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Conway's Economic Expansion

Published Friday Jul 6, 2018

Author Kathie Ragsdale

Conway—famed for its Currier and Ives-style village, ski slopes and expansive outlet malls—is finding new ways to grow.

The resort community in the lower folds of the White Mountains is broadening the tourist and retail offerings that have long been its mainstay while increasing efforts to diversify the economy.

Known as “the birthplace of American skiing” and a destination for rock climbers and trail hikers, not to mention shoppers, Conway and the village of North Conway have “successfully become a four-season resort,” says Janice Crawford, executive director of the Mt. Washington Valley Chamber of Commerce.

A $15 million expansion of the Settlers Green shopping outlet complex and completion of phase one of a $50 million redevelopment project at the Cranmore Mountain Resort are just a few of the efforts. Others include the chamber launching programs to ensure a year-round flow of visitors, shop owners in the village organizing to promote their offerings, and tax exemption articles being placed on the warrant for the town election in an effort to draw new business to the community.

Premier Ski Town
A longtime ski hub, North Conway was voted the best ski town in North America last year by the readers of USA Today—the third consecutive year it has made the publication’s list of top 10 ski towns. It has 13 Alpine and Nordic ski areas within 30 minutes, as well as its own Cranmore Mountain in the heart of the village.

Cranmore Mountain Resort presides over the village horizon, where it has invited guests to “stay slopeside” for more than seven decades. Last November, state and local leaders gathered at the resort to celebrate completion of the first phase of a redevelopment project called Kearsarge Brook Condominiums at Cranmore, which provides 18 new two- and three-bedroom condominiums ranging from 1,220 to 1,695 square feet in size and ski-in/ski-out access to the slopes. When finished, the six-phase plan will add six new buildings, 106 year-round residences and 45,000 square feet of space to the resort.

The Exterior of Kearsarge Brook Condominiums at Cranmore. Courtesy photo.

The interior of a unit at Kearsarge Brook. Courtesy photo.

Retail Expansion
Known as an outlet shopping destination, North Conway recently saw a significant addition to those offerings as Settlers Green outlet complex added 10 stores in a 50,000-square-foot development called Streetside last year. The new space was built to accommodate the needs of larger tenants like Columbia and Polo Ralph Lauren, according to Dorthea “Dot” Seybold, general manager of OVP Management, which developed and manages more than 500,000 square feet of retail space at Settlers Green, Settlers Corner and Streetside in North Conway. A desire to add frontage on Route 16, the main road connecting the Seacoast and Lakes Region with the White Mountains, was also a consideration, she says.

The new expansion includes more than just stores. “We recognized a long time ago that our vacationing families want to have fun when they are shopping,” Seybold says. “We have tripled the number of eateries at Settler’s properties in the last few years. We have added a spa. We have added over $60,000 in outdoor art, photo opportunities, whimsical seating and people-watching spots. We are working on adding a gym, a cooking school and more tenant services.”

Public art at Settlers Green. Photo by Dan Houde, Laura Tuveson and Elisif Brandon.

A musician performs for guests at Settlers Green. Photo by Dan Houde, Laura Tuveson and Elisif Brandon.

Crawford points out the area has also attracted stores aimed at serving local residents as well as tourists. “We’ve seen a number of big box stores added to the retail scene in North Conway, including AutoZone, Michaels and PetSmart.”

Meanwhile, owners of the boutiques and smaller shops in North Conway Village are finding ways to raise their profiles. The White Mountain Independents was formed last year to promote local spending in the communities of North Conway and nearby Jackson, Bartlett and Intervale. Now 20 members strong, the group is “trying to make sure the small-town quality of shopping with a local person is still viable,” says Deborah Jasien, president of the group and owner of Fields of Ambrosia bath and body products in North Conway Village.

Top: White Mountain Independents member business owners Kathy and Brian Ahearn of For Your Paws Only. Bottom:member business Bavarian Chocolate Haus.

Participants in the nonprofit take advantage of bulk purchases, fly a blue flag with the group’s logo in front of their stores and raise money—and awareness—through promotions like discounted gift certificate sales online. White Mountain Independents is also a sponsor of the annual “Cranpalooza,” Cranmore Mountain Resort’s signature winter event, and does promotions with local radio and television outlets. Members donate gift certificates, participate in auctions and find ways to give back to the region, Jasien says. Last year, the group made some $60,000 in donations, throughout the Mt. Washington Valley and beyond.

Because the group is not yet a year old, it has no hard data on how successful its efforts have been. But it recently had its first member meeting of the year, and participants reported seeing increases in traffic and curiosity about the group’s blue flags.

“So I think awareness did grow throughout the year, and I think it’s moving in a positive direction,” Jasien says. “We’re now in the process of recruiting new members and are hoping to bring in local preferred business partners like banks and law firms.”

Diversifying the Economy
But tourism and retail are often at the mercy of the overall economy and, in North Conway’s case, the weather. “In a low-snow winter or a heavily rainy summer, North Conway will see swings that are greater than the economic factors,” says Crawford. “Of course, over the past five years, we’ve seen overall strong economic growth in New England, fueling traveler sentiment, which has helped to boost the economy in North Conway.”

A desire to diversify the local economy led to the formation in 1990 of the Mt. Washington Valley Economic Council, which includes representatives of 10 NH towns, as well as Brownfield and Fryeburg, Maine. Since its establishment, the council has created an incubator on 81 acres of property aimed at stimulating business growth, according to Executive Director Jac Cuddy. The 9,000-square-foot facility now has about a dozen tenants and employs 44 people, he says. “We put on education programs for small businesses to help them,” Cuddy adds. The council also has a loan fund that has provided about $2 million to startups and second-tier lending.

Other potential business-boosters, Cuddy says, are the tax abatement proposals that will be included on the town ballot in April. A measure passed by the state legislature last session, HB316, allows communities to abate taxes for new businesses following votes by the community. If the measure is adopted, a qualified property receives up to a 50 percent break on municipal taxes, Cuddy says, based on the increased value of new structures or improvements to existing structures. Conway selectmen voted to include a warrant article on the ballot regarding abatements for industrial properties; a petition article has also been submitted for commercial properties.

Wage and Housing Challenges
In addition to bolstering business, such measures might also address what Cuddy describes as one of the downsides of a heavily retail economy—low wages. “The majority of jobs in the [Mount Washington] Valley are in the service industry and retail stores, and those jobs are typically $10-an-hour jobs with no benefits,” he explains. “Industry typically pays higher wages and benefits so this is to encourage opportunities for light industry to move to the area.”

Crawford agrees that the area’s tourism-based economy keeps pay scales low—just one of the challenges the Conway area faces. A related issue, she says, is the out-migration of young professionals seeking higher compensation elsewhere. Conway also faces a problem familiar to many communities in the Granite State—a shortage of housing for both workers and for the growing number of senior citizens. Conway Planning Director Thomas B. Irving says some steps have been taken to address that need, pointing to the recent construction of a 36-unit workforce housing development and a 30-unit apartment complex for seniors.

Conway Pines, a 30-unit apartment complex for seniors, was recently completed. Courtesy of Thomas Irving.

“Developers and the community have recognized that our population is aging, and there are several projects on the drawing board to accommodate the needs of our aging society, including a new adult day care center,” he adds. The town is also reviewing an independent/assisted/skilled nursing care/memory care development that is augmented by 16 independent living cottages and an urgent care facility, he says.

Capitalizing on Assets
As for the future, town leaders say they hope to keep capitalizing on the natural features that have made Conway and North Conway the destination it is while still seeking economic diversity. The area continues to attract outdoor lovers because of the nearby White Mountains and Cathedral Ledge, popular with climbers, in Echo Lake State Park. The Conway Scenic Railroad features train rides that leave from the village’s Victorian station into scenery ranging from bubbling brooks to panoramic mountain vistas. In autumn, the changing foliage along the Swift River makes the nearby Kancamagus Highway a destination for leaf-peepers from New England and beyond. The North Conway Country Club is part of the “Road to the Links” that includes 11 area golf courses. This February, a ribbon-cutting ceremony marked the opening of a new branch of the New England Ski Museum in North Conway, offering exhibits on the history of the sport.

The New England Ski Museum in North Conway. Courtesy photos.

Crawford notes that, in addition to its USA Today reader ratings, North Conway won kudos by earning a place on the “Lonely Planet 10 Not to Miss List” in 2015, was named a “Best Ski Town Worldwide” by National Geographic last year and was chosen one of 15 “Prettiest New England Villages” by Yankee Magazine earlier this year.

She says the chamber is seeking to promote tourism during the least-visited months of April, May and June. Efforts to draw visitors in another formerly low period, November, have been successful with the establishment of events like Harvest to Holidays, which offers lodging and shopping packages, and “Bring a Friend” weekends at Settlers Green, she says.

“The Mt. Washington Valley Chamber is in their third year of a seven-year plan to build tourism during the spring,” she says. “We are promoting foodie [culture], arts and culture, golf, outdoor recreation and shopping during these months.”

A participant in the annual North Conway Chili Cookoff. Photo by Lisa Dufault.

Last year, North Conway’s annual Chili Cookoff was moved from its traditional February/March date to April as a kickoff event for the spring season in the Mount Washington Valley. A Fairy Festival is offered in May at the Mount Washington Valley Children’s Museum in North Conway.

A child at the Mount Washington Valley Children's Museum's Fairy Festival in May. Courtesy photo.

“We have built summer, winter and fall,” Crawford says. “Spring is getting the attention now.”

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