City Council votes to put $382K into downtown 'gateway' project

LACONIA —The City Council last night unanimously agreed to invest as much as $382,500 in cosmetic improvements at the Main Street bridge over the Winnipesaukee River after refusing to fully fund the construction of the "Gateway Plaza" recommended by the Advisory Board of the Downtown Tax Increment Financing (TIF) District, which came with an estimated price tag of between $417,540 and $486,032.

At the same time, the council deferred a decision on a half-dozen other projects recommended by the Advisory Board, including stretches of the Riverwalk and WOW Trail, with an estimated cost of $1.3-million, to a future meeting.

In presenting the gateway project, Kevin Dunleavy, director of Rarks and recreation who chairs the Advisory Board, said that the reconstruction of the bridge, slated to begin next spring, offered "an opportunity to do a first class improvement" that would last 40 or 50 years. He said that since any improvements must be incorporated into the design of the bridge, which is scheduled to be put to bid in September, a decision was "time sensitive" and cautioned "we could lose our window."

Dunleavy acknowledged that the Main Street Initiative group of business and property owners expressed opposition to the project "as presented," but said that "we feel there is support beyond the Advisory Board, but cannot claim there is a consensus."

Both councilors Bob Hamel (Ward 5) and Henry Lipman (Ward 3) questioned the board's recommendation. "It's way more than I'd like to see spent there," said Lipman, while Hamel said that $450,000 is a lot for a small area."

Speaking as president of the Main Street Initiative, John Moriarty said that the organization deemed extending the downtown riverwalk along the north bank of the Winnipesaukee River its highest priority and, if necessary, was willing "to forego any improvements at Gateway Plaza."

However, Bob Sawyer, representing downtown property owners who he said together pay "over six figures in annual property taxes," described the space as "the face of downtown" and insisted "we do should do something. I'm not opposed to anything tonight," he continued. This is an opportunity we have and whatever we do we're going to be looking at for 40 or 50 years."

Lipman proposed spending $15,000 to prepare the site and $67,500 to prepare the site for landscaping by installing electricity, water and drainage. "Don't foreclose future improvements," he said.

But, Hamel, persuaded by Sawyer, suggested spending another $250,000 and asked Dunleavy to instruct the architects and engineers to prepare a design to fit the budget.

Warren Clement, a member of the Advisory Board, proposed upping the ante to $300,000 and his fellow board member Ken Sawyer reminded the councilors that "this is one of those situations where you can't go back and spending a little more now will save more later."