LACONIA — Mayor Ed Engler often wrestles with problems that have their roots in the region’s demographics.
The city’s population has held steady at about 16,000 for many years, even as it has skewed progressively older. There is an abundance of retirees but not enough young families to help create a more vibrant and prosperous city.
How does Laconia attract younger people to become new residents without raising taxes in a way that would provide a disincentive to growth?
That was the problem Engler posed to Whitney McCallum’s sixth-grade class at Laconia Middle School. The “Genius Hour” class empowers students to explore an issue and suggest creative answers to complicated questions.
Google and other companies popularized the concept of giving employees the freedom and time to consider challenges in a thoughtful and open way. Educators now do this in a classroom setting as a way to promote critical thinking and knowledge.
Several community leaders approached the sixth-graders with problems to be solved. Cali Andriski, Riley Clark and Maddie Young worked on the mayor’s challenge.
They decided that new residents are attracted by safety and academic excellence.
They felt a survey would be in order. They want to gauge what people know of local schools and what they expect of them.
The girls also did some research. They found a New Hampshire town called Madbury that seems particularly kid-friendly and safe. They plan to contact leaders in Madbury to learn more about what they did to be successful.
They also are reaching out to the city’s Parks and Recreation Department to ask about the possibility of more recreational opportunities for youths, maybe a pool or water park.
Other young people in the class were asked to consider problems associated with expanding the WOW Trail in the city. There are financial issues, and in some cases physical barriers. Sometimes the water gets in the way of the trail.
The students suggested a floating bridge. Another idea was to dig a tunnel under the water. A third was to make stairs that go up and across the water.
McCallum said this is just the beginning and students will continue to work on the city’s problems.
“I’m incredibly proud,” she said. “They’ve done the work and it’s important work and it means something.”
Mayor Engler said he is happy with his participation with the class. He visited with the students a few times and spent time clarifying and redirecting.
“It was fun,” he said. “It made me crystalize my own thoughts.
“I also cautioned them, ‘Don't say build this or that without understanding the tax consequences.’”
He said the students’ ideas for a survey and outreach to another town were both logical approaches to his prompt.
Engler continues to think about ways to attract more people to Laconia and foster economic development.
He feels that the development of smaller “starter homes” in the city could attract people who have been priced out of the housing market, even in places such as Concord.
“New Hampshire in general has a terrible housing shortage,” he said.
If a community started developing starter homes, it would seemingly have advantages over other towns without such new homes. City leaders could set aside an area where such construction would be encouraged.
“If you’re a young professional couple in Concord with good jobs and income but are struggling to buy something, you might be interested in buying a home at a commutable distance, like Laconia,” he said.