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.