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Lincoln: Growing Tourism Hub Struggles With Affordable Workforce Housing

Published Friday Mar 10, 2023

Author Kathie Ragsdale

LincolnAerial view of Loon Mountain Resort. (Courtesy of Loon Mountain Resort)

In the late 1950s, former presidential Chief of Staff Sherman Adams returned to the struggling NH logging town where he’d grown up and resolved to turn it into a recreational mecca.

The town was Lincoln, and by the early 1960s, Adams had succeeded in creating the first 12 ski trails of what is now Loon Mountain Ski Resort. Today, Loon has 61 trails on 370 acres of terrain, and the resort and related businesses have boosted the town’s population from just over 1,200 to the current 1,650-plus, drawing tens of thousands of visitors annually and making Lincoln a regional economic engine.

The Lincoln/Woodstock area “is really the hub” of the area, says Jay Polimeno, principal broker at Polimeno Realty and Sunbelt Business Brokers of NH, and a past president of both the Western White Mountains Chamber of Commerce and the Lincoln-Woodstock Rotary Club.

BurndyPictured Left: an employee working at Burndy, the town’s largest employer. (Courtesy of Burndy)

Nestled on the western slopes of the White Mountains, Lincoln was already a small-scale resort community when the Loon project was initiated by Adams, a former lumberjack who went on to become a congressman, NH governor and chief of staff to President Dwight D. Eisenhower. A hotel was constructed near Lincoln’s famed Flume Gorge as early as 1808, and the roots of today’s Indian Head Motel & Resort go back to the 1920s.

“But Loon brought it to that next level,” Polimeno says. 

The construction of Interstate 93 from Boston to Lincoln in the 1960s further opened the town to tourist traffic and its accompanying services. “With the recreation and tourism comes the vacation amenities—the restaurants, the shops,” says Town Manager Carina Park.

Lincoln does boast some businesses without direct ties to the tourism industry. Connector and fitting manufacturer Burndy Corporation is the town’s largest employer, with more than 200 workers, according to the state Economic & Labor Market Information Bureau.

Expanding Tourism

But tourism is the town’s economic mainstay, and more hospitality-related growth is in the works.

Loon Mountain is expanding its South Peak area to include the addition of 30-plus acres of skiable terrain and a new four-person chairlift, part of its 10-year investment plan, Flight Path: 2030. A new, four-story Hampton Inn and Suites is opening on Main Street, and the planning board has approved the application for a Home2 Suites Hotel in town.

That is in addition to the $49 million expansion of Riverwalk, the five-star resort on the banks of the Pemigewasset River across from the base of Loon Mountain. Completion of the Phase II project will bring the resort to a total of 145 units and will add a second restaurant, a winery, a larger spa and a grand ballroom. That latest phase is scheduled to open in the spring of 2024.

But Lincoln’s attraction is for more than cold-weather sports. Large portions of the town are within the White Mountain National Forest, with its campgrounds, streams and trail systems, and the area has long been a playground for hikers, campers and city dwellers looking to get away at any time of year.

GondolaThe gondolas at Loon Mountain Resort. (Courtesy of Loon Mountain Resort)

Kim Pickering, executive director of the Western White Mountains Chamber of Commerce, notes that area businesses have also added warmer-weather attractions like ziplining and mountain biking to make the town a four-season destination. The Whale’s Tail Waterpark has been offering watersports, water slides and other attractions for more than 30 years, and its sister company, Alpine Adventures, provides multiple zipline tours as well as off-road expeditions in six-wheeled Swiss Army transport vehicles.

Kevin Bell, vice president of marketing for Loon Mountain Resort, says the facility’s gondola was a four-season attraction going back even to Sherman Adams’s day. Loon has offered lift service for downhill mountain biking since 2019, and also has cross-country terrain for bikers. Ziplines were built over a decade ago, and Ninja Wild, an obstacle course “that’s appealing to my 6-year-old as well as myself,” was opened in the summer of 2022, Bell says.

Alpine AdventuresAlpine Adventures offers off-road expeditions and ziplining. (Courtesy of Alpine Adventures)

Lack of Affordable Housing

Still, the town has its economic challenges. Staffing shortages, lack of affordable housing and supply shortages—issues common to many communities in NH and the nation—continue to vex. Ongoing development poses infrastructure concerns and tests the balancing act between growth and preserving Lincoln’s small-town character. The COVID pandemic proved a blessing and a curse, temporarily trimming businesses’ bottom lines but also bringing an influx of home-seekers, with their pocketbooks, looking to escape to fresher air.

Home and rental costs—always high in vacation and tourist towns—are out of reach for the service workers who cater to those tourists and vacationers, according to Pickering. She adds that the lack of affordable housing is so acute that some large employers like Riverwalk and Woodstock Inn Brewery in nearby North Woodstock provide apartments for their workers “but that’s not enough for those folks who don’t work at one of those places or have a spouse working in a different sector.”

Park notes that the North Country Council recently conducted a study of rental costs in Lincoln and found that the average restaurant employee would have to work 104 hours a week to afford rent in town.

Though Lincoln is the second largest town by area in NH, at 131 square miles, much of that land is in the national forest and cannot be developed for housing or anything else.

The pandemic-related influx of newcomers has only furthered pressure on the housing market. “The summer of 2020 was one of the craziest summers we’ve ever had,” says Polimeno. “Everyone came out here to be in the wide-open spaces.”

And many stayed. Park says motor vehicle registrations in town went up 27% from 2020 to 2021. 

And Workforce Shortages

And, as Pickering points out, “housing and workforce go hand-in-hand.”


Pictured Left: employees at Lincoln Sign Company. (Courtesy of Lincoln Sign Company.)

Rudy Glocker, founder of outdoor apparel maker Burgeon Outdoor on South Mountain Drive, says prospective employees often ask him where they are going to live “so that’s a challenge. … Some of our people commute 25 or 30 minutes, and I don’t think that’s necessarily their first choice.”

“The biggest impediment to our growing is finding skilled laborers to make products,” he adds. “We try to solve it by bringing in younger people who can see this as a career, but it’s a challenge.”

A 2020 suspension of parts of the federal government’s J-1 program, which allows international workers to take service jobs like those in demand in Lincoln, temporarily added to the staffing shortage. 

Roy Whitaker, who bought the Lincoln Sign Company a decade ago, agrees that workforce is an issue, and one that is raising both wages and the cost of doing business. But it’s not the only pressure on business, he says.

“For small business owners like myself, the biggest challenges are the cost of raw materials,” he adds. “It’s a nationwide problem, the cost of goods sold, supply chain problems.”

Whitaker, whose company has made signs for companies ranging from Riverwalk to the New Yankee Workshop, says pandemic-related closings left him with an eight-month backlog of orders he is committed to filling.

Infrastructure Concerns

Another concern is what ongoing development will mean for the town’s infrastructure and for traffic. “With all this increase in building and growing—new homes and condos being built—the challenge is making sure the infrastructure can keep up,” Polimeno says. 

With the growth comes more traffic to an already overburdened roadway system. Park says there is only one highway in and out of town, Route 112, which includes the scenic Kancamagus Highway. “On Columbus Day weekend, the Kancamagus Highway can be backed up for hours,” she adds. “That’s our biggest problem regarding infrastructure.”

Community Solutions

Town officials and other stakeholders say they are working together to address such issues.

Polimeno has sat on the board of AHEAD (Affordable Housing, Education and Development), a community-based housing development organization that is planning a housing project in North Woodstock, adjacent to Lincoln. “We’re hoping that’s going to positively influence things,” he says.

Park says the town is applying for a state InvestNH grant to perform an audit of Lincoln’s land use ordinances in order to modify them to encourage affordable and workforce housing. An ad hoc workforce housing committee composed of major business owners in town is also brainstorming ideas to combat the problem, she says.

That collaboration reflects a community-mindedness that many say is one of Lincoln’s hallmarks.

Glocker, whose company emphasizes giving back to the community, says Burgeon Outdoor made and donated 10,000 masks to individuals and organizations during the COVID slowdown. That spirit of generosity extends to the business community, he says, adding, “The view is, we can all be successful here.”

Polimeno points to the nonprofit Loon Mountain Area Community Fund, which assists community members in need, and the Rotary Club’s Community Chest, which provides Christmas gifts to more than 40 families, among other projects. The nonprofit Bridge Project, based in Lincoln, was launched in 2016 to help those struggling with substance abuse and has grown to include other programs like mentorships for boys and girls.

As for the future, town officials and business leaders say they see only more growth for Lincoln. “We’re just at the cusp of getting even bigger,” says Park.

Adds Polimeno, “The housing market will probably adjust and correct a little, but I also think if we start addressing some of the employee needs like affordable housing and more international workforce, we’ll be okay. It is an awesome community.”

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