City charette participants asked, 'What do you see here?'

LACONIA — Plan N.H., in partnership with the Planning Department and the Orton Family Foundation, held three charettes at the Belknap Mill yesterday and today will hold a design session beginning in the morning then present suggestions for spurring the economy and spurring the development of the city in the afternoon.

Plan N.H. is a non-profit corporation composed of architects, engineers, planners and other professionals who work with municipal officials, civic leaders, business owners and private citizens business owners to create a vision for enhancing a community or neighborhood. The organization has conducted more than 55 charettes in more than 50 cities and towns throughout the state.

The first of three charettes yesterday was confined to invited stakeholders, including city officials, business operators and property owners, which the other two were open to the general public. At each of the charettes participants, working together in small groups of less than 10, were asked to respond to three questions: what do you see here? what would you like to see? what else does the team need to know? The responses represent the grist that the Plan N.H. team will grind into the designs and suggestions it presents during the second stage of the process today.

Two dozen people attended the first of two public charettes and worked at tables in three groups of eight. Several themes were common to all three groups. The prospect of the renovation and reopening of the Colonial Theatre led all three groups to remark as one noted "downtown is moving in a positive direction" and another to report "all the ingredients are there for a comeback". At the same time, there was general concern at the number of empty storefronts and vacant commercial space.

David Stamps, a veteran of many similar sessions during the past decade, described the Weirs as "a separate planet at war with itself" while in another group it was called "a place of conflict". Yet another group pointed to "apathy among property owners" at the Weirs. However, Russ Poirer was enthusiastic about the promise of developing the Weirs into a year-round destination anchored by a quality hotel and one group expected it would become "a real economic engine for Laconia".

All three groups touched on the prospect of the city acquiring and redeveloping the former Laconia State School property off North Main Street while education and agriculture were often suggested as the best uses for the site.

There were a number specific recommendations of interest, ranging from removing the unused sewage storage tanks at the foot of Water Street, restoring regular rail service to the city and building accessible public restrooms to the whimsical yet wise "a place to dance".

Afterwards, Reuben Bassett, the young entrepreneur with interests in Burrito Me and the Wayfarer Coffee Roaster, conceded much of what he heard was familiar, But stressed "it is important to put it before professional eyes and get the input of outside professional people." He also remarked that "I heard a lot more positive things than I've heard before."

Assistant City Planner Brandee Loughlin said that what she called "these listening sessions" will inform the land-use section of the Master Plan, which is expected to be completed by next spring. The report prepared by the "Smart Growth" Team of the United States Environmental Protection Agency in 2007, which is available on the city website, will also be incorporated into the Master Plan. She said that once the maps are drawn there will be another round of "public outreach" before the plan is drafted.

The design session,where members of public can watch as the Plan N.H. puts its ideas to paper, will be held today on the first floor of the Belknap Mill between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. In the afternoon an interactive workshop on economic development will begin a 2:30 p.m. at the Grace Capital Church followed by the presentation of the design plans arising from the charettes.

Sergeant in Sheriff's Department resigns under suspension cloud

LACONIA — Belknap County Sheriff Craig Wiggin confirmed yesterday that Sgt. E. Justin Blanchette had resigned from the department after being placed on paid administrative leave on July 20.

As for the reason for Blachette's departure, Wiggin said only that he accepted Blanchette's resignation, that there was an investigation, but it was a personnel matter and he wasn't going to comment further.

During his time on paid administrative leave, Blanchette earned $25.04 an hour, $6009.60 in total. His resignation was effective yesterday.

He joined the Sheriff's Department in October of 2011 and was a police officer in Laconia prior to joining the county force.

Council authorizes purchase of 3 additional surveillance cameras for downtown

LACONIA — The City Council this week authorized the withdrawal of $13,500 from the Downtown Tax Increment Financing (TIF) Fund for the purchase of three surveillance cameras tied to Police Department monitoring to be installed at selected locations downtown. One such camera is already in place.

Pat Wood of the downtown TIF Advisory Committee told the council that although the committee has discussed the acquisition of surveillance cameras with the Police Department it has yet to reach a final decision about their purpose, number and location. He said that along with the parking garage, several other downtown locations were under consideration and noted that the cameras could be moved from place to place. Consequently, he said the committee was not in a position to make a formal recommendation to the council.

Councilor Bob Hamel (Ward 5) said that the both the committee and the council have been discussing the issue for the better part of a year without coming to a conclusion and proposed purchasing three cameras without waiting any longer for the TIF Advisory to make a recommendation. Purchasing three cameras, he said, will not preclude purchasing more at a future time if the TIF Advisory Committee and Police Department put forward a request.

Councilor David Bownes (Ward 2) said he was reluctant to proceed without a recommendation from the committee and was cast the lone dissenting vote when the council voted five-to-one to approve the purchase.

As of July 31 the Downtown TIF fund had a balance of $777,669.44.