LACONIA — "Growth is the only way up," said Mayor Edward Engler, striking the dominant theme of his Inaugural Address before a near capacity crowd at the Belknap Mill last night. "The bottom line is that we have to grow our population and our economy to enjoy a deep and lasting prosperity in this ultra competitive — country against country, state against state, town against town — economic environment."
Engler, the president and editor of the Laconia Daily Sun, said that he came to the city 14 years ago, armed with a business he described as "ambitious at best and preposterous at worst," to find that "men and women whose roots in the community ran far deeper than mine would ever be gave me and my partners a chance to succeed. I will be forever grateful," he said. "They are a big part of the reason my love for Laconia is true and my willingness to give back is sincere."
Engler's daughter Laura Fitzmaurice, a physician in Orange County, California, her husband Stephen and their children Garrett, nearing five, and Kaela, approaching two, traded sunshine for snowbanks to share the moment while his son Brian and his partner Ashley also made the trip from Bozeman, Montana. His daughter held the Bible as City Clerk Mary Reynolds administered the oath of office.
Former mayor Rod Dyer presided as master of ceremonies and outgoing mayor Mike Seymour offered his reflections on the achievements of the past four years while expressing his gratitude to to the city councilors — Ava Doyle (Ward 1), Matt Lahey (Ward 2), Henry Lipman (Ward 3), Brenda Baer (Ward 4), Bob Hamel (Ward 5) and Armand Bolduc (Ward 6) — for their contributions. He presented Lahey with a gift, marking his retirement after two decades in the public arena, including five terms as mayor and four as a city councilor.
Engler paid tribute to Peter Karagianis and those whose efforts preserved the Belknap Mill, which has become "New Hampshire's meeting place." And he evoked the memory of Edwin "Sonny" Chertok, a former mayor, calling him "a consummate businessman, engaged citizen and public servant" who served the community in myriad ways for most of the last century and nearly a decade into this one.
While eying the horizon, Engler glanced back, noting that investment and development undertaken in the last 15 years has laid the foundation and inspired the confidence to overcome the challenges ahead. The city has invested $50-million in its public schools — including expanding the Huot Regional Technical Center, modernizing the science laboratories and constructing an unparalleled athletic facility at Laconia High School — built a new police station and added a spectacular wing to its library. Each year for the past decade $1-million has been spent improving city streets.
Meanwhile, Engler said that the private sector has followed suit. At Normandin Square an empty mill has become home to apartments and social services opposite a new CVS drugstore. The abandoned Allen-Rogers factory was transformed into waterfront condominiums and townhouses. At Lakeport, a vacant factory has become the Lake Opechee Inn & Spa overlooking the lake. At court Street and Main Street, Walgreen's stands where there were once aged and empty buildings. Lakes Region General Hospital has undergone an expansion and facelift while Lakes Region Community Services brought fresh life to the Federal Building.
However, he observed that like the traffic on the Beacon Street loop, much of the recent progress has bypassed downtown where "we know things have not gotten better." He said that most residents of the city, even the county, want "that area of the city, our heart, to again thrive, if not as a traditional retail shopping center, then as our gathering place, the place we go to share common experiences."
"For things to improve," Engler said, "we first need a plan — a consensus plan, a realistic plan." Simply "hoping" and "rooting" for things to improve is not a plan, he continued. Nor is spending public money on cosmetic improvements. He called for a "public-private partnership" with city officials "recruiting private investors to buy into developing and executing a shared vision."
Beyond downtown, Engler cautioned that like the state, Laconia faced a challenging demographic marked by an aging population, declining school enrollment and significant poverty level. "We are out of balance and getting more so every day," he commented. He said that more than half the students enrolled in the public schools are children of households with incomes of less than 130-percent of the poverty standard of $30,000 for a family of four. "The status quo," Engler warned, "means grinding, generationally-transferred poverty or near poverty, unemployment and underemployment. We all know how generous our citizens can be when it is time to help the less fortunate," he added, then asked "but where is that same effort directed at decreasing the number of them?"
Recognizing the opportunities offered by the advanced manufacturing firms in Lakes Region, Engler said "it will not be enough." In addition, to nurturing a skilled workforce, he stressed the need to attract "new employers and new residents, white collar as well as blue."
The former Laconia State School property off North Main Street, Engler said, represents a "tremendous economic development opportunity," not only for the city but also for the state. Ownership of the property, which rests with the state, he suggested is less important than the use of the site. "No other use of that beautiful piece of property should be considered until the state, in cooperation with Laconia, has exhausted every reasonable possibility that it could be used to site hundreds, if not thousands, of high-paying, professional-level jobs," Engler declared, vowing to pursue that goal as a "top priority."
"We must not be afraid of change." Engler remarked. "It is one thing to be appreciative and respectful of tradition, but it is another to be totally constipated by it. We don't need our motto to be 'but we've always done it that way.'"
Describing himself as "an accidental mayor," Engler said that he has reached a point where he has "the time and energy necessary to do the job," especially in partnership with an experienced City Council and capable corps of city employees.