'Re-imagine Laconia' gets off to slow start at Weirs Beach; more sessions planned

LACONIA — The Planning Department drew a sparse response at Weirs Beach yesterday when it kicked off "Reimagine Laconia," its effort to sound residents, visitors and businesses about the city and its future.

Planning Director Shanna Saunders and her assistant, Brandee Loughlin, outfitted with several lawn chairs and a small table, asked passers-by to offer their perspective either by responding to a set of questions in an interview or writing their thoughts on the underside of cocktail coaster. Loughlin said that although no one agreed to sit for the formal interview, three or four did speak extemporaneously while filmed by a video camera. She said that approximately 30 people submitted coasters.

This was the first of what Saunders called "parking" events, where staff set up a station to conduct interviews. Similar events are planned for other locations around the city, including in Lakeport, downtown, Laconia High School and Lakes Region General Hospital.

The goal of this outreach effort, which is anticipated to be completed over the next 18 months, is to develop a common vision that will underpin the rewriting of the Master Plan. The process is supported by a Heart & Soul Community Planning Grant from the Orton Family Foundation, the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation and the New Hampshire Listens Program of the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire.

When Saunders outlined the outreach effort to the City Council last month Councilor Henry Lipman (Ward 3) expressed misgivings about the process. "We have to be grounded in the reality of today's economy and the demographic we have to work with," he said. "I see the value in what you're doing," Lipman said, "but the hard stuff you need is coming too late. The concrete things we have to move much quicker. We've got to get moving on the hard stuff."

Since, Saunders has restructured the schedule of preparing the Master Plan. In particular, because the economic and demographic issues are not contingent on the results of the public outreach effort, work on the economic development component will proceed parallel with it. The values and visions of the public, she noted, bear more directly on the section of the Master Plan dealing with land use and would inform the recommendations for planning and zoning.

Saunders replied that the process she described is intended to inform the mission and value statements of the plan, not the specific action steps in the areas of economic development, housing, transportation and so on. She emphasized the importance of engaging as large an audience in the process as possible.