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The Job Interview: Hooksett rest areas will feature everything New Hampshire

  • An artist's rendering shows the interior of the proposed rest area buildings to be built on I-93. <br/><br/>Courtesy image.

    An artist's rendering shows the interior of the proposed rest area buildings to be built on I-93.

    Courtesy image.

  • An artist's rendering shows the interior of the proposed rest area buildings to be built on I-93. <br/><br/>Courtesy image.

    An artist's rendering shows the interior of the proposed rest area buildings to be built on I-93.

    Courtesy image.

  • An artist's rendering shows the interior of the proposed rest area buildings to be built on I-93. <br/><br/>Courtesy image.
  • An artist's rendering shows the interior of the proposed rest area buildings to be built on I-93. <br/><br/>Courtesy image.

In just a few years, visitors traveling through New Hampshire along Interstate 93 will be able to stop at Common Man Hooksett, a new kind of service area that will offer a distinctly New Hampshire experience.

The new service areas will be owned by Granite State Hospitality, a partnership between Alex Ray, owner of the Common Man, and Rusty McLear, owner of Mill Falls at the Lake.

One will be located on each side of the highway, and they will be designed in a mill building style indicative of the state’s history.

The new facilities will cost $30 million and will include an interactive visitor center, a food court with all New Hampshire-based restaurants, a country store, more than 300 parking spaces, 16 fueling stations and a dog-walking park.

The state liquor stores will also be expanded to about twice their current size. All of the restaurants will be managed by Common Man and will include a 1950s-style diner, a bakery/cafe that will also have a drive-through, an Italian Farmhouse featuring pizza and pasta, and Common Man Express sandwich and burger shops.

All of the food will be prepared on site in a commissary-style kitchen on the north side of the highway.

Ray and McLear will sign a 35-year lease with the state that calls for at least $23 million in rent payments and a tiered percentage of fuel and other sales. In total, the state could bring in about $38 million.

Ray spoke with the Monitor about the ambitious project.

How long has this project been in the works?

I became aware of it about three years ago. I was just aware that New Hampshire (Department of Transportation) had been working on a bid program for a new rest area, and I’ve actually been wanting to see that for over a dozen years to make it more interesting.

I thought it was out of my league entirely because most rest areas are run by national facilities.

What made you decide to get involved?

I thought, “Why not try for it?” I’ve spent 42 years running the Common Man restaurants, and I thought this was a wonderful opportunity to do something creative and unique. I knew I couldn’t do it alone, and one of my working partners and friends for many years is Rusty McLear from Meredith at the Mill Falls Inn complex. He did such a wonderful job transforming Meredith over the last 40 years, and we’ve been good partners (on other projects).

What other projects have you done together?

Both Rusty and I work independently of each other, however above and beyond that, we together own some projects, like the Common Man Inn in Claremont. Also, we’re kind of partners in that I run all the restaurants that he has in Meredith.

Why do you think this is something the state needs?

I am in the hospitality business in New Hampshire; I love New Hampshire. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with the liquor store there, it’s very successful and helps serve our state, but I think we should serve the public that comes to New Hampshire in a better way.

I’ve been preaching that for at least a dozen years to (the state) to do a better job respecting our visitors and our residents with welcome open arms, not average restrooms.

What is your ultimate vision for this plaza?

It’s an innovative, unique approach to interstate highways and the needs of the traveling public. What’s different about it is there are no national brands there and there’s not multiple layers of ownership or operators – it’s just Rusty and I and the state of New Hampshire all the way from owning the buildings to operating the businesses.

(Everything is) New Hampshire-based, not only the operators and developers, but the contractors, the architects, even the financing banks are from New Hampshire, the engineers, we’re all New Hampshire people and the money that comes through this place will be deposited in New Hampshire and stay here.

So there are no chain restaurants?

There won’t be any national brand recognition. That could be a concern because people won’t see those big logos out there that we’re so familiar with. But we hope to have a much more personal center. We’re building a place that will feel like New Hampshire; the buildings have that village feel to them.

What’s the timeline for completing this project?

Well, we just got the final blessing of New Hampshire’s governor and (executive) council, that begins our real obligation. Now we’re off and running, and it is a two year project before we open. We now initiate our engineering and final design and bid process for contracting it out to be built. Our literal shovels will hit the ground after Columbus Day, mid-October. That process starts with the building of a brand new liquor store, it’s about two times as big. It will look and feel just like the new Nashua store.

What will be in the welcome center?

It’s a space that’s roughly 4,000 feet, and it has a live information center with people manning the booth more closely. It will have an interactive TV where you can source out the weather and various hotels and amusements in the state – you can ask it questions. There’s also a bank that’s going to be in that welcome center. Not just an ATM but a full-service bank, an alliance of Merrimack County Savings Bank and Meredith Village Savings Bank.

How will you manage such an ambitious project with everything else you do?

It’s a very fresh thing for me. I really enjoy building unique things that keep me inspired. I never wanted to be a cookie-cutter business like a chain restaurant – it’s no fun. This is a leap for me both in dollars and in innovativeness; this is no question it’s both Rusty and my biggest project. (Common Man has) 1,200 employees now and lots of management, and our company will be fully behind it. When we open a new place, we send experienced people in to operate it. We’ll probably have about 150 employees there, and I can tell you that 30 of them will be preexisting Common Man and Mill Falls employees.

Is there anything else you want to add?

We’ve spent two years working on this, and we’ve got two more . . . and working with all the New Hampshire governmental employees is unbelievably pleasant. That’s why I want to stay in New Hampshire.

(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or kronayne@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @kronayne.)

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