have that exposed to the elements. So I'd look out my window and nothing was happening, but once things did start to happen, they happened quickly. Every once in a while I have to walk through and just check to make sure everything is okay.

We obviously wanted the building to fit in with the bank, and I think Holly Cratsley made that a big part of her design and not only did it match the bank and frankly to some degree the bank next door, but also the entire Milldam area, the downtown area, with the brick and the slate roof and the cupola. Really I look out the window now and see even in its semi-finished state with the windows in, with the brick porch and the granite work and the columns, I just can picture that when it's done, it's going to look like its been there forever. Some of the architectural details like the granite base the way it's beveled and the way of the run of the bricks with the half bricks which match what is done here on the bank, it's just going to look like its been there for a long, long time. It's not going anywhere. That thing is sturdy and is going to be there for a long, long time.

The maintenance is going to be the town's responsibility. I think that was part of Holly's design. Even with this building, from an exterior perspective we have trim, we have shutters, we have windows that need to be painted, but beyond that there is not a lot of ongoing regular maintenance. And the same with the visitors center building. So much of it being brick and the slate roof, those are finishes that will last for a long time. Certainly there will be a need over the years to paint the trim and things like that. As a matter of fact, one of the things we're waiting for right now from Holly is the final specifications on the white paint that will be used for the trim. This bank has had its trim painted grey for a long time, but we're going to change to white and we're going to match what's on the visitor's center so it will be completely in keeping.

Actually another thing that surprised me too and I don't know maybe it's just the detail that you need in a town like this to make it all tie together, but not only did they match the brick to this building, and the way the brick runs on this building, but they even were concerned about the mortar in-between the bricks to make sure that was the right shade to match what's on this building. So it will look like it fits and it will look like it's been here for a long, long time.

Annabelle Shepherd, Mary Johnson, Bill Jackson

Text mounted 23 February 2008; image mounted 12 October 2013 rcwh.