State tracked 'exceptional' summer tourism season

LACONIA — Jeff Rose, commissioner of the N.H. Department of Resources and Economic Development (DRED) lead off a series of speakers at the fifth annual Lakes Region Business Resource Fair, sponsored by the Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce and Belknap Economic Development Council, at the Margate Resort yesterday.

Karmen Gifford, executive director of the chamber, said that the first fair, held during the great recession, took for its theme the opportunities to start a business and generate employment. Today, with the economy recovering, she said the emphasis falls on the challenges of expanding a business, by reaching to overseas markets, creating synergistic relationships and developing a strong workforce.

Describing his department, which is responsible for economic development, state parks, forests and lands and travel and tourism, Rose quipped "they put all the best things about the state under one roof and gave it the worst name — DRED." He said that combining economic development and natural resources in one agency is unique to New Hampshire and represents an inherent yet fruitful and constructive tension.

Rose began by taking stock of the tourist industry — a mainstay of the economy of the Lakes Region — which he said enjoyed an exceptional summer season. Traffic counts, especially on weekends, on I-93 and I-95 rose to record levels, he said. Receipts from the rooms and meals tax closed the fiscal year ending in June 7 percent above the year before posted increases of more than 8 percent in July and August. "Revenue exceeded our aggressive forecasts," he noted..

Attendance at state parks increased 11 percent this summer, Rose reported. And on Labor Day weekend all 1,426 campsites at the 21 state parks offering them were occupied for the first time ever. He explained that since the operating expenses of the park system are funded solely by entrance fees, the record attendance was especially important.

"It always starts with the weather," Rose said, adding that the summer was marked by unusually fair weather. Falling gas prices also contributed to the large number of visitors.

Rose expects an equally strong fall season as the weeks of turning leaves and autumn hues represent a quarter of annual visits to the state. The department is projecting 8.5-million visitors, an increase of 7 percent, who in the aggregate will spend $1.3-billion.

DRED, with 225 full-time employees, operates on an annual budget of approximately $67 million, of which only about $15 million is drawn from the general fund with the balance represented by $16 million in federal funds and $35 million in miscellaneous revenue sources, including fees, rents and grants. Rose indicated that funding is among the challenges facing the department, which finds itself unable to provide matching funds for federal programs and grants and "leaving dollars on the table."

The Division of Economic Development, led by Carmen Lorentz of Belmont, the former executive director of the Belknap Economic Development Council, numbers 19 employees, five of whom administer a federal job training program. Acknowledging the challenge an aging population and low employment pose to developing a strong workforce, Rose said his agency should be "at the tip of the spear" of efforts to attract and retain young people.

Rose was echoed by Dave Juvet of the Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire (BIA), who said that workforce development and energy costs were the highest priorities of the organization's legislative agenda. He said that apart from improving the educational system, creating more opportunities for construction of affordable housing was an important element in drawing young families to the state. Despite the prospect of lower energy costs this winter, Juvet said that without increasing capacity for natural gas and hydroelectric power, New Hampshire will continue bear relatively high energy costs in the long term.

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Gilford student count up for first time in 15 years

GILFORD — Superintendent Ken Hemingway told the School Board last week and the Selectboard last night that an unanticipated jump in the kindergarten enrollment led the district to hire a sixth kindergarten teacher this school year.

Hemingway said this is the first time in 15 years the Gilford School District has seen an increase in enrollment and the kindergarten enrollment of 82 students contrasts with 68 new students last year — a 17-percent increase.

"We had the space because we've seen declining enrollments and the board gave us permission to hire an additional teacher," Hemingway said in a phone interview yesterday.

He also said the cost (about $70,000 including benefits and retirement) must be taken from their existing budget so there is some shifting and pinching in other line items.

In addition, at the September 8 selectman's meeting, Town Planner John Ayer told the board that new residential single-family housing permits went from 11 last year to 24 for this year or an increase of 118-percent. While this is not necessarily indicative of the increase in the number of families with school-age children, it is indicative of a growing economy that could include more young people living in Gilford.

Hemingway also said a "huge" bubble in Gilmanton elementary and middle school populations is working its way toward adding high school students to Gilford's enrollment. He said he expects the ratio of Gilford to Gilmanton students could approach 65-percent Gilford to 35-percent Gilmanton. The high school has traditionally been 70-percent Gilford to 30-percent Gilmanton.

These 82 kindergarteners will, of course, move through the grades at Gilford Elementary, meaning some potential changes could need to be made to teacher assignments as this class moves through the system. Hemingway said it is too soon to know if this is a "bubble" or if it is a continuing trend and it's too early to estimate the size of next year's kindergarten class.

At 82 students, the kindergarten class is the largest class at Gilford Elementary School. This year there are 70 first graders, 68 second graders, 69 third graders and 75 fourth graders. Overall there are 27 more children in the elementary school than there were last year.

At Gilford Middle School there are 14 more students than there were last year and the eighth grade class has 83 students. Added to the 50 students expected to come from Gilmanton next year, this means there could be a freshman class at GHS that numbers around 133 students. This year's freshman class has a 109 students so the district is looking at a potential increase in school year 2016-2017 of 22-percent.

Enrollments at Gilford High School this year are down by 27 students from last year and the senior class will graduate 124 students in June so a projected overall increase in high school population is nine students or from 511 this year to a projected 520 next year.

Total enrollment for Gilford School District is 1,208 students as of opening day. Last year the school had 1,194, in 2013-14 there were 1,201 and in 2012-13 there were 1,230.

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Owner withdraws request to use former Weirs church as storage facility

LACONIA — Peter Morrissette, the principal of PEM Real Estate, LLC, the owner of the former St. Helena Mission Church at the Weirs, has withdrawn his request to the Zoning Board of Adjustment for a variance entitling him to use the building as a storage facility, leaving the future of the property in limbo. .
Morrissette said yesterday that there were "political reasons" for his decision, adding only that "some people have said things they should not have said." As for the future of the property, he said "I don't know what I'm going to do with it. I'm just in a holding pattern."
Morrissette acquired the 3.38-acre property, which is in the shorefront residential zoning district, last December for $185,000. At the time, he said that he had no specific plans for the property, but intended to explore its residential development. The zoning ordinance would permit six single-family homes or 20 condominium units to be built on the lot.
However, in February Morrissette asked the City Council to change the city's zoning ordinance to allow boat and watercraft storage in the shorefront residential district. The council refused. In June, Morrissette applied to the ZBA for a variance from the ordinance prohibiting both "indoor storage" and "warehousing" in the shorefront residential district.
When the ZBA held a public hearing on the request for the variance in July a number of residents of the adjacent Pendleton Beach neighborhood strongly urged the ZBA to deny it, claiming that using the abandoned church as a storage facility would have adverse impacts on the character of their neighborhood and the value of their properties. The matter was continued until September and in the interim Morrissette withdrew his request.

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