Photo by Mark/Flickr Creative Commons.
Lancaster, the picturesque community cradled between the northern White Mountains and the Connecticut River Valley, is busily advancing its future by capitalizing on its past.
Sparked by the work of home-grown business owners with the assistance of public and private partners, the town of 3,500 is witnessing a rebirth of its downtown, improvements to infrastructure and growth in rentable housing stock.
Signs of Expansion
Lancaster is experiencing robust development activity. A $1.8-million project to revitalize the historic Parker J. Noyes building on Main Street—the result of a partnership between local businessman Greg Cloutier and the Northern Forest Center—will be home to a market on the first floor and six two-bedroom apartments on the second and third floors.
In September, the Weeks Medical Center broke ground on a $14.2-million Lancaster Patient Care Center.
Pharmaceutical manufacturer Trividia, which came to town three years ago, now boasts more than 100 employees, has purchased and filled a second building and expects further growth in staff and facilities.
Two years ago, PAK Solutions, a flexible packaging manufacturer, took over another firm on the verge of closing and now has 50 employees, new high-speed equipment and a renovated facility.
The NH Community Development Finance Authority in August awarded $71,000 to Northern Community Investment Corp. in Lancaster through the Microenterprise Program to help 25 start-up businesses grow in the area.
Lancaster’s economy has long been driven by small businesses rather than large mills that dominated the economies of other North Country communities, such as nearby Groveton or Berlin, according to Lancaster Town Manager Edward Samson.
“Those towns are used to having a big outside entity being the heartbeat,” adds Michael Kopp, who, with his brother Keith, owns the local Ford dealership and has invested in several renovation projects in Lancaster’s downtown. “We’ve always been a little bit diversified.”
Downtown Lancaster. Courtesy photo.
Critical to that success is having local, engaged businesspeople like Cloutier and the Kopps investing in the community, says Ben Gaetjens-Oleson, the town’s planning and zoning coordinator.
“The local person understands the history of the area and will be more inclined to do it the right way,” he says of the town’s revitalization efforts.
Samson notes that one individual’s efforts often have a snowball effect on downtown, as business owners see the improvements and “clean up their own property.”
Cloutier is credited by many with forming one of those first snowballs. In 2011, the Rialto Theatre on Main Street was empty, in bankruptcy and about to go up for auction when Cloutier teamed up with Dave Fuller, who had theater experience, to purchase and revitalize it.
The Rialto Theatre opened its door for trick-or-treating on Halloween. Courtesy photos.
“He kept it lit up and operating and expanded it to a second screen,” Kopp says of Cloutier. He adds that Cloutier and Fuller opened the theater for trick-or-treating on Hallo-ween and “It was mobbed… There were kids all over our Main Street.”
After a fire in January 2013 destroyed much of the building across the street from the theater and the owners were considering razing it, Cloutier stepped in and rehabbed it. That building is now home to the popular Polish Princess Bakery and the Root Seller Marketplace, an indoor farmers market carrying produce and other items supplied by 80 local farmers.
Some of Cloutier’s other projects have included the old Oddfellows Building, where he revitalized the second and third floors, and the National Bank Building, which now houses the Copper Pig Brewery, the William Rugh art gallery and small offices.
Cloutier has also provided incentives to help small businesses get started on Main Street because, he says, banks are “not all that willing” to extend loans to businesses without successful track records. “I’m just investing in my community,” he says of his efforts.
Cloutier also helped facilitate the purchase of the old Noyes Building on Main Street, which will become the new home for an expanded Root Seller Marketplace and fill a gap in the rental housing market with its upstairs apartments.
The Northern Forest Center, now leading the project, has contracted with Alba Architects of Woodstock to plan the renovation and has removed asbestos tiles and replaced the roof. General construction is expected to begin in early 2020.
The center, based in Concord, is a regional investment partner that helps rural communities in Maine, NH, Vermont and New York advance policies that “connect economy, community and environment to accelerate inclusive prosperity,” says Rob Riley, president of the center. The estimated $1.8 million cost to renovate the Noyes building will be raised from philanthropic donations, state tax credits and an impact investment fund the Forest Center will pay back after seven years, he states.
The center has raised about half the funds and is seeking investors willing to contribute $25,000 or more, Riley says. “Philanthropic investment is crucial to making this massive renovation possible so we can restore the P.J. Noyes Building to be a vibrant part of Lancaster,” he adds, noting that some $150,000 has already been received in gifts from individuals, foundations and businesses that have purchased NH tax credits.
Riley says the Northern Forest Center has applied for funding from the NH Land and Community Heritage Program and is also attempting to have the building designated on the National Register of Historic Places.
Similarly, the Kopp brothers purchased a distressed Bridge Street property in 2004 and spent a year and $500,000 turning the former icehouse and Oldsmobile dealership into a used car dealership.
More recently, they purchased the old Kilkenny Building across the street from their Ford dealership (when the lumber yard and hardware store there went out of business) and spent five years renovating it. The main building now houses an Edward Jones financial advisor office and a furniture store.
The Kopps are also investors in the Noyes Building improvements and are in the process of a major renovation project at their dealership. “It sounds like a goofy cliché, but we love our town,” says Michael Kopp, who grew up in Lancaster. “We have a lot of people who have chosen to do business with us, so if we can contribute in those ways, we’re happy to help.”
Trividia, formerly P. J. Noyes, founded in Lancaster in 1885, now manufactures and packages a variety of over-the-counter drugs and personal care products. It has grown more than 30% in the past two years and now operates two facilities in town, says Dean Hoffman, senior director of operations.
The company also seeks to be a good corporate citizen by supporting community events and providing sponsorships. Anne Paquin, human resources manager, says the company provides internships and scholarships for local high school students, joins in high school job-hunting seminars, offers shirts and bus rides to local sports teams, donates to local food and Christmas present drives and sponsored a hot chocolate booth at this year’s Olde Tyme Christmas gathering downtown.
“Our goal is to be a [good] community partner,” says Paquin.
Investment has been key to the community moving forward. Samson notes that Lancaster made recent improvements to its roads, water and sewer infrastructure to support all the business growth and is in the process of updating its eight-year-old master plan to reflect changes in technology.
The town will also benefit from federal grants secured in November, including the Northern Forest Center receiving $188,547 to expand broadband access and digital literacy in Lancaster, and the Town of Lancaster receiving $17,500 to purchase a new police vehicle to more safely and efficiently respond to emergencies in the White Mountains area.
The Northern Community Investment Corp. (NCIC) has secured grants to provide financial management and business coaching to local businesses and startups, as well as marketing seminars and customer service training to help them get to the next level, says Jon Freeman, president of NCIC. He adds participants will be accepted on a first-come, first-served basis.
NCIC has also assisted a number of Lancaster businesses—Fuller’s Sugar House, North Woods Manufacturing, Polish Princess Bakery and Potato Barn Antiques—with loans and grants and has given a technical assistance grant to the town for community/municipal support, according to Freeman.
Fuller’s Sugar House, started by Dave and Patti Fuller (pictured) in 1972, has steadily grown over the years and was recently thrust into the national spotlight when it was selected as Google’s NH partner for a national advertising campaign focused on how small businesses use its services to grow.
The two-page spread featuring Fuller’s has appeared in the “New York Times,” “Wall Street Journal,” “The New Yorker” and other national outlets, prompting orders from across the country for Fuller’s maple products.
Fuller’s Sugar House, with 11 employees, has invested in expansion and tapping more trees, though it suffered a setback when an invasion of tent caterpillars in 2016 affected sap production, Dave Fuller says. “It created big challenges but we are turning the corner on that,” he says, adding growth remains steady. “We love it here in the North Country. We wouldn’t move for any amount of money.”
Meanwhile, tourism and outdoor recreation continue to contribute to the economy in Lancaster, drawing visitors who enjoy the local kayaking, canoeing, snowmobiling, hiking, cross-country skiing and leaf-peeping. Lancaster boasts the Mt. Prospect ski tow and a skate park and hosts a street fair the last Saturday in July and an Olde Tyme Christmas event during the holidays.
Participants in the Lancaster Olde Tyme Christmas event. Courtesy of Northern Gateway Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Samson says it’s not hard to see why people like himself and Gaetjens-Oleson are lifelong Lancaster residents.
“We have a beautiful Main Street, beautiful mountains,” he says. “I’m perfectly content to live in such an environment. I’ve been all around the country and I haven’t seen any place that’s better.”