LACONIA — Cynthia Makris is a living connection to the latter years of Weirs Beach. She grew up in the hospitality industry, watching her parents operate the NASWA, a resort she now runs. She walked her regular route through Weirs Beach on Friday – her “mental health break,” she calls it – when she encountered a new competitor: Juan Pedrosa, the creative force behind the newest eatery. Bar Salida, where Pedrosa is the chef, features drinks and shareable plates served outdoors – which Makris’ NazBar has been doing for decades.
Makris said she welcomed the development as a sign that The Weirs is moving forward.
“New people with new, great ideas to build business, and they’re enthusiastic about opening a business in The Weirs area.” Although some of the new businesses might distract some of Makris’ would-be customers, she said it’s a good thing for the corner of Laconia that has shoreline on Lake Winnipesaukee. “I think it’s heading in a positive direction. It’s having a resurgence, an infusion of new people, new businesses, new ideas.”
Bar Salida, located in the historic Winnipesaukee Marketplace building, is the latest of a string of new businesses in The Weirs. Earlier this year, Vida Mexican Restaurant opened in the Alpen Rose Plaza, occupying a storefront that had been vacant, and Martelli’s, featuring Italian-American food and entertainment, set up shop in the former Christmas Island Steakhouse building. Late last year, the Craft Beer Xchange and Witches Brew Pub opened on Doe Avenue, on the hill overlooking Weirs Beach.
It’s not just new storefronts – there’s a new mix of people walking along the boardwalk, said Kerri St. Gelais, one of the managers at the Halfmoon Gift Shop on Lakeside Avenue.
“We have pretty high expectations for this year,” said St. Gelais. Last year went surprisingly well for Weirs Beach, she said, even despite the pandemic. This year, with vaccines widely available to people 12 and older – and with Laconia Motorcycle Week back to its usual time slot starting next weekend – she said she’s expecting “a pretty good turnout.” She noted that the area has been unusually busy for late spring, which she saw as a predictor for an equally brisk summer.
A different demographic
“We saw a different demographic that came up last year, that we hadn’t seen before,” St. Gelais said. She said the new visitors to Weirs Beach were “more Bougie,” meaning more upper-middle class. St. Gelais, who first started working on Weirs Beach 24 years ago, hopes the new visitors won’t change the overall feel of Weirs Beach, she noted.
“We are really hoping to keep it a nice, clean family spot, still be fun,” St. Gelais said. “I just hope everybody’s respectful of the lake and the area, then that should be OK.”
Robert Ames’ family owns the gift shop St. Gelais manages. His father, Sidney Ames, opened his first attraction on Lakeside Avenue in 1949, and the Ames family currently operates a motel and cottage colony, arcades, ice cream and candy shops, and bumper cars, as well as the gift shop.
The Ames family’s businesses are rooted in nostalgia, offering the same experiences to today’s children that their parents had decades ago. Ames said the developments in recent years, including Tower Hill Tavern, the Big House dance club, and now the beer and bar destinations, aren’t exactly a continuation of what his father started.
“There’s been a trend to have more adult entertainment, more nightclubs, more bars. We’re more family oriented,” Ames said. He doesn’t see the two directions as opposed, though. “There’s enough business for families and adults,” Ames said.
Hot dogs and lobster rolls
Weirs Beach will always have a draw, Ames said, due to Lake Winnipesaukee and the views of mountains framing the open water. That draw could be enhanced if the beach were restored – it used to be considerably larger, but has eroded over time – and if the WOW Trail, which currently runs from the Belmont town line though downtown Laconia and to Lakeport, were extended to Weirs Beach. The public docks need to be reconfigured to better suit the bigger boats of today, he said, and year-round hotel would also help.
Ames said he sees the new businesses as catering to a better-heeled clientele. “I see it as gradually up-scaling, and these restaurants we’re seeing are upscale,” Ames said, adding, “that’s great, wonderful.”
After all, Ames can’t complain too much about the addition of places such as Bar Salida, because it was he who sold the property to Leigh and Ryan Cardella. The property was in need of some upkeep, said Ryan Cardella, one of the owners of East Coast Flightcraft, a boat dealership that purchased the Winnipesaukee Pier several years ago. Cardella said he approached Ames last year about the building, and found a willing seller. The transaction took place late last year.
Cardella said he is following, rather than driving, a trend to welcome wealthier visitors. His company leases space to several eateries on the Pier, and their sales data shows a growing preference for lobster rolls over hot dogs, even though the former are about three times as costly as the latter.
Leigh Cardella has a longer view of Weirs Beach than her husband does. She’s been a summer visitor to Lake Winnipesaukee since she was middle schooler, coming up from the North Shore of Boston to stay at a friend’s lakehouse.
“I think the last year or two it has changed tremendously,” Leigh said. When she first started coming to Weirs Beach, she said it was “eclectic, old-New England,” which started to lose its appeal. Slowing foot traffic led to less money for maintenance, but that has started to turn around, she observed. “In the last couple of years, there’s been a lot of love. Owners are putting love and pride back into it.”
'They're going to jail'
The renewed attention to Weirs Beach isn’t surprising to Gary Rayberg, president of ROI Business Brokers. His brokerage recently assisted with the sale of the former Thurston’s Marine, and has been party to several recent inquiries in the Laconia area.
“Doing what I do for a living, I would say that that area is starting to realize its potential. I think it’s got further to go. It’s got the best view of any place on the lake, the real estate values are up there at least as fast as anywhere else,” Rayberg said. “There’s a lot of activity going on there in terms of real estate and business transactions, I’m surprised it hasn’t happened more quickly.”
There’s a word that describes this transition – gentrification – and Rayberg said not everyone will be a fan of the process. However, he said there’s hope that the future Weirs Beach can retain its iconic features, such as the Weirs Beach sign.
“If anybody touches that sign, they’re going to jail,” Rayberg said. “It’s got a ton of history behind it. It’s got the Mount Washington (steamship company), the train station, the pier.” Cardella said that he hoped the Bar Salida would feel welcoming to all walks of customer, and Rayberg, referring to Cardella’s explanation of changing customer tastes, expressed a similar sentiment. “I see it not transitioning completely, but I see it as a mix of hot dogs and lobster rolls.”