LACONIA — Scott Everett’s plans for redeveloping Lakeport have been well-received by city officials and others interested in seeing new businesses, jobs, customers and residents — but he needs to find a place for them all to park.
His initial inquiry about potentially converting an acre of city-owned green space into a parking lot is drawing vocal opposition.
State Sen. Harold French, state Rep. Peter Spanos, City Councilor Bob Hamel, and other local residents spoke out against the idea at the Monday night City Council meeting and submitted a petition with the signatures of 125 people opposing the change.
In an interview Tuesday, Everett said he understands residents’ fondness for retaining open space for children.
“I grew up here, too,” he said. “Let’s not forget that. I was over there all morning, this morning. I talked to three or four neighbors. The point is, I understand the architecture and the history and everything else and that’s what we’re trying to keep.
“But if we want children to play here, we have to have business and jobs. Business is what attracts families and people.”
He said he also understands a natural opposition to change.
“But it’s like putting a flower in a box,” he said. “It will die."
Everett owns a mortgage financing business in Texas that employs 2,500 people with 350 offices nationwide. He spends summers in the Lakes Region, and says he simply wants to see Lakeport thrive.
Laconia city leaders have made economic development a priority. The city’s population of about 16,000 has not grown in years. Demographics skew toward an older, retired populace. Efforts are being made to attract younger people and families.
Everett purchased the Lakeport Opera House and plans to turn it into an entertainment venue. He also plans to lease the ground floor to The Laconia Daily Sun, which is leaving its currently leased office because the building has been sold.
“We’re trying to open a playhouse there that will hold 300 people,” Everett said. “We need some parking on some nights for it.”
“This could really adversely affect the theater opening because I won’t have room for people to park to go see shows.”
Everett said the city Parks and Recreation Department told him that, over the last year, the green space, which is part of Sanborn Park — a block from the Opera House — was used for events or practices three times in the last year.
He said most people are supportive of revitalizing Lakeport.
"It’s so funny, because I’ve had 100 people write me — literally 100 — to tell me how excited they are to start seeing a little bit of a turn in the market, a little bit of energy in Lakeport.”
He said he’s surprised that a vocal minority has arisen to protect the grassy area at a time when his plans are otherwise receiving kudos.
Sen. French, R-Franklin, said constituents approached him, upset with the thought of losing the green space, which is about an acre in size.
He asked councilors “to really take into consideration what you’ll be losing” if the grass is paved over.
Callista Wilson said she grew up using the field and her son had baseball practice there.
“I just think that space is something you could lose and not get back,” said Wilson, who presented a petition with 125 signatures of people opposed to converting the park to parking.
Karen Houle has lived in a house at 72 Clinton St. for 27 years. A fence separates her backyard from the park.
“That field is used daily by dog-walkers, children playing, people having picnics,” she said. “No, that should not disappear. Absolutely not. I purchased my home to raise my kids because of that field, that park.”
She said her grandchildren now play there.
“I don’t choose to look out my window at a parking lot full of who knows what. We put a parking lot off the beaten path, what are we going to get? We’re going to get drug deals, homeless sleeping in their cars. That’s not what I want in my backyard. That’s not what our neighborhood is looking for. I have no idea who came up with this idea. It is ridiculous. Taking away from Lakeport is not fair.”
Rep. Spanos, R-Laconia, said numerous constituents have called him as well.
“In my opinion, we don’t exactly have an abundance of open space for kids to play outside and play ball in,” he said. “On a personal note, my own kids played baseball there and soccer as well. What we’re trying to do, particularly in the summertime, is give kids outdoor activities to put their energy into. I don’t think it’s a very good idea to take away this green space.”
Councilor Hamel said he played there as a boy.
“There’s not a lot of green space left in that area of Lakeport and I would be totally against this,” he said. “It wouldn’t even cross my mind to do this, to take that and make a parking lot. It doesn’t make any sense. I think there are other areas that can be looked at, if people want to purchase old buildings or whatever, but kids need a place to go.”
The park issue was up for discussion only. Not action was taken.
Councilor David Bownes said those interested, including business leaders in favor of more parking, should come to the next City Council meeting to discuss it further.
Bownes and City Manager Scott Myers wrote a memo saying commercial, retail, office and residential development being suggested for the area near the intersection of Union Avenue and Elm Street would increase demand for parking spaces for employees, customers, and residents.
As many as 90 parking spaces could be created at Sanborn Park.
The entire park is 1.6 acres, half taken up by green space and the other half — which wouldn’t be affected by the parking proposal — is used for a playground and basketball court.
Everett also owns several properties northwest of the intersection and is considering broad redevelopment plans.
The memo states that, if property owners want to request the green space for additional parking, “the City may be well served by entering into a long-term lease, public/private partnership or other agreement for the property with the owners responsible for paying for the improvements and upkeep.”
A Laconia Daily Sun story on the issue drew dozens of comments against converting the park, and only a couple in favor of the idea.
“I personally think we need more parking in Lakeport!” wrote Jeannie Wyatt-Matei. “Yes, I grew up on Mechanic Street and went to the park but it wasn't that big when I was a kid. We did just fine.
“Now, that I'm back living in LVA apartments [Lake Village Apartments] and to have your guests try to find a parking place on Union Avenue is crazy.”
The apartment complex is near the opera house.
She said some people who go to a nearby restaurant or the Post Office wrongly park in spots assigned to apartment residents.
“So, yes, I support a parking lot but I think though it should be covered parking so in the winter time people who live at LVA can park their cars and the plowers don't have to come and wait for residents to move,” she said.
“I go by the park all the time, morning, noon, night and have only seen at the most about 10 kids in there playing. Even on weekends, a lot of times it sits empty.”
JoAnne Langley Chase commented that “it’s sad, but if any business is going to survive in that area, they need to do something about parking.”