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Wolfeboro and Four-Season Tourism

Published Wednesday Sep 7, 2022

Author Kathie Ragsdale

Wolfeboro Chamber of Commerce (Courtesy photo)

Wolfeboro’s trademarked moniker is “the jewel of Lake Winnipesaukee,” and tourism is the gem that shines brightest. Anchoring the eastern end of NH’s largest lake, the town is the oldest summer resort in America, dating back to when Colonial Gov. John Wentworth built a getaway estate in 1771. And it still draws both seasonal residents and day-trippers to enjoy the waters and lakeside amenities—and drop a few dollars as they do.

Sprawling lake homes—an eight-bedroom, 11-bath manor was recently advertised for a cool $19.5 million—provide a principal source of tax revenue to the town, and the many hotels, restaurants, gift shops and ice cream parlors catering to visitors and summer residents are another economic driver. One Wolfeboro establishment, the Pickering House Inn, was recently named the top resort hotel in the nation by Travel + Leisure magazine.

“Tourism is absolutely without question the lifeblood of the community,” says Town Manager James Scott Pineo.

The 6,400-resident population can triple or quadruple during the summer months as the town swells with visitors, including celebrities like Jimmy Fallon and Drew Barrymore, and summer residents that include Mitt Romney and several family members of the Marriott hotel chain. A normal five-minute drive across town can take two hours in July, according to Director of Planning and Development Tavis Austin.

“We don’t have a large commercial corridor or industrial area,” says Austin. “That’s not where the money is coming from. It’s the high-priced lake homes and the resources supporting that funding engine.”

Wolfeboro’s location 16 miles from the nearest interstate is not conducive to the transportation needs of light industry and the town has little developable land for structures like big box stores. Still, it also hosts several employers that do not rely on tourism for their success.

Huggins Hospital, a 25-bed, nonprofit community hospital on Main Street, employs some 370 people, according to NH Employment Security’s Economic and Labor Market Information Bureau. Brewster Academy, an elite grades 9-12 boarding school on 80 acres along Lake Winnipesaukee’s shoreline, provides work to 239. The Wolfeboro-based Governor Wentworth Regional School District has six elementary schools, a middle school and a high school, serving students from Wolfeboro and five nearby communities, and employs 286. P.S.I. Molded Plastics on Wickers Drive has 129 workers.

These employers help make Wolfeboro a regional job hub, according to Pineo. Folks from nearby towns also come to enjoy the town’s amenities, says Mary DeVries, executive director of the Wolfeboro Area Chamber of Commerce. “We’re sort of the epicenter of all the area communities,” she says.

Evolving into a Four-Season Draw
While the town has always been a summer resort, it once featured many more industrial enterprises. Lehner Street was once called Factory Street for the shoe manufacturers that employed hundreds in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

The Shoe Factory, a 4-story building on Factory St., circa 1900. In the late 1800s, The Cropley and Brother Shoe Co. and  The Monroe Co. made shoes in this building. (Courtesy of the Wolfeboro Historical Society)

Many of the trophy homes lining the lake had their start as humble seasonal “camps” that started to give way to bigger developments around the 1980s, according to Linda Murray, in her 18th year on the Wolfeboro select board and immediate past president of the board. “There were a bunch of residence camps on Winnipesaukee that went from camp to subdivision to housing development,” she says. “We had a boom where the camps sold, and people put up houses and then they had to get furniture and landscaping.”

That led to the many lawn care, home maintenance and related service businesses that have proliferated to serve those summer estate owners.

The Farview cottage at Sewall Point in 1907. (Courtesy of the Wolfeboro Historical Society)

But is there a danger in relying on summer tourism as the town’s economic mainstay? Does Wolfeboro need to diversify?
The town’s Economic Development Committee has been exploring that issue, but Pineo says the town is unlikely to start seeking out new businesses that might overload an already strained water and sewer infrastructure.

“What we are trying to do as a community to diversify is to make ourselves more of a four-season resort,” says Pineo, who points to the ongoing $7 million upgrade of the town ice arena as an example. The renovation could bring in tournament traffic, he says, and the town’s other winter recreation amenities, ranging from groomed cross-country ski trails and a rope-tow ski area to dedicated snowmobile trails, could also draw new visitors.

Murray says another group is working toward establishing bike trails in town, “so the recreational part is growing.”

That growth comes in addition to the many recreational and cultural offerings that Wolfeboro residents and visitors already enjoy. Among the town’s famed museums are the NH Boat Museum, which offers hands-on boating programs as well as displays on the state’s boating heritage; the Libby Museum, the oldest natural history museum in NH; and the Wright Museum, a national repository for historically significant WWII items and memorabilia that is immediately recognizable from the street by the tank that appears to be bursting through its wall.

The NH Boat Museum. (Courtesy photo)

The Wright Museum. (Courtesy photo)

The Great Waters Music Festival has been offering concerts in town for more than 25 years; the Wolfeboro Friends of Music offers numerous concerts annually; the Village Players have been entertaining for more than 40 years; and the Perform It! Young People’s Stage Company at Brewster Academy offers programs in classic literature and the performing arts.

A band performing at Great Waters. (Courtesy photo)

The town has four public boat ramps, and the historic 230-foot M/S Mt. Washington offers narrated tours, dinner cruises and special theme cruises on Lake Winnipesaukee in non-winter months.

“We’re really in a niche with the tourism, and that’s why we have to continue to capitalize on that and try to make this the most elegant place for people to be able to come and have a good time and speak with their friends and hopefully that word of mouth brings more people here,” Pineo says.

Some business owners say they’re already seeing an uptick in winter visitors and have plans to entice more. Patty Cooke, co-owner of the Pickering House Inn, says the inn remained busy throughout the holiday months of November and December, and she is seeing more demand for executive and experiential programs.

The Pickering House Inn. (Courtesy photo)

As a result, she and her husband Peter are considering offerings like week-long snowshoe retreats or weekends featuring hikes. The inn partners with a tenant who operates a spa to offer massages. The Cookes also own an upscale restaurant, Pavilion, in the building next door to the inn. And Pickering House Inn won Travel + Leisure’s “best resort in New England” honor last year and this year, in addition to the 2022 national award.

The interior of the restaurant, Pavilion. (Courtesy photo)

Pandemic Increases Population
And more “summer people” are now staying in Wolfeboro year-round, town officials and business owners say, driving demand for services and entertainment throughout the year.

That’s in large part because of the pandemic, which has increased the number of people working remotely. “In the last couple of years, we’ve had a huge increase in the full-time population” says William Swaffield, co-owner of the Kingswood Press, a commercial printer that has been family-owned since 1948. “People came up during COVID to get away, and a lot realized ‘why didn’t we do this earlier’ and decided to stay.”

One drawback to that phenomenon is increased demand on an aging water and sewer system, says Pineo, who adds that town officials are working on adding filtration systems to reduce the number of leaks in the water system, as well as other measures to address the issue.

The town has also been able to secure “a significant amount of grant funding” through the American Rescue Act to help with infrastructure repair, he adds, including $672,000 toward a $1.68 million upgrade of the Mill Street pump station, $735,000 toward a $1.47 million water treatment plant and system upgrade, $361,000 toward a $720,000 project for vintage water line evaluation and replacement, and $199,000 toward a $430,000 storm water project, among others. Voters agreed to fund the remainder of the costs at the March Town Meeting. Pineo says purchase orders have already been issued on many of the projects, some of which are stalled because of supply chain issues.

True Community
The lakeside town attracts many wealthy residents who in turn give back to the community. “Wolfeboro is a very giving town,” says Murray. “We have some people who are very well off but who are very generous…. About 2008, there was a move to close the ski area because we had no snowmaking. A group called the Friends of Abenaki went and raised money and now we have snowmaking. We’ve had a lot of public-private partnerships.”

She also cites $2 million raised for The Children’s Center on Main Street, the $750,000 raised by the Friends of Town Hall toward the $4 million cost of renovating the 1890 building, and the $1.3 million raised by the Wolfeboro Library Foundation toward the recent renovation and expansion of the library.

Maker’s Mill, headquartered in a former small engine repair shop on Bay Street, is a maker space and vocation hub for start-up businesses that came about through a decade of community building and fundraising by the nonprofit G.A.L.A. (Global Awareness Local Action).

Top: Maker’s Mill, a makerspace in town. Bottom: High school students from Lakes Region Technology Center helping to build the main staircase at the makerspace. (Courtesy photos)

The town also sponsors a Warmth & More Fund to assist residents in need, noting on the town website that the municipal electric department has to deliver disconnection notices to about 150 customers a month who are unable to pay their bills.

Amy Capone-Muccio, the town’s executive administrative assistant as well as its welfare director, says the two-year-old fund garnered $20,000 last year and will likely surpass that this year.

“I have secret elves that I reach out to from time to time,” she adds, noting that she recently needed to find a special car seat for a grandparent “and a secret elf funded that.”

Supportive Businesses
That spirit of community support also governs the business sector and was evident at the outset of the COVID pandemic.
While Wolfeboro’s economy was not as hard-hit as some, local businesses did suffer losses. Swaffield says Kingswood Press’s business was off 25% to 30% the first year of the pandemic but was helped by Paycheck Protection Program funds and is gradually gaining lost ground. Cindy Patten, owner of the iconic Black’s Paper Store on Main Street, was also helped by an Economic Injury Disaster Loan, since paid back, and says it was cooperation among local business owners that saved the day.

“The first thing the Chamber did was organize a forum for businesses so we could collaborate and share notes on how we’re pivoting our business, and share ideas,” she says. “We were able to cross-help one another. I could say [to a customer], ‘I don’t have it, but so-and-so does and here’s their phone number.’ The respect among every single one of us for each other is one of the things that’s key.”

Facing Challenges
Still, Wolfeboro has its economic challenges, some of them common to NH and the nation. A shortage of labor and affordable housing top the list.

Coffee shops in town have reduced their hours because of lack of staff, Swaffield says, and Murray notes that some restaurants are now closed both Sunday and Monday, instead of just one day, for the same reason.

Cooke says her restaurant should be open seven days a week, but she limits it to five because she is still short a staff member or two. She and her husband recently sent out an email to guests in their database saying they were looking for passionate hospitality people to join their team, and promptly received at least one interview from the effort.

Pineo says he’s finding it hard to keep the town’s cemeteries and parks mowed “because we can’t find people who want to mow.”

Job opportunities for young people, especially, are lacking, according to Swaffield, unless they would be willing to enter the trades, as plumbers and electricians are scarce in town.

Patten says a lack of affordable housing contributes to the workforce shortage, noting that a maxed-out water treatment system in the downtown area doesn’t allow for additional building.

Other challenges include supply delays for shop owners like Patten, who says she never had to worry about deliveries in the past. Murray agrees that the supply chain is a continuing concern, “as long as China has problems with COVID, which I don’t see changing in the future.”

Infrastructure, too, continues to be an issue, Austin says, not for just water and sewer needs but the lack of a “robust intramodal transportation service” that could help with traffic woes. Expanding internet capacity is another bucket list item, especially with the increasing number of residents working at home.

Pineo notes that the aging police and fire facilities are also in need of replacement, and town officials are working on a proposal they hope to bring to voters in 2023. The aging stormwater management system is a major concern  because “all of our stormwater goes into Lake Winnipesaukee.”

Taking care of the lake, he says, may be the most critical challenge of all. “We’ve taken a real hard look at best management practices to remove phosphorus from our lake, and we are doing that actively, but if our neighboring communities are not, it’s fighting an uphill battle,” Pineo says.

Winnipesaukee, he adds, “is the lifeblood of our community.”

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