LACONIA — U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan got a firsthand look Thursday of examples of downtown economic activity and efforts that small-businesses people, entrepreneurs, and the city are undertaking to keep the momentum going, especially in the face of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The state’s junior senator spent more than an hour viewing the results of the Colonial Theatre restoration, as well as visiting two Main Street businesses where she spoke at length with the owners. It was Hassan’s first downtown walkabout in the state since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in the state 11 months ago.
“We’re trying to keep everybody going — small businesses, families, getting schools reopened, municipal governments,” Hassan said, referring to the assistance in the two COVID stimulus bills passed last year. Congress is now considering a $1.9 trillion relief plan that has been put forward by President Joe Biden.
Hassan started by touring the $15 million Colonial Theatre revitalization project. She viewed the restored ornate decoration in the 106-year-old theater while workers continued to install carpeting in the 750-seat venue. Standing on the Colonial’s stage, Hassan was given an overview of the scope of the undertaking from project lead architect Robert Turpin and colleague and fellow architect Jared Guilmett.
“In this age when we can get entertainment from so many different places, theaters are a place where people come together to experience something at the same time,” Hassan said. “It is nice to imagine how people will be able to be together again,” she added as she looked out into the auditorium.
Mayor Andrew Hosmer told Hassan the City Council had “taken a leap of faith” when it decided in 2019 to commit $8.1 million in city funding for the project, the move that got the project off the ground.
“They said, ‘We need to show that we believe in ourself,’” Hosmer said of that decision.
Hassan also took time to meet with two downtown business owners, both of whom made major investments during the pandemic.
Jose Diaz, who opened Spyglass Eyewear since the pandemic hit, told Hassan, “COVID has forced us to slow down and take it all in.”
Thinking of the education he received to be an optician, Diaz said it is critical colleges provide the programs that will prepare students for the work that will be available in local businesses.
A couple of doors away, at Wayfarer Coffee Roasters cafe, co-owner Karen Bassett said benefits offered through the COVID economic stimulus bill had helped to keep the business going. Just this past summer, in the midst of the pandemic, Wayfarer opened a second location in the restored Lakeport Opera House.
Hassan said the stimulus package passed in December, in addition to the direct relief available to businesses, also allows businesses to take advantage of an employee retention tax credit that could be beneficial.
“I like to think we’re beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I’m just not sure the color of that light yet,” Bassett said.
Hassan said she hoped that as more and more people get vaccinated against the coronavirus that will help to boost public confidence to where more people will once again want to come out and patronize businesses like Wayfarer.
Diaz told Hassan the Colonial will be a major catalyst to the economic revival of the city’s downtown.
“That theater was nothing but an eyesore,” he said. “But now I think it will motivate other businesses to come in.”
“What’s really important is that we find a way to keep our small businesses and our individuals steady and stable as we go through COVID," Hassan said. "After we contain the virus we still have business communities thriving, people working again, and everybody able to ramp back up to much more complete economic activity as soon as possible.”