Funding for Laconia Antique Center purchase undecided

Conor Carignan, 25, left, and his girlfriend Traci Deff, 25, walk in front of the Colonial Theatre and Laconia Antique Center while on vacation in Laconia on Monday afternoon. The city is purchasing the back two-thirds to facilitate an expansion of the Colonial Theatre. The front third of the building will become an Italian restaurant.

Conor Carignan, 25, left, and his girlfriend Traci Deff, 25, walk in front of the Colonial Theatre and Laconia Antique Center while on vacation in Laconia on Monday afternoon. The city is purchasing the back two-thirds to facilitate an expansion of the Colonial Theatre. The front third of the building will become an Italian restaurant. Daniel Sarch—The Laconia Daily Sun

By GABRIEL PERRY

The Laconia Daily Sun

Published: 04-02-2024 12:04 PM

Modified: 04-02-2024 12:17 PM


Questions regarding the funding of the city’s purchase of a portion of the Laconia Antique Center building at 601 Main St. downtown remain after the original funding mechanism was removed from the resolution at last week’s city council meeting.

City councilors had originally planned to use an $800,000 grant from InvestNH to fund their portion of the purchase that will transfer ownership of the back two-thirds of the Laconia Antique Center to the city, which plans to use the space to enhance the Colonial Theatre.

The theater is in need of an expansion to include space for dressing rooms and street access for loading and unloading of equipment. Canal Street is significantly impeded when large productions come through, causing issues with the flow of traffic and for local businesses on the street.

The city will pay $700,000 for its share and restaurateurs Melissa Darling and Tyler Hoof will pay $500,000 for the front third of the building with plans to open an Italian-American establishment. Both parties will contribute $50,000 to construct a fire wall to divide the parcels.

But councilors at the last meeting removed the provision which would have designated the grant money to fund their end of the purchase, electing to leave the funding mechanism open to discussion moving forward.

The InvestNH funds were granted to Laconia by the Governor’s Executive Council.

The other option for funding the purchase would be to issue a bond.

If the city were to issue a bond for the purchase, which would require holding another public hearing, InvestNH funds could be used as a stop-gap measure to increase employee salaries for police, fire and public works. The city has in recent years struggled to retain employees, who are underpaid compared with those who work in neighboring communities.

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City personnel are in talks now with the respective unions as they work to draft the budget for the next fiscal year.

“That came to my surprise,” Councilor Mark Haynes (Ward 4) said regarding the removal of the funding provision from the resolution. “Because we thought the $800,000 would be used for that.”

Haynes said the council has not formally discussed the possibility of issuing a bond to cover the purchase and that using InvestNH funds is not off the table.

“As far as a project like that, there are always other options,” he said, adding the issue will likely be referred to the city’s Finance Committee. “We’ll just have to see where it goes.”

Councilor Tony Felch (Ward 6) said he would prefer to negotiate salary increases, which are badly needed, and use the InvestNH funds to purchase their portion of the Laconia Antique Center.

“I was fine with using the funds,” he said.

Felch noted issuing a bond would be more expensive for the city in the long run when taking into account associated fees and interest.

“I’d rather not do that because then you’re taking on a cost that’s greater,” he said. “That’s the way I’m leaning, that’s the way I’d rather see it.”

Using the InvestNH funds to raise city salaries would only be a short-term fix to a long-term problem, he said. Negotiating higher salaries in the budget would go a long way toward alleviating problems with employee retention and he expects both issues to be discussed at forthcoming council meetings.

“The purchase has already been approved,” he said. “It’s just a matter of funding.”

City Manager Kirk Beattie said the city still has time to look over its funding options, as he’s currently soliciting bids for a building inspection. The resolution passed at the last council meeting stipulated the city would conduct an inspection before completing the transaction.

Beattie anticipates the inspection will likely take place around the third week in April. In terms of next steps, he said nothing is off the table.

“[We’re going] to look at all of our different options,” he said Monday, noting that InvestNH funds could still be used to fund the project if the council chooses.

If the council uses InvestNH funding to purchase their portion of the building, a bond will still likely be necessary to complete renovations moving forward, Beattie said. The city could make payments on the bond for 10 years or more.

If the council elects to issue a bond, a public hearing on the issue would be required, but if they instead choose to move forward with using InvestNH funds, all that would be needed is a new agenda item to authorize the expenditure at a future meeting.

Beattie acknowledged issuing a bond would be more expensive in the long run.

“Yes, there would be additional costs if bonded out because of interest,” Beattie said.

But the council is legally authorized to use InvestNH funding for any project they choose, including increasing salaries for police, fire and public works. Doing so, however, would only serve as a temporary solution.

“We could use InvestNH funding for anything that we choose,” Beattie said. “There’s not limitations on that.”