'Community Way': Congregational Church project connects buildings while preserving downtown pathway

LACONIA — When the Congregational Church pondered how to best connect its sanctuary and parish house, it also seized the opportunity to maintain and enhance the passage between downtown and Veterans Square, at once providing greater convenience to its members and making a generous offering to the community.

"The visioning began about five years ago," recalled Pastor Warren Bouton, explaining the church was casting about for projects to undertake. "We asked what would be exciting," he said, explaining that renovating the kitchen and upgrading the elevators, though necessary, did not pass the test. Instead, discussion turned to connecting the two buildings.

Bouton noted that a driveway ran between from the two buildings, linking the city parking lot with Veterans' Square. An elevator opens directly on to the driveway, presenting a hazard as well as leaving parishioners standing in the rain and snow. Moreover, getting from the sanctuary to the parish house required going down one staircase, up another, then across the driveway through dingy stairwells.

But, Bouton explained a simple passage between the buildings would eliminate what he called "the thoroughfare for the community" between the parking lot and Veteran's Square. To preserve the access, the church chose to build an elevated bridge spanning a brick walkway lined with flower beds leading to a small plaza surrounded by lawn and graced with granite benches adjacent to the parking lot. "We called it the community way project," Bouton said. At the same time, the parking lot was reconfigured and while reserving three spots for itself, the church donated twice that number to an extension of the city lot.

The bridge, enclosed in glass, leads to remodeled foyers, both open and filled with light, on either side. Bouton said that when the children first made the trip from the sanctuary to the parish house, one, so used to snaking up and down the dark staircases, exclaimed "it's so bright!"

Bouton expressed his appreciation to all those, including the building committee of the church and the city officials, who he stressed "gave us lots of support in designing and developing the project."

Like the Gateway Plaza and the landscaping at the junction of Pleasant Street and Main Street, the community way at the Congregational Church adds an eye catching feature that enriches the character of downtown.

Commission makes official pitch for $7.1M for 'community corrections' facility

LACONIA — The Beknap County Convention got a close look at the Belknap County Commission's proposal to renovate the county jail and build a community corrections center at a public hearing last night, in anticipation of being asked to authorize an $8-million borrowing to finance the project next week.

Kevin Warwick of Alternative Solutions Associates, Inc., the consultant engaged by the commission, stressed "it's not abut the building, but about the programming inside the building." He explained that the community corrections center would feature a rigorous regimen of substance abuse, mental health and educational programs and services, which experience has demonstrated reduce the number of inmates who return to jail.

Corrections Superintendent Keith Gray said that with just 34 full-time staff and an average daily population of 93, the Belknap County Jail has the fewest number of staff to its number of inmates of any county jail in the state. Perhaps more importantly, the jail has no substance abuse counselors, mental health clinicians or case managers. Referring to the treatment continuum that begins with the drug court and restorative justice, for those not incarcerated, he said that the county jail should be providing for the high-risk offenders requiring intensive treatment, but conceded "right now, we're not in the treatment continuum." Yet, he said, 76-percent of the inmates at the county jail are in need of substance abuse, mental health and educational programming.

The proposed community corrections center would provide 64 beds, of which 30 would be treatment beds (20 for men and 10 for women) and 34 work release beds (24 for men and 10 for women). There are no high security beds, which represent the most costly form of incarceration, in the facility.

The cost of the facility is projected to be $7,171,925, including a contingency of $700,000.The cost of personnel and programming would be another $650,183, some of which would be offset by increase revenue from work release programs and grants. Moreover, Commissioner David DeVoy said emphasis would be placed on hiring part-time personnel to avoid unnecessary health insurance costs. The estimated cost of renovating the existing facility, which would have 60 beds, is $1,159,300.

Warwick noted that the proposal is based on the experience of Sullivan County (Claremont), which opened a community corrections center five years ago. Since then the rate of recidivism in Sullivan County has dropped to 18 percent and a third of those who return to jail have violated conditions of probation and parole rather than committed new crimes. Meanwhile, 72 percent of the inmates at the Belknap County Jail have been there before.

"This is the right plan for the county," Warwick said, acknowledging that though modeled after Sullivan County, "it is really Belknap County specific." He added that the most effective means of reducing the rate of recidivism, managing the inmate population and easing overcrowding at the jail is to address the incidence of substance abuse and enable inmates to become responsible, productive members of society.

The county convention will meet on Monday, Nov. 2 at the Belknap County Superior Courthouse (6 p.m.) to vote on the resolution to authorize the sale of $8 million in general obligation bonds to finance construction of the community corrections center and renovation of the existing jail. A two-thirds majority, or 12 of the 18 members — all of them Republicans — will be required to authorize the borrowing.

Suspect appears to have left apartmetn house before Tuesday afternoon siege

LACONIA — A stand-off that began around 12:30 p.m. at 20 Jewett Street when police responded to a report that a man was threatening someone with a firearm ended with a cloud of tear gas at 4 p.m., but left several law enforcement agencies empty-handed. The multi-story apartment house they had surrounded was uninhabited.

At The Daily Sun's press time, A search was underway for a suspect identified only as "John Doe".

According to police, a man called to report that he had been threatened by another man with a firearm. When officers reached the scene the caller told them the suspect was still in unit 2 of the house. Officers called for the suspect to come outside, but received no reply, then safely evacuated the other tenants in the building. Residents of other buildings on Jewett Street and River Street in a line of sight were also evacuated.

Laconia officers established a perimeter around the building and summoned the Belknap County Special Operations Group, which was soon joined by officers from the Gilford Police Department and New Hampshire State Police.

Helmeted members of the special operations group outfitted with body armor and carrying assault rifles huddled on the porch at the front door, but failed to rouse a response from inside while others spread through the neighborhood, some perching on roof tops, to strengthen the perimeter. From a bullhorn atop the Bearcat parked in the street, an officer called on a "Mr. Audette" to come out of the building.

Chief Chris Adams said that shortly before 4 p.m. a woman came out of the building and was detained and questioned by police. Soon afterwards four cans of tear gas were tossed in, followed by a team from the special operations group, who found the building empty.

Police later obtained a warrant to search 20 Jewett Street and since the victim was unsure of the suspect's full name, an arrest warrant for "John Doe". During a search of the building, detectives from the Laconia Police Department recovered a shotgun and several rounds of ammunition from unit 2.

The neighborhood was cordoned off during the standoff. Arch Street. Jewett Street and River Street were closed to foot and vehicle traffic and Church Street was barricaded from the intersection with Messer Street to Beacon Street West. The house under siege was plainly visible from the Church Streeet bridge and police shooed groups of onlookers lining the bridge behind barricades and intercepted persistent interlopers trying to cross it. Students living in the neighborhood or passing through to get home were held at their schools. Holy Trinity School, at the corner of Church Street and Messer Street was locked down.

As neighbors were evacuated clutches of onlookers gathered either side of the bridge were rife with speculation and gossip about who provoked the incident and how it arose. Nearly everyone in this close neighborhood knew someone who may or may not have been in the building when the trouble started.

Some claimed the trouble started erupted when police sought to serve an arrest warrant and the suspect took hostages, a rumor Adams flatly denied. "There was no warrant served," he said. Several said that 20 Jewett Street was a known hive of drug trafficking and suggested the dispute arose over the sale of drugs to an undercover officer. Several said that the suspect was brandishing a 12-guage shotgun while others claimed it was a rifle.

Police are continuing to investigate the incident and are pursuing an active arrest warrant for criminal threatening. Anyone with information about this case should contact the Laconia Police Department at 524-5252.