Published DateLACONIA — Not since people packed the Belknap Mill at the prospect of reopening the Colonial Theatre have so many gathered in support of an initiative to revitalize downtown as some 135 guests of the Main Street Initiative who filled Pitman's Freight Room last night.
As conceived by John Moriarty, president of the initiative and the most visible partner in Lakes Region Acquisitions, LLC, owners of 600 Main Street — the former Sundial Shop building — the session was intended to begin the development of economic and marketing strategies for downtown as well as to design specific measures and marshall appropriate resources to pursue them.
Moriarty said that "stakeholders" — business operators, property owners and policy makers — were invited. "I expected a smaller group of people," he said, "but a lot more showed up."
The sheer numbers turned the event into something akin to a rally in pursuit of the goal of restoring commercial and social vitality to the center of the city. Volunteers, sporting green T-shirts reading "People Advancing Laconia" across the back and "PAL" across the chest, welcomed the invitees and shepherded them through the program.
Noting that in general downtown property represents between 10-percent and 15-percent of municipal tax bases, Moriarty said that downtown Laconia, which stretches east to west from Busy Corner to Lake Winnisquam and north to south from Central Fire Station to Wyatt Park, accounts for only four-percent of the total valuation. He invited his listeners to imagine the impact on the city and the county if downtown's shear of the tax base rose to the average.
Moriarty recalled the original Main Street program, which began in 2002, explaining that its four themes — economic development, physical appearance, social character and political participation — would provide the framework for the proceedings.
The crowd was divided into four groups, which were shuttled between four stations, each with speaker who addressed the four themes. Reuben Bassett of Burrito Me spoke to economic development, Sue Bullerwell of All My Life Jewelry covered design, Lori Chandler of Mr. Paul's Hair Affair explained promotions and Melissa McCarthy of The Studio emphasized organization.
Each sketched steps to enliven downtown in presentations lasting about 15 minutes, which Rick DeMark, director of the North Country Resource and Conservation Council who served as facilitator, likened to speed dating. Bassett stressed the importance of encouraging existing businesses and attracting new ones. Bullerwell highlighted public amenities, architectural standards, improved signage and public safety. Chandler called for establishing a brand and sponsoring events. McCarthy appealed for volunteers, urging others to become "PALs."
Afterwards Moriarty said he would measure the success of the event by the number of participants who left contact information, indicating their willingness to contribute to future efforts by the Main Street Initiative. Acknowledging that the event took on a character and life of its own, he said that "more quantitative conversations are already underway" and said that he was impressed by the numbers and their enthusiasm.