Gilford residents balk at $1 million price tag to renovate aging beach facilities


The Laconia Daily Sun

Published: 01-23-2023 4:46 PM

Gilford Town Hall is taking a fresh look at the town beach, after a proposal to rebuild the bathhouse drew strong public reaction on several fronts.

Town Administrator Scott Dunn said the selectboard has “pulled” a proposed warrant article, which would have asked for a bond issuance of $1 million to pay for a new bathhouse, after residents expressed sticker shock at the estimated cost of the project. Instead, they are planning to ask residents to contribute $100,000 into a capital reserve fund that could be used for a new bathhouse.

“Based on the feedback they got at public hearing last week, they decided they’re going to step back and decide how much it’s really going to cost to build a bathhouse,” Dunn said.

An earlier proposal, which carried the seven-figure estimate, was worked up by the town’s recreation and finance departments as a “fast-track” solution to replace the aging structure, which will no longer be licensed for food service. In addition to a concessions area, the 1,792-square-foot structure houses restrooms and a storage area for lifeguards.

The cost of $1 million was estimated after polling other state agencies and municipalities which have recently built similar buildings. However, after hearing the price, residents and selectboard members expressed a desire to analyze the construction estimate for accuracy, and if it proves to be that costly to replace the building, to look at design alternatives that wouldn’t carry such a high price.

“The board wants to do a better job of coming up with a new bathhouse,” Dunn said.

The bathhouse issue brought to the fore another point of contention related to the beach: who is able to access it.

Traditionally, the beach has been limited to residents and their guests. However, in recent years, due to a policy change, a market had developed for guest passes. Lodging establishments were able to purchase single-use passes to the beach, for $5 each, then sell them to their guests at a modest profit. This also allowed them to advertise access to the waterfront on their marketing materials. Also, any town property owner, including short-term rental operators, could purchase a season-long pass that their guests could use.

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Dunn said that the selectboard is preparing to take that policy back to its pre-revision form by doing away with guest passes of any kind. He said the board plans to discuss the beach access issue at its Jan. 25 meeting, and could present a new draft of the policy in a public hearing as soon as Feb. 8.

“The way it’s taking shape is doing away completely with guest passes,” Dunn said. “The beach would be just for residents and guests that are in the company of residents. ... They are reverting to the language in the deed, which says that the beach is for residents and their guests.”

At the selectboard meeting on Jan. 11, Herb Greene, director of parks and recreation, said the bathhouse has served the town for at least 50 years and is now due for replacement.

“Most of the issues coming up have to do with age, wear and tear on the building,” Greene said. A critical problem is the building’s plumbing, Greene said, which is now so far out of current code that licensed plumbers refuse to do a small repair. However, a full-scale replacement of plumbing would require digging up the building’s slab.

“Lots of time we end up having town staff jerry-rig repairs,” Greene said. “The plumbing issue permeates the entire structure.”

Modern food licensing has also moved well beyond the structure’s original design, to the point that the state has notified the town they will no longer be licensed to serve concessions until a three-bay sink, and other modern commercial kitchen equipment, can be installed.

For these and other reasons, the replacement of the bathhouse has been on the town’s capital improvement plan for a few years.

Holly Burbank, finance director, helped Greene put together the cost estimate. She said the final figure includes construction as well as demolition, abatement of possible asbestos, and permitting necessary for shoreline construction.

“As everyone knows, building costs are skyrocketed right now,” Burbank said. “The numbers are all over the place.”

Those who spoke at the meeting said they agreed with a replacement of the structure, but that the cost was cause for pause.

“The million dollar number is a huge number, it’s a concern for us,” said Selectboard Member Gus Benavides. “Being a selectman, we have to balance the needs of our citizens here with being fiscally responsible.”

Dale Channing Eddy, another selectboard member, when thinking about the proposal said, “It just kept popping into my head, this is too high. ... We all agree the bathhouse needs to be replaced, it’s in rough shape.”

Some members of the public, who filled the meeting room to capacity, echoed the same sentiment.

“A million is a lot to me,” said Paulette Weaver, who recently moved into town. When she bought her home, she said some people advised her to tear down her home and rebuild, but she was able to make repairs for a fraction of what new construction would cost. “I would like some numbers to fix just the plumbing and electric,” she said.

For Paula Frye, the beach is a landmark for generations of her family, going back to her father, who ran the “snack bar,” as she called it.

“I grew up there, my children have grown up there, my son was a lifeguard there,” Frye said. “It means a lot to most of us who have been here for any length of time.” She questioned why a commercial kitchen was necessary to provide snacks for families at the beach.

“Kids like ice cream, kids like soda, kids like frappes and shakes. They don’t need gourmet meals,” Frye said. With more involved food choices come higher prices and longer wait times, which have led to lower volume for the concessions vendors, she said, suggesting that a new bathhouse could be limited to the basics, such as bathrooms and space to support beach programming.

“Those of us who have been here want to continue with the consistency, the things that have always been important to us and our kids. Swimming lessons, Old Home Day, the traditional things that are missing in so many other places. If my taxes go up a little bit, that’s OK with me, but I want to make sure we’re getting the most for our money and not going over the top,” Frye said. “I would like to see a new bathhouse there and I would like to see things continue so that memories can keep being made.”

Food trucks are planned for this coming summer, so that some form of concessions will be available to beachgoers. Some have suggested that they could also be the long-term plan, which would eliminate the commercial kitchen completely from the building plan. However, others in the crowd asked where the trucks would park, and how they would dispose of their wastewater.

Christopher Banks, who recently returned to his hometown after military service, was one who posed doubts about the food truck solution.

“I don’t remember a season before I left for the Air Force where I didn’t spend 99.9% of my time at Gilford Beach. It was basically my life in Gilford during the summer,” Banks said. “God knows how many times I’ve been to that beach and got duck itch. The last thing we need is more sewage leaking onto that, or fries falling into the sand, or people from Massachusetts feeding the ducks because they don’t understand the rules.”

Cathy Dumais, however, spoke in favor of the proposed plan. She noted that the bond would add a few cents to the tax rate, in support of a beach she called “a jewel, a gem.” The current bathhouse is inadequate, particularly as the curtain providing privacy for the women’s changing area flaps open in the breeze.

“My experience is, Gilford likes doing things on the cheap, and whenever you do things on the cheap, you end up throwing more money into it,” Dumais said.

“Yes, a million dollars is a lot of money, but look at the investment you’re giving to every resident of Gilford who doesn’t have the money to pay for a yacht club [membership], or live in a neighborhood that has a community beach. When I look at what this will do on my tax rate, it’s not that much. ... We need a nice beach house. Go for it.”

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