LACONIA — Polishing the city's dulled image, strengthening its flagging economy and fostering a younger population were major themes to emerge when more than 90 residents from all walks of life — from high school students to retirees — gathered at the Belknap Mill Wednesday night to "Re-Imagine Laconia" by tackling the question, "What is important for Laconia to grow and thrive for a successful future?"
The community conversation was sponsored by the Orton Foundation, facilitated by New Hampshire Listens and hosted by the Planning Department. Planning Director Shanna Saunders said yesterday that "the whole process went wonderfully." In particular, she noted that "the whole tenor of the meeting was lovely," explaining that she was impressed to see so many people engaged in civil conversation about the future of the community. "You didn't have to use your voice to be heard," she remarked."The turnout was terrific."
The discussion was designed to identify major values and priorities within the community in anticipation of preparing a new Master Plan. The key recommendations and comments will be forwarded to the City Master Plan Advisory Team and incorporated into the vision statement that will lend direction to the plan.
Participants were divided into 11 groups, each seated around a table and accompanied by a neutral facilitator who guided discussion around four questions common to all groups. All participants were provided with a brief demographic and economic profile of the city. After an hour and three quarters of conversation each group reported its major findings.
"Image" appeared in four of the reports. One group stressed "spinning the positive, not focusing on the negative" while another reported "there is a lot of negativity in terms of who we are." One women remarked "Laconia has a long way to go" and another remarked "it is sad to drive through downtown." Three other groups spoke of improving the appearance, "beautifying," the city. More active enforcement of the property code was a priority of one group. One participant, discouraged to hear a litany of the city's ills from one gentleman, asked "why are you here" and was told "I love the place."
Four of the 11 groups called for the appointment of a city economic development director and virtually every group included one aspect of economic growth or another, most often the creation of jobs, among its priorities. Most groups stressed the importance of the public schools and community college in the development of a skilled workforce, some favored incentives for businesses and one recommended establishing a business incubator.
Half the groups addressed the city's aging demographic profile by highlighting the need to attract and retain young individuals and families, especially professionals. "How do we get them to stay or if they leave, how do we get them back," one man asked.Some emphasized the need for more amenities, like entertainment and dining venues, while others highlighted the arts or suggested events and celebrations.
Saunders observed that the conversation was very different from the talk at a similar event in 2005 when much of the discussion revolved around the lakes. At the same time, the city was in the midst of a housing boom that aroused concern about the management of residential growth and loss of open space. Nor did the revitalization of downtown in general and restoration of the Colonial Theater in particular command the attention it drew in the past.