Near 100 take the time to Re-Imagine Laconia

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.

LRPA has enough money to stay on the air through Oct. 22

LACONIA — Denise Beauchaine, station manager of Lakes Region Public Access television, said yesterday that there are sufficient funds to operate the public access channel — Channel 25 — until midnight on Wednesday, October 22, but not beyond.

Earlier this week Kim Perkins, the LRPA bookkeeper, advised Beauchaine that there were sufficient funds to meet two payrolls "then LRPA will be out of money." The station employs four people in addition to Beauchaine, one full-time, one part-time and two contractors., and has an annual operating budget of about $130,000.

Beauchaine said that the board of directors have tentatively scheduled an emergency meeting on Saturday morning at the station when, among other things, it will discuss removing its equipment from its studio space at Laconia High School.

LRPA has been drawing from its reserves to sustain operations since July 1, when member municipalities entered a new 10-year contract with MetroCast Cablevision. Under the new contract each municipality will operate educational and governmental channels (24 and 26), which broadcast only to the municipality where the programming originates while LRPA would provide public access on channel 25 airing programs from individuals and organizations from the member municipalities. However, the municipalities, which had contributed to funding the operation of LRPA, withdrew their support. and, at the same time, MetroCast withheld its annual $30,000 grant to LRPA, leaving the station without a revenue stream.

Although the board of directors prepared an alternative business plan, which included soliciting commercials sponsorships, with aim of raising $300,000, the money ran out before it was pursued.


Reval drops value of taxable property in Belmont by 17%

BELMONT — Town Administrator Jeanne Beaudin told selectmen Monday the total value of taxable property in the town has been reduced by $130 million, or about 17 percent.

She said the results of the property revaluation project are nearly complete and the new total value of the town will be about $650 million — down from $788 million.

Each property's value should be as close to a true market value as possible, or at a 100 percent ratio. Last year, figures published by the N.H. Department of Revenue Administration (DRA) showed Belmont at 123 percent — meaning the town total valuation was estimated to be 23 percent higher than its current actual value.

Over the past two years, the town has undertaken a complete list-and-measure and the revaluation is complete. The company that conducted the revaluation, Commerford Nieder Perkins, LLC is holding meetings with property owners who are challenging their new values.

Beaudin said once the challenges are completed, the town will get the exact valuation and the 2014 tax rate will be set by DRA. She expects tax bills will go out in the second week of November.

After a complete revaluation, generally about one-third of property owners see their values go up, one-third will see them go down, and one third will stay the same.

However, because the amount of money authorized by the town and the school district at their respective town meetings in March remains the same, the tax rate — which is set by the DRA — is projected to increase significantly.

Belknap Mill Society confident of historic building's bright future despite current financial troubles

LACONIA — "The Belknap Mill is facing financial challenges not unlike those of other non-profit organizations that promote the arts and culture," said Chris Santaniello, president of the Belknap Mill Society, which owns the historic building.

"The history of the mill has been up and down," Santaniello continued, explaining that its financial condition reflects its limited funding stream. Recently the challenges have increased the pace of turnover among officers and trustees. This year the board of trustees announced in January was succeeded before the summer ended and Santaniello, the executive director of Lakes Region Community Services who began the year as vice-president, is now president.

The mill, which was constructed in 1823, is the oldest unaltered brick textile mill in the United States. Santaniello said that the age of the building adds to the cost of routine maintenance and necessary repairs. She said that the society has drawn from its reserves to fund unforeseen capital expenditures and has struggled to replenish them.

Santaniello said that the boiler, which she described as "historic, like the building," has failed for want of a part that no longer exists. "We're working on that now," she said, acknowledging that a new boiler would be beyond the society's reach.

There are three rental units within the mill, two of which are occupied by law firms. An employment agency had long leased the third unit, consisting of three offices, a conference room and kitchen, but that space is currently vacant. With capacity for 220 on the third floor and two smaller rooms on the ground floor, the society also rents space for functions, from large meetings and social functions to intimate receptions and small gatherings. The society offers educational programs and operates a gift shop. However, donations represent the most significant source of revenue.

Santaniello said that operations have been "streamlined to bare bones," by trimming staff and reducing hours. Meanwhile, she stressed that efforts are underway to develop a stable revenue stream and add to reserves for capital expenditures. She emphasized the importance of developing supportive partnerships with with other organizations and institutions in the city and region.

"The mill is a gem, a proud structure," Santaniello said. "It is Laconia, the center for so many activities and programs. And it will continue to be."