Lakeport Opera House bought by residential landlord

LACONIA — The building at 781 Union Ave. that houses the Lakeport Opera House was sold last week to KMH Realty Corporation for $40,000.

The property at the corner of Union Avenue and Clinton Street at Lakeport Square, was owned for many years by Gerard Horn. Originally it was scheduled to be sold at auction, but the auction was canceled when Horn accepted the offer of KMH Realty Corporation.

The city currently assesses the 18,000 square foot building and 0.19-acre lot for $224,800, with the building representing $156,400 of the value of the property.

KMH Realty Corporation, formed in 2005 by its president Kevin Michael Hutchinson of 27 Dutile Road, Belmont to purchase, sell and rent real estate, owns a dozen other properties in the city. All are older properties, eight dating to the late 19th century, according to the records of the Assessing Department, and all residential, including seven multi-family buildings and five single-family units. Hutchinson did not respond to telephone calls.

Hutchinson is also vice president of WJK Realty Corporation, whose president Walter J. Hutchinson also lists his address as 27 Dutile Road, Belmont. Both KMH Realty and WJK Realty share the same address — P.O. Box 745, Winnisquam.

Last year, city officials evacuated and shuttered a four-unit apartment building at 145-147 Union Ave., which was then owned by WJK Realty. Fire Chief Ken Erickson described fire code and sanitary conditions in the building as "deplorable." In January, the property was acquired by Wells Fargo Bank. WJK Realty also owns residential and commercial properties at 322 Union Ave. and 322 South Main St.

The three-story frame building at Lakeport Square was built in 1885 and faces Union Avenue. It was known as the Opera House Block for the theater on the second floor, which after staging plays, reviews, concerts and recitals as well as hosting dances, receptions and graduations and finally showing movies went dark about half-a-century ago. For some years the theater has served as storage space.

The Lakeport Post Office once operated on the ground floor, which was home to a variety of retail stores through the years, including a drug store operated by Horn, a pharmacist who is now retired. Most recently a pawn shop and second-hand store occupied the space.

The International Order of Odd Fellows and Darius A. Drake Post of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of veterans of the Civil War, took rooms on the uppermost floor.

There is about 4,500-square-feet of space on the ground floor and almost 9,250-square-feet of space on the upper floors.

Although structurally sound, the wiring and plumbing date from near the beginning of the last century. Moreover,  the building does not meet current building codes. Horn recalled that some years ago the Streetcar Company approached him about acquiring the building, but abandoned the project after learning that the cost of restoring the theater alone would be close to $1 million.

Astride a busy intersection with limited on-street and off-street parking, the location has been a handicap to commercial enterprises. The single story brick building next door, once home to a dime store, stood empty for several years before a restaurant opened more than a year ago only to close in fewer than three months.

Members of the Heritage Commission toured the building. But, Pam Clark, who chairs the commission, said since no application to demolish the building has been filed, the commission has yet to hold a formal discussion about its future.

Hill voters choose Newfound School District by 2-vote margin

By Thomas P. Caldwell
HILL — Voters of the Hill School District came out in force on March 18 to decide whether to end their Authorized Regional Enrollment Area agreement with Franklin and enter into a 10-year tuition agreement with the Newfound Area School District. Both measures passed, but the tuition agreement vote was a close, 75-73 decision.

Discussion on those two articles, both of which went to ballot votes, took up most of the three-and-a-half-hour district meeting. The $2,114,133 school district budget and other warrant articles took up barely half an hour, in keeping with past years when the meeting has taken as little as 12 minutes for completion.

The Edward Amsden Auditorium was close to capacity, with all chairs taken and some residents standing, while non-residents lined up along the back wall to observe the discussion. Franklin's mayor, Ken Merrifield, and some city councilors, along with Franklin School Board Chair Tamara Feener and Representative Werner Horn, were there to see the results, as were School Administrative Unit 4 Superintendent Stacy Buckley and Newfound School Board members Jeff Levesque and Benjamin LaRoche.

Voters found it difficult to separate the article seeking to dissolve the AREA agreement from the next article, seeking approval of the Newfound tuition agreement, and Moderator Gerard Desrochers allowed some crossover discussion.
The Hill School Board emphasized that withdrawing from the AREA agreement would provide the school district with a choice of where to send its students, as well as giving Hill more bargaining power than it has while locked into the existing agreement.

School District Attorney John Teague explained that AREA agreements originally were intended as a means of transitioning into a cooperative school district, but most of them ended up stalling, and he said there is a lot of discussion at the state level on whether the AREA school districts should continue. Most AREA agreements are established for a specific period of time, but Hill's agreement with Franklin has no end point and the current agreement has been in force for 11 years, he said. The article on the warrant was the sole means of ending the agreement, he told the audience.

Many parents, however, said they saw the article as a means of forcing the voters to approve the Newfound agreement, rather than offering a choice. Many questioned what would happen if they voted to withdraw and then turned down the Newfound agreement. Would the school board be able to get a tuition agreement with Franklin in time for the coming school year?

School Board Chair Shelly Henry said they would be forced to do something, but she could not say what it would be. Teague suggested that the school board might put together a one-year tuition agreement, and then negotiate a long-term agreement that would come back to the voters for approval.

Most speakers, including current and former Franklin students, defended the city's school system, saying it was getting a bad rap. They shared anecdotes about caring teachers and student successes and said Franklin's test scores were as good or better than Newfound's. They also questioned why, if Hill was concerned about Franklin's educational offerings, the board had not raised those issues with Franklin officials.

Vice Chair Nancy Coffin said Hill has brought up educational concerns to the SAU 18 Board, but "That hasn't been the focus." Issues such as the search for a new superintendent have taken up that board's time, she said. "They're still not talking about education."

The withdrawal decision required a ballot vote. With 161 residents casting votes, the withdrawal passed, 93-68.
Going on to the Newfound agreement, residents complained about a lack of choice with only one tuition plan on the warrant. A motion to table the article was defeated, as was a proposed amendment that would make it a five-year agreement, rather than 10.

Karen Hildreth warned that no one knows what the costs will be in the coming years, and being locked into a 10-year agreement will keep boosting property taxes higher.

Selectman Mike Brady said that, having sat on the AREA withdrawal committee, he was convinced the school district should go along with Newfound. "Without a doubt," he said, "anyone who reviewed that information would know that Newfound is the proper alternative."

Although that article did not have a legal requirement for a ballot vote, residents called for one. When the results showed a two-vote margin for passage, they called for a recount. Both times, the vote was 75 for the tuition agreement and 73 opposed.

Voters also approved the $2,114,133 budget; set stipends for school district officers; agreed to place $7,000 from the unexpended fund balance into the special education expendable trust fund; approved placing $3,500 from the unexpended fund balance into the school building and maintenance expendable trust fund; and discontinued the heat system fund and placed the $350 plus interest from that account into the school building and maintenance expendable trust fund.

Forsten a finalist for school superintendent's position in Concord

LACONIA — School District Superintendent Terri Forsten has been named one of three finalists for the same post in Concord. Long-serving Concord School District Superintendent Christine Rath is retiring.

Forsten made the announcement on Tuesday night.
A longtime Concord resident, Forsten says she became interested in the opportunity to serve where she began her career as a teacher in 1984.
Members of the Concord search committee will be visiting Laconia schools this week to talk with staff and community members about Forsten's work here.

The Concord School Board intends to make a final decision by Friday, April 10.
Forsten has worked in Laconia Schools for over 20 years. At last night' School Board meeting, Forsten told the board that while there are well over a dozen openings for the role of superintendent in the state, the Concord position is the only one she has applied for due to the unique opportunity it presents for her and her family.

Laconia school administration explains how it will cut down to a tax cap friendly budget for 2015-2016

LACONIA — The School District Budget and Personnel Committee last night approved a draft budget of $38,085,778 for fiscal year 2015-16 that will be presented to the City Council on Monday.

The net amount to be raised in property taxes is $22,884,384, which is $710,040 more than this year or an increase of 3 percent.

Business Administrator Ed Emond explained to the committee that the maximum allowable increase for the School District under the mandates of Laconia's property tax cap is $915,980. However, he said, the amount of money that is raised by the state-wide property tax and redistributed to the state's school districts is down by $205,940, lowering the bar for local taxes.

Some of the strategic plan initiatives that will be implemented if the City Council approves the budget as presented are $71,500 for a full-time Law Enforcement instructor at the Huot Technical Center, $5,500 for Project EXTRA, $51,000 for elementary school staff, $24,000 for elementary school supplies and materials, an updated phone system for $6,000 at the elementary schools, $10,000 for the balance of a purchase of a 14-passenger multifunction school activity bus, $12,000 for a security camera system, and $30,000 to raise the stipends for substitute teachers.

Key additional expenditures included in next year's budget are $662,000 for health insurance, $660,000 for salaries, $58,000 in bond payments, $16,000 for the school bus contract, $268,000 for retirement contributions, and the $210,000 itemized above for strategic plan initiatives.

The total amount of additional expenses is $1,874,000 while additional anticipated revenue adds up to $1,400,000 — which left a shortfall that has to be dealt with of $474,000.

Emond said further adjustments now include staff retirements savings, reduced transfers to trust funds, and the elimination of the boiler replacement at the SAU offices, which will be done using $125,000 from this year's budget.

Another adjustment the district plans is to reduce the amount of money transferred to reserve accounts from between $425,000 to $100,000.
Member Mike Persson asked what the administration's plan was if the City Council wants to cut the tax rate a little more, like it did for this year's budget.

Emond replied that if that happened, the district would look at cutting maintenance items and possibly not contributing at all to the reserve funds.

Persson cautioned that cutting the reserve accounts when the School District is beginning negotiations for three new union contracts may not be such a good idea.

"That case should be made (to the City Council)," he said and the three committee members, Chris Guilmet and Scott Vachon (who attended via the internet) agreed.

The committee planned on distributing draft budget booklets to the full board with a presentation. The budget will be presented in draft form to the City Council on Monday, after which it will come back to the full School Board for a final vote in April.