Questions still surround Laconia State School plan
New proposal has resemblance to previously planned draft
In June, the Lakeshore Redevelopment Planning Commission, charged with redeveloping the site that once was home to the Laconia State School and later a minimum security prison, presented a draft master plan for the property that echoes without mirroring a proposal that drew sharp criticism from city officials a year ago.
Altogether, the state owns some 245 acres divided among five abutting parcels. The state has retained the 17 acres housing the 911 call center and headquarters of the Lakes Region Mutual Fire Aid Association and leased three other abutting lots to the city in 2000 for 99 years.
The main campus of 200 acres is the focus of the redevelopment effort. The tract rises westward from Route 106 in the northwest quarter of Laconia to overlook two lakes — Opechee to the east and Winnisquam to the west. Although the property has no direct access to either lake, it abuts Ahern State Park, nearly 130 acres of woodland with 3,500 linear feet of shorefront on Lake Winnisquam.
There are 31 buildings on the campus, built between 1905 and 1975, half described as in good condition and half needing or beyond repair. They include dormitories, classrooms, offices and garages as well as a dairy barn and sheds for pigs and poultry. Two of the buildings are on the parcel retained by the state. Another two, in the northern quarter of the main campus, house the so-called Designated Receiving Facility, where the state Department of Health and Human Services holds offenders with developmental disabilities deemed incompetent to stand trial for sexual offenses.
A preliminary environmental assessment found a number of environmental hazards on the property, which the state Department of Environmental Services estimated could cost some $600,000 to thoroughly assess and between $2 million and $3 million to remediate. The city is the sole entity eligible for federal funding, distributed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, to assist with the cost of environmental remediation.
DES Commissioner Bob Cheney, who managed the environmental issues in the redevelopment of Pease Air Force Base, said that further field work was set to get underway in July. He said preliminary indications are that “conditions are much better than we expected.”
Job creation goal
Initially, NBBJ, a Boston consultancy engaged by the commission, proposed a “Multi-Generational Wellness Village,” centered on a continuing care facility, outdoor sports complex and resort hotel, ringed by as many as 345 residential units, including senior housing, and complemented by retail and office space.
Within a week, the Laconia City Council advised the commission that elements of the plan, in the words of Mayor Ed Engler, “fly in the face” of its charge from the Legislature to redevelop the site “for self-sustaining economic development and job creation.”
Likewise, the council found the inclusion of a continuing care facility and age-restricted housing contrary to the city’s efforts to overcome its aging demographic and stagnant population while expanding its commercial tax base.
This time around, NBBJ offered the theme “A Great Laconia Neighborhood.”
Again, the plan included as many as 345 housing units, but none reserved for seniors. Instead, it calls for 75 single-family homes and duplexes, 150 two- and three-bedroom starter homes and 120 two- and three-bedroom apartments and townhouses.
The planned continuing care facility was replaced by a wellness and fitness center of 40,000 to 100,000 square feet. The 34-acre outdoor sports complex — 18 soccer fields, 11 baseball diamonds and a field house — was shrunk to a 30,000- to 40,000-square-foot indoor facility with space for four basketball or eight volleyball courts, which could host state and regional tournaments. The “resort” hotel became a “boutique” hotel of between 100 and 150 rooms with space for conferences and events.
Both plans allocate 32,500 square feet for retail, restaurant and office space. The most recent plan adds a facility for preparing, producing and packaging foodstuffs for retail and wholesale distribution operated in tandem with a farm-to-table restaurant modeled after the farmers market in Woodstock, Vt.
The plan was presented at a July 16 public hearing in Laconia.
Like the first proposal, the plan confines development to the center of the site, where the existing buildings stand and wraps the property within a landscaped buffer.
Alan Mountjoy, a principal at NBBJ, stressed that the project will seek to make optimal use of the existing buildings on the site, but cautioned that “preservation will depend on the cooperation and preferences of developers.” The new plan places the retail, restaurant and office space at the main entrance to the site on Route 106 to lend it greater visibility.
Altogether about 65 of the 200 acres on the site would be developed, leaving 70 acres of mature forest and 30 acres of open fields as well as landscaped buffers on the southwest and northeast bounds of the property. “The site can accommodate most of these uses,” Mountjoy said.
He also stressed that the foot, ski and snowmobile trails crisscrossing the site, along with access to Ahern State Park, would provide ample recreational opportunities.
NBBJ estimates that, once complete, the project will directly support 937 jobs on the site and generate another 806 in the city and region for a total of 1,745, a figure local resident Jerry Fleishman called “way out of line.”
He was echoed by Engler, who said “I don’t see how. I have no idea” exactly where those jobs will be coming from.
George Bald, chair of the commission that oversaw the development of the Pease International Tradeport, reminded Fleishman that there were vacant lots in the city’s two industrial parks and suggested that by expanding the housing stock, the project would increase the labor supply needed to attract employers.
NBBJ projected that investment at the site would increase the city’s revenue from property taxes by approximately $2.8 million, or by 3%. Engler said that neither the number of jobs nor level of investment at the site represented the “economic engine” the Legislature and the city envisioned when the commission was convened.
In particular, NBBJ acknowledged that the sports facility was not likely to operate profitably, while suggesting it would generate demand for other enterprises, like the hotel and restaurant, on-site.
How the project will be financed remains an open question. NBBJ estimates the cost of infrastructure improvements to roadways and water and sewer systems between $11.7 million and $12.3 million. The cost of environmental remediation has yet to be determined, but the city qualifies for federal matching funds.
“We’re not going to the city or the state saying, ‘Subsidize us’,” Bald said, adding that the commission would pursue other funding sources, including private investment and matching grants.
In fact, the role of the state, which owns the property, in the project is obscure. With support from Gov. Chris Sununu, the commission requested $1.7 million, divided evenly between operating and matching funds, in the 2020-21 state budget. However, the House sliced the request to $350,000 in each year of the biennium and limited expenditures to operating costs.
At the same time, the budget appropriates $335,000 in 2020 and $340,000 in 2021 simply to maintain and secure the property, an expense the NH Department of Administrative Services has carried on in its budget since the prison closed in 2009.
The commission is the fourth to address the future of the site in the decade since the prison closed in 2009 after failed efforts to sell the property, which had an appraised value of $2.16 million. The Legislature established the commission in 2017.
“We are bound and determined to come up with a good plan,” Bald said, reminding his listeners that “a good project needs a lot of patience and dogged determination.”