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Hooksett: A Community on the Cusp of Its Potential

Published Tuesday Feb 7, 2023

Author Kathie Ragsdale

Hooksett Bridge(Photo by Christine Carignan)

Town Administrator Andre Garron thinks of Hooksett as “the little engine that could,” one that has the potential to become a major economic locomotive in southern NH.

The town of almost 15,000 residents straddles the Merrimack River between Manchester, the state’s largest city, and Concord, its capital, and is bisected by Interstate 93, with two major state roads, routes 3 and 101, also threading through it.

In addition to those transportation corridors, “It’s near the [Manchester-Boston Regional] airport, it’s not far from Mass., and it’s not far from up north,” Garron says. “It’s well positioned to take off.”

Town officials and business leaders have been seeking to advance that position by planning infrastructure improvements, offering tax incentives and working with developers to attract new business to town so that Hooksett is seen as more than a stop along I-93 with toll booths and welcome centers. They’re striving to make Hooksett a destination.

AmazonThe Amazon distribution center at the former site of BJ’s Wholesale Club. (Photo by Christine Carignan)

“Town officials have been very sensitive to improving the development process and creating incentives to encourage responsible development,” says Alden Beauchemin, a land consultant/developer and a member of the town’s Economic Development Advisory Committee. “The bottom line is developers need sewer and water and a no-nonsense approval process and Hooksett is providing this.”

Some companies are already taking advantage of that pro-business atmosphere, with Amazon establishing a distribution center on Quality Drive at the site of the former BJ’s that closed four years ago, and other businesses are planning major construction or expansion projects.

In July, Marmon Aerospace & Defense broke ground on an 82,000-square-foot manufacturing facility on Legends Drive in Hooksett to augment its Manchester and Naples, Fla. operations, with Gov. Sununu in attendance. Eversource, already a major presence in town, is also expanding with a 162,000-square-foot project off Legends Drive where it can headquarter its statewide emergency response team, according to Town Planner Nicholas Williams.

MarmonThe future site of Marmon Aerospace & Defense. (Photo by Christine Carignan)

Also, on the east side of the river, a new Domino’s Plaza on Hooksett Road will offer five commercial spaces and a stand-alone restaurant, Williams says, with a Black Diamond Auto Wash coming in nearby, and Platinum Truck and Equipment also building a 12,000-square-foot building in the area.

Across the river at 47 Hackett Hill Road, the town is working with developer Port One Companies on the potential development of a half-million square feet of warehouse and distribution facilities. The plan has been approved with some conditions, according to Williams.

“With over $68 million in construction costs, this facility alone is expected to generate over $1 million in tax benefits to the town, in addition to proposed traffic improvements and conservation efforts by the developer,” says Beauchemin. “This development alone is spurring on other massive development in town.”

On Technology Drive, Amazon is constructing a 500-stall parking lot in a project that is also expected to draw other tenants, including a car dealership. 

Manchester Water Works is putting the finishing touches on a $40 million pump station and water treatment plant on the Merrimack River in Hooksett, and Dartmouth Hitchcock has moved into the former Amoskeag Beverages building nearby for warehousing and pharmacy product storage, according to Williams.

Beauchemin says Manchester Rowing Alliance has recently purchased 32 acres with 6,000 feet of frontage on the Merrimack River, with plans to build a boat house and offer programs for crew boat rowing.

The new developments augment some longstanding businesses and major employers in town, such as GE Aviation, United Healthcare and Southern NH University, whose campus spans Manchester and Hooksett. “To have a major university in your backyard doesn’t hurt,” says Garron, who adds that SNHU developed a robust online presence well before the pandemic hit and was well positioned to thrive in spite of it.

Students on CampusStudents on campus at Southern NH University. (Courtesy of SNHU)

Improving Infrastructure

But most businesses in Hooksett—including major stores like Bass Pro Shop, Market Basket and Kohl’s—still operate on private wells and septic systems, which long-term would not make Hooksett attractive to new businesses and would diminish its ability to retain existing ones, says Garron. A dependence on private wells would also present environmental challenges, he says.

That’s why Hooksett officials have made infrastructure improvements a top priority. In 2018, the town floated a $2.5 million bond to provide sewer and water between Exits 10 and 11 off I-93, to both serve existing businesses and attract new ones.

Historical HooksettA trolley on Main street in Hooksett in early 1930. (Courtesy of Hooksett Historical Society)

A sewer pipe was brought under the Merrimack River, between Town Hall on Main Street and the vicinity of the Tri-Town Ice Arena, but the leisure center/hotel project it was meant to service “ended up not coming to fruition,” says Garron. The town shifted gears and is working toward providing sewer to the Exit 10 area where many major stores are located.

At the same time, Port One Companies has indicated a willingness to install sewer in the area of its proposed Granite Woods Commerce Center at Exit 11, for which it has won conditional approval from the planning board. That public-private agreement, says James Sullivan, chair of the Town Council, “is another way we’re working with business to promote the town.”

When it comes to attracting and retaining business, Garron agrees, “infrastructure is always going to be key. Sewer and water are very important.” The town is also considering a solar field on a 15-acre former landfill site, he adds.

The day after the 1936 flood that destroyed the town center. (Courtesy of Hooksett Historical Society)

Easing Traffic Congestion

With four exits off major highways—three on I-93 and one on the limited access freeway Route 101—Hooksett is no stranger to traffic woes and easing congestion on roads is another priority for town officials.

Williams notes that Hooksett has some projects in the works with the state Department of Transportation. Among them is the widening of Daniel Webster Highway for two and a half miles, upgrades to the intersection of Alice Avenue and Whitehall Road, and improvements to the intersection of Mammoth Road and Daniel Webster Highway with a roundabout possibly replacing the signal there.

Sheena Gilbert, a longtime town resident who sits on both the planning board and conservation commission, says such changes “would help not only the individuals who live in town but those passing through town. It would make it more attractive to those who might want to stop and shop and pour some resources into town.”

Reestablishing A Downtown

Hooksett has no real downtown since the flood of 1936 destroyed homes, schools, stores, roads and the Amoskeag Mills when 18 feet of water rushed through what was once the town’s center. “It certainly hanged the downtown area,” says Sullivan, whose roots in the town go back generations.

Gilbert notes the town’s master plan, now under revision, calls for reestablishing a downtown, perhaps by enlarging the area known as the village in the northern part of town near the Merrimack River. “I think revitalizing that small walkable district would really bring a different feel to the town and would invite some of those varieties of business to town, like more restaurants, small boutique shops,” she says. “That’s the direction most folks on the various [town] committees would like to see. They’d like to see that small-town feel.”

Finding the right balance between maintaining that small-town feel while still attracting business is one of Hooksett’s challenges, many town officials say. “You don’t want it to take off too much because there’s that hometown charm you don’t want to lose,” says Garron. “It’s home to a lot of people and the essence that attracted people here you don’t want to lose.”

Giving Buildings New Life

One small-town icon, Robie’s Country Store on Riverside Street, is a state and national historic landmark, a frequent campaign stop for candidates during NH’s presidential elections and “the heart and soul of Hooksett,” Beauchemin says. While it is currently closed, the Robie’s Preservation Group is close to a deal for a new operator.

Robie’s Country StoreRobie’s Country Store is a state and national historic landmark. (Photo by Christine Carignan)

Repurposing many existing buildings is on Hooksett’s radar. “We have a couple of ’70s-era shopping centers, most notably the Kmart Shopping Plaza [on Hooksett Road],” says Williams. “Kmart pulled out about two and a half years ago and we have quite a few vacant storefronts. We’re looking at alternatives in our zoning and land use rules that would be a little more flexible in allowing a creative approach to getting a tenant in there.” 

KMartThe Kmart shopping plaza. (Photo by Christine Carignan)

To that end, he adds, the town has adopted community revitalization tax incentives under state law RSA 79-E, which encourages investment in downtowns by providing tax incentives for the rehabilitation and use of under-utilized older buildings. “It gives them a 25 percent tax credit on anything beyond what the property is assessed at as a result of them developing the piece,” he explains. “We’ve had a couple of applications so far.”

David Scarpetti, who chairs the town’s recently reinvigorated Economic Development Advisory Committee, says 18 properties have been identified in town in a pilot program that gives new or expanding businesses a five-year discount on property taxes “that gets businesses to town and keeps them going.” The committee has also been instrumental in streamlining the town’s sign ordinances for business and has supported infrastructure upgrades throughout the community.

Garron would also like to see expansion of Hooksett’s tax increment finance district to allow more redevelopment and infrastructure improvements. That public financing method allows a municipality to divert future property tax revenue increases in areas hosting such projects.

Economic Highs and Lows

One economic advantage for the town is the availability of developable land close to major highways. “Some communities are reaching their saturation point, but Hooksett has a fair amount of vacant land, especially commercial and industrial,” says Garron. “We just have to make sure we grow at a rate we can sustain and make ourselves as attractive as we can by providing the amenities.”

Hooksett also has the benefit of being able to draw on the workforce from the nearby and heavily populated cities of Manchester and Concord.

However, housing, especially affordable housing, remains a stumbling block. “If you’re going to have businesses, you need to have homes that are affordable,” says Sullivan.

The former Cigna building on College Park Drive, a 97,200-square-foot facility that once served as office space for 250 employees, has become central to the debate about housing in Hooksett, with developers proposing repurposing the building for apartments. 

In April, the town’s zoning board voted unanimously to deny a variance that would have allowed 81 market-rate apartments in a commercial-retail-office zone, but town officials continue to discuss alternatives with the proposed developer, Brady Sullivan Properties.

“We are working with Brady Sullivan to design a mixed-use concept, a smaller scaled-down version of Woodmont Commons in Londonderry, a mixed use of commercial and residential,” says Williams.

Scarpetti says the building is close to Town Hall, the library and the river, with water, sewer and sidewalks. “That would be a big plus for the town,” he adds.

In addition, Catholic Charities is working with the town on a project that would provide up to 180 units of assisted living for seniors on Daniel Webster Highway, according to Williams.

Three small subdivision projects are also in the works, he says, as well as six units of age-restricted housing.

Despite such challenges, town officials see nothing but growth ahead for Hooksett. “We’re the gateway to the north,” says Sullivan. “We have good public services and great access off the highway. I would encourage any business that wants to develop to give Hooksett a look.”

Says Garron, “Economic development effort is always the building blocks of moving forward and people are seeing the true potential of Hooksett. I always thank people who do locate here. We’re just on that verge of really realizing our true potential and we’re hoping to build on that.” 

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