By Michael Kitch
THE LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — Fostering the growth of the local economy and righting the balance of the demographic profile while improving the performance of municipal government emerged as the major objectives when the City Council and department heads held a strategic planning session at the Central Fire Station yesterday.
The session, like those in 2011 and 2013 was facilitated by a representative of the New Hampshire Public Risk Management Exchange, known as Primex, the city's property and liability insurance carrier.
In contrast with the earlier sessions, which features enhancing the appearance of the city and protecting the quality of its water resources, this year much of the discussion turned on what can be done to promote a stronger economy and healthier demographic.
Noting that population growth drives economic growth, Mayor Ed Engler suggested that the city could position itself as a competitive housing market by adjusting its zoning regulations and expanding its municipal services to widen the opportunities and lower the costs of residential development. Competitively priced housing, he suggested, by attracting young families, could reverse a demographic trend, which has reduced school enrollment by 20 percent while increasing the number of students eligible for free and reduced lunch to about 60 percent. "We must raise the overall level of prosperity in the community," he said. "This is a demographic issue."
At the same time, there are several immediate issues that bear directly on the economic prospects of the city. The most pressing is the future of the downtown parking garage, which requires a major investment by the city if Genesis Behavioral Health is to purchase the privately owned portion of the facility. Furthermore, city officials will have to decide whether to make an offer for the former Laconia State School property on North Main Street, which the state will offer for sale in April.
A number of initiatives bearing on the economy are already underway, including the extension of the downtown riverwalk, restoration of Weirs Beach, renovation of the Colonial Theatre and improvements to Lakeside Avenue. Meanwhile, the City Council expects to make recommendations for changes to the existing boundaries and permitted uses of the commercial resort district, which encompasses most The Weirs, to the Planning Board. The district includes 28 lots covering 446 acres, or 96-percent of the vacant or undeveloped property zoned for commercial use in the city.
Rick Alpers, who facilitated the session for Primex, said that a full report will be prepared, listing the strategic priorities and means for pursuing them, which will serve as a compass for the council and departments for the next two years.
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