‘An experience’: New I-93 Hooksett welcome centers to be open by Christmas

Last modified: 9/10/2014 2:00:38 AM
Alex Ray is 13 months into a major project to replace two outdated liquor and wine outlets with state-of-the-art visitor centers off Interstate 93 in Hooksett – and he’s ahead of schedule.

The 20,000-square-foot New Hampshire Liquor and Wine Outlet on I-93 North will open Friday, while the southbound outlet will open within weeks, said Ray, the owner and founder of the Common Man restaurants. By Christmas, the entire $33 million project – which will also include 16 Irving gas fueling stations, a 1950s-style diner, a food court, a 24-hour convenience store and a bank branch on both sides of the interstate – will be finished.

Initially the work was scheduled to be completed in April 2015, according to a press release from Gov. Maggie Hassan’s office that announced the kickoff of construction last fall.

The two new welcome centers each total about 36,000-square-feet, and Ray appears to have a plan for every inch – including maple hardwood floors, art kiosks and an indoor waterfall. Yesterday afternoon, he led about 12 people on a tour of the northbound food court and visitor center, which is now filled with ladders, sheetrock and tools, but will soon welcome millions of travelers each year.

“It’s an experience. People are not just here to fill their fuel tank and their stomach. They are here to appreciate New Hampshire,” said Ray, who with his business partner, Rusty McLear, signed a 35-year lease agreement with the state to run the centers.

Ray envisions the two centers having slightly different roles. The southbound side will be stocked with information about living in and doing business in New Hampshire, while the northbound center will emphasize the state’s attractions.

“We want people to love it here and say, ‘What’s the story? How are the schools?’ ” he said.

The interactive visitor centers will be operated by the state Department of Resources and Economic Development.

“The welcome centers will be just that – providing a welcome to 3 million travelers each year. For those northbound, the center will provide a travel break,” said Lorna Colquhoun, communications and legislative director for the resources and economic department. “More than food and fuel, it will provide a flavor for what’s ahead, anything from adventure to attractions to fine dining and grand hotels.”

Southbound travelers, on the other hand, “especially the ones who hate to leave the state,” will find different resources, Colquhoun said. “The message to them is that they are welcome to come back to New Hampshire to live, work and raise their families,” she said. “If they own a business, they’ll find the resources they need if they are thinking about moving or expanding it here.”

Redevelopment of the welcome centers has already been a boon to the economy, she added. There are about 200 workers at the site daily, and about 95 percent of workers, contractors and subcontractors, and materials are from New Hampshire. When completed, the centers will employ about 150 full- and part-time employees, Ray said.

“I just see this being a better statement for people coming to our state,” Ray said.

The square footage of the new liquor outlets is more than double the old liquor outlets, both of which were built about 40 years ago and will be demolished. The New Hampshire Liquor Commission will fund and operate the two liquor outlets. In 2013, sales at the two Hooksett locations totaled $34.5 million, and the state commission has said it will expand spirit selections by 50 percent and wine selections by 75 percent. This will lead to an estimated $6 million increase in annual sales at the two locations.

About 668,000 liquor transactions were made at the two sites in 2013, Ray said.

“That’s a million people. Now, we’re adding gas and food and aesthetics and a better information center,” he said. “Now, it might be 3 million.”

(Iain Wilson can be reached at 369-3313 or iwilson@cmonitor.com or on Twitter@iainwilsoncm.)


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