Job opportunities lacking: political refugees no longer being resettled in Laconia & Lakes Region

LACONIA — Although some 470 Bhutanese, Congolese and Iraqi political refugees are expected to be resettle in Manchester, Nashua and Concord next year, none will find homes in Laconia, where refugees were resettled every year from 1998 to 2011.

Barbara Seebart, refugee coordinator at the Office of Minority Health and Refugee Affairs at the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, said last week that Ascentria and the International Institute of New Hampshire, with which the state contracts to place refugees, stopped sending people to Laconia during the recession for lack of employment opportunities.

She hastened to say that "Laconia is a wonderful resettlement site," citing the cooperative approach of the school district and the work of the Mayor's Human Relations Committee.

Seebart said that Ascentria and the International Institute do not have sufficient resources to manage resettlement in more than three municipalities, but emphasized that Laconia has not been permanently stricken from the list of resettlement sites.

According to the Office of Minority Health and Refugee Affairs 885 refugees were resettled in Laconia between 1998 and 2011. Susan Laverack, associate director of the Lakes Region Partnership for Public Health, Inc. said the refugees consisted of Bosnians, Meskhetian Turks from Russia, Bhutanese from Nepal, Sudanese, Laotians, Ethiopians, Iraqis and displaced persons from Sierra Leone.

The Office of Minority Health and Refugee Affiars estimates that in the last 15 years approximately 6,000 refugees have been resettled in New Hampshire, representing about a fifth of the 30,000 foreign born people who came to the state during these years. However, how many remain and how many have left is not known.

Kate Bruchacova of the Lakes Region Partnership for Public Health said that many of the most recent refugees resettled in Laconia have been members of families resettled elsewhere and they have left the city to be reunited with their relatives. Likewise, refugees are drawn to those communities where their numbers are greatest. For instance, many of the Meskhetian Turks migrated to the Midwest — chiefly Kentucky and Ohio — while the Bhutanese have congregated in Concord and Manchester. She said that in the Lakes Region, transportation is an issue for refugees seeking employment because of the distances between home and work. At the same time, housing can be a challenge for large families.

While the influx of refugees has stalled, the Lakes Region Partnership for Public Health, together with more than a dozen partners — including the city and School District — is pursuing the Greater Laconia Immigration Integration Initiative, a series of initiatives "to ensure that all community members feel welcome and have what they need to participate, contribute and succeed."

Laconia girl picked by U.S. Dept. of Education for Voices of Youth initiative

LACONIA — Katie Theberge, an incoming freshman at Laconia High School, has been selected to participate in a series of U.S. Department of Education 21st Century Community Learning Center conferences as part of the national Youth Voices Project. The first conference — the 2015 Summer Institute — will be held in Dallas, Texas next week. Other conferences will occur over the next two years.
Theberge, the daughter of Jonathan and Regina Theberge, has served as a member of the advisory board for the Laconia School District's Project Extra program and says she has taken part in Project Extra programs for nine years.
She is one of only seven Youth Voices Project participants chosen to take part in the national conferences and on Tuesday in Dallas will be part of a Student Voices discussion led by Pat O'Connel Johnson, acting director of the U.S. Education Department's Office of Academic Improvement and Monique McDowell-Russell, project specialist for Foundations, Inc. Among the topics for discussion are student bullying as well as substance abuse prevention and promoting community engagement in schools.
Theberge attended a New Hampshire 21st Century Community Learning Center Program gathering held at Church Landing in Meredith Tuesday morning, where it was announced to the approximately 200 educators attending the gathering that she had been chosen for the national honor.
"I'm really excited and can't wait to meet the students from other states and find out about their experiences with these after school enrichment programs,'' said Theberge.
She said that she has benefited greatly from the Project Extra programs and the extended learning opportunities offered by the program.
''My most recent favorite was archery. That was really a lot of fun.'' said Theberge.
''The Project Extra teachers are awesome. If you need help there always there for you'' said Theberge.
Christine Gingerella, who has been the director of the Laconia School District's Project Extra program for three years, said that there are about 500 children involved in the city's Project Extra programs, which involve a wide variety of activities, ranging from Write Nights, dances and bingo nights to an annual Gale Library to Goss Reading Room walk and Children's Literacy Foundation book giveaways.
The local program partners with the Boys and Girls Club of the Lakes Region, the Laconia Library and the Parks and Recreation Department as well as Lakes Region Child Care Services.
Gingerella says that about 275 elementary school students in the city are taking part in a summer reading program offered in conjunction with the Children's Literacy Foundation which provides free books to students taking part.


Katie Theberge, a member of the advisory board of Laconia School District's Project Extra who will be a freshman at Laconia High School in September, has been selected to represent New Hampshire at a national ''Youth Voices Project'' conference in Dallas, Texas. (Roger Amsden/ for The Laconia Daily Sun)

Neighbors unhappy about storage facility plans

LACONIA — After meeting with stiff opposition from nearby homeowners, the request of Peter Morrissette, the owner of what was St. Helena Mission Church at Weirs Beach, for a zoning variance to use the building as a storage facility was deferred by the Zoning Board of Adjustment until its members consult with the city attorney.

Doing business as PEM Real Estate, LLC, Morrissette acquired the 3.38-acre property in the shorefront residential district, where commercial uses are tightly restricted, last December for $185,000. At the time, Morrissette said he had no immediate plans for the property, but indicated he would explore its residential development. The zoning ordinance would permit construction of six single-family homes or 20 condominium units on the lot.

Meanwhile, seeking to reap income from the property, Morrissette asked the City Council to change the zoning ordinance to allow boat and watercraft storage in the shorefront residential district, but was flatly rebuffed. Then he turned to the ZBA.

Attorney Paul Fitzgerald, representing Morrissette, told the ZBA on Monday that the ground floor and basement of the building each provide 5,200-square-feet of undivided space. He assured the board that the exterior of the building would be maintained without change. Nor would there be an office, signage or outdoor storage on the site. At the same time, the site would continue to serve as a stopping place and turnaround for school buses as well as impound lot for Police Department during Motorcycle Week, if necessary.

Instead, Fitzgerald explained, the space would be leased to one or two commercial entities for a relatively long-term to store seasonal inventory, like motorcycles, jet-skis and snowmobiles. He said that there would be very infrequent comings and goings to and from the site. In particular, Fitzgerald stressed that the building would not be divided into a multiplicity of individual storage units for household belongings with round-the clock access.

As proposed, the storage facility, Fitzgerald said, would generate less traffic than the church did and have significantly less impact on the neighborhood than either a convenience store or hotel, both of which would be permitted on the lot. "It would be a quiet and lightly used acivity," he remarked, "with no light, no noise, no signs, no traffic."

However, Planning Director Shanna Saunders reminded the board that the zoning ordinance defines "indoor storage" as "a building consisting of individual small self-contained units that are leased or owned for the storage of business or household goods." She said that since a variance would run with the property, she was reluctant to have the board grant it, fearing that a subsequent owner could invoke it to open a conventional storage facility on the lot.

Fitzgerald suggested that the ZBA attach conditions on its decision to grant a variance, which he volunteered to record on the deed in the Registry of Deeds.

Warren Hutchins of Boathouse Road, speaking for himself and 10 families, insisted that the proposal failed the legal tests required of a variance. Endicott Street East (Route 11-B), he described as a "gateway to the city," the appearance of which is a high priority of both the Master Plan and City Council.

Already, he claimed that a camper and Jeep, both marked "for sale," have appeared on the lot and the grass on the property has been mown only once. "That's not acceptable," he declared.

Hutchins noted that the property sits on the corner of the only road to the Pendleton Beach neighborhood, where 23 homeowners represent what he called "the most highly assessed zone in the city." He said that 15 of the 20 most valuable residences in the city are within a mile of former church property. A storage facility, Hutchins forecast, would diminish the value of surrounding properties.

Hutchins was echoed by Harvey Moses, president of the Pendleton Beach Association, all 23 members of which voted against the requested variance. "They're afraid of it," he told the bold, "very, very concerned that the applicant may overstep."

John Remington, whose 30 acres surround the former church lot also challenged its use as a storage facility while his attorney, Bill Philpot told the board that Morrissette was seeking a variance to generate income to carry the property until it could be developed. Lack of income from the property, he suggested, did not represent a hardship sufficient to warrant granting the variance.

When the public hearing concluded, Steve Bogert, who chairs the ZBA, immediately proposed that the board enter a "conversation" with the city attorney. Bob Smith agreed, remarking that there is some confusion arising from the difference between the definition of "indoor storage" and what the applicant is proposing.

Without dissent, the board voted to meet with legal counsel before its meeting in August, when it would return to the request.

School Board looking a year ahead for impact of City Council's $100k cut to budget

LACONIA — Members of the Laconia School Board expressed concern over the impact of the $100,000 cut in the school district's budget approved by the City Council Monday night when they met at the Harvard Street School on Tuesday night.
''Next year's budget will be challenging,'' said board member Scott Vachon, who said that the allowable increase will be very small given the cut and the low rate of increase in the consumer price index, to which the city's property tax cap is pegged.
''It's negative growth right now and might not even be a half of a percent before the year is over.'' said Vachon, pointing out that the allowable increase might not even fully cover increases in health insurance and teacher pay to which the district is obligated.
School Board Chairman Joe Cormier, reacting to statements by Interim Superintendent Phil McCormack praising the school district's summer learning programs, said that the board will have to do a better job getting out word about its accomplishments in order to build the kind of community support which will prevent future cuts by the council.
Board member Mike Persson, who attended Monday night's council meeting where he pointed out that the savings on the average property tax bill would amount to only $14, said that in light of the cut the district should take a close look at its fund-raising policies as there may be a need for fund-raising in the near future.
Vachon said that Budget and Personnel Committee has been looking at the areas which will be cut in response to the council's action and is working with Business Administrator Ed Emond to come up with a list of areas to be cut which will be presented to the board at it's next meeting on August 11.
Emond said that building improvement work was proceeding well at the high school, where eight classrooms are being renovated and that some of the new fields at the high school where grass growth had been minimal were now irrigated and doing much better.
He said that bids of $160,000 and $200,000 had been received for a new heating system at the SAU office at Harvard Street and that the low bid had been accepted and the district was taking advantage of allowable energy credits. An October 15 completion date is anticipated for the project.
A number of summer learning experiences have been provided, including a Project Extra program involving 192 elementary school students, 48 Middle School students and seven at Laconia High School. Teachers are also taking part in a math-science summer institute which involved 40 teachers, a mental health first aid training for 10 teachers and a K-5 Report Card Committee involving 12 teachers has been meeting.
McCormack said he had had a productive two-day administrative meeting with staff members and was very impressed with the skills and mindset of the staffers, as well as their candor.
He said that he was developing an action plan for the school district's improvement efforts.
The board approved 21 nominations he made to fill teaching positions in the district, five at Woodland Heights, two at Pleasant Street, three at Elm Street, four at the Middle School, six at the High School and one at the Huot Center.
He said that three positions remain unfilled and that he expects more vacancies will soon take place as he has received several calls for references from other school districts.
The board also approved a five-year, $271,503.79 contract with MST Government Leasing LLC which will see 90 percent of the 104 printers used by the school district replaced.

CAPTION: cut slugged McCormack

Laconia's Interim Superintendent of Schools Dr. Phil McCormack says he is impressed with the summer learning programs underway in the city. (Roger Amsden photo/for The Laconia Daily Sun)