Two New Hampshires: Meredith’s full-time and seasonal populations highlight economic divide

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  • Pleasure boats come out of the water at Meredith Marina earlier this fall. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • The population of picturesque Meredith goes from about 6,000 in the colder months to about 20,000 in peak tourist season. With a surge of out-of-state buyers snapping up lakeside homes, real estate prices and the cost of living have soared for full-time residents. Despite its beauty, about 13% of Meredith residents live below the poverty line, nearly twice the state average. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • The downtown part of Meredith on a warm fall day. GEOFF FORESTER/ Monitor staff

  • Bear Island in Meredith as seen from the M/V Sophie C. U.S. Mail Boat in 2017. Monitor file

  • This home, in Pinnacle Park in Meredith, recently went under contract and is scheduled to close in two weeks. Local real estate agents say that the pandemic hasn't hurt the sales or prices of waterfront properties. (Courtesy photo)

  • Along Meredith Bay, check out public art with the Meredith Sculpture Walk. MADDIE VANDERPOOL

  • A luxury home on the east side of Lake Winnipesaukee in Meredith. GEOFF FORESTER

  • A luxury home on Lake Winnipesaukee in Meredith.

  • Downtown Meredith as seen across from the Lake Winnipesaukee docks. GEOFF FORESTER

Monitor staff
Published: 11/24/2022 9:00:33 AM

A drive around Meredith shows the two sides of New Hampshire.

Lakeside homes provide an idyllic seasonal destination for a summer escape. Along Wagon Wheel Trail, a short unpaved street on Meredith Bay in Lake Winnipesaukee, sits the town’s most expensive residential property amid a row of million-dollar homes.

The owners of the 11,000-square-foot log home that sits on seven acres of land behind tall black iron gates hail from Stamford, Conn. They paid $7.8 million for the home in 2009. More than a decade later, its price tag has doubled, with the town valuing the property at $14.5 million.

Some neighbors live there year-round, but come Memorial Day, license plates from Massachusetts, Connecticut. California and Florida populate driveways and zip along the town’s roads.

New Hampshire is known as a great place to raise a family, start a career and enjoy a natural playground – from the White Mountains to the Lakes Region and ocean shorelines. These are all things state leaders boast about, yet they gloss over the daily reality for many residents living below the poverty line.

Meredith is no exception.

The identity of Meredith, like much of New Hampshire, is displayed by the wealth of some of its residents and also the poverty of others.

Farther in town, just past the high school, the manufactured homes on True Road show the other half of Meredith. Dotted around the clover-leaf-shaped neighborhood, homes in the Interlakes Mobile Home Park are valued between $30,000 and $50,000 – among the lowest in town.

In the summer months, the town population swells from 6,000 residents to as many as 20,000. With more residents, there is a greater need for employees to stock grocery shelves, man drive-through windows and work in town services.

But New Hampshire can be a tricky place to make a living, especially in a seasonal town.

While part-time hourly wages can pay up to $15 an hour or more – New Hampshire remains the only state in New England that still is tied to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. These jobs lack retirement plans, sick time and health care, all critical aspects of middle-class life.

Statewide, the cost of rent has also risen while the vacancy rate has plummeted to 0.3%. If renters can find an apartment, the median cost hovers around $1,500 or even more in a resort town.

As million-dollar lakeside properties go up around Winnipesaukee’s shores, the people who help run the town – from business owners to state employees – can’t help but wonder if there is room for them, too.

“I’m concerned about middle-class people and the people that are natives, that were born here,” said Cathie Keets, who has lived in Meredith since 1993. Despite three decades in town, the retired state treasury employee still doesn’t consider herself a local. “It seems like they’re getting squeezed out.”

The pressure on the middle class has been a national pandemic story, with affordable housing crises hitting high-profile seasonal resort towns like Sun Valley, Idaho, and the Hamptons. It took center stage again when migrants were sent to Martha’s Vineyard, where affordability and limited housing were prominent daily challenges for year-round residents before new visitors arrived.

But this story also plays out locally in New Hampshire. As celebrities like Mitt Romney, Jimmy Fallon and Drew Barymore populate the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee in the summer, their high-profile residences overshadow the day-to-day life of year-round residents on the lake.

In Meredith, 13.1% of individuals still live below the poverty line, almost double the state average.

‘A beautiful area’

Mary Moriarty sees the juxtaposition daily as the superintendent of Inter-Lakes School District. Many of her students come from Meredith families who hide in plain sight of the town’s affluent image.

“The reality is we do have needs within our schools that maybe ‘seasonal’ doesn’t always reflect,” she said.

The Inter-Lakes Cooperative houses three towns in its school system – Meredith, Center Harbor and Sandwich. Meredith comprises the largest portion of the district, with 75% of students residing in the town, according to the district’s recent annual report.

Free and reduced lunch numbers for Inter-Lakes prove Moriarty’s point of need in the community. For the fall of 2019, prior to the pandemic, 27% of students qualified.

This is above the statewide number of 24% for students in grades 1 through 12.

“It’s important to realize that there is food insecurity within our community. That certainly is something that often requires more support for our families,” Moriarty said.

Enrollment in the district has also declined in recent years. In the fall of 2022, 915 students are enrolled in kindergarten through high school. At the start of the school year in fall of 2019, the number was 989. This translates to a 7% reduction in three years.

Other communities have seen similar trends throughout the pandemic. But Moriarty points to an issue specific to Meredith as one explanation for lower enrollment numbers: the cost of living in the community.

“This is a beautiful area, and as it becomes more popular and more attractive, the cost of living is challenging,” she said. “It can be challenging for young families to be able to afford to purchase a home and settle here, and that certainly then has an impact on enrollment.”

Eyes on families

As more students exit the school system, spending still goes up. In 2021, the cost per pupil was $26,840. This was well above the state average of $18,434, according to data from the New Hampshire Department of Education.

But a town with high property values also lends itself to a greater tax base. In Meredith, the taxable property value per capita was 253% of the state median, according to data from the New Hampshire Community Development Finance Authority.

In other words, properties in town generate more dollars toward budgets, like the school district.

It means that the school district has money to pay teachers. Electricity and heating bills for school buildings are taken care of.

But with fewer students, there is also less state funding for education – so these costs come at the expense of the local community.

One way to trim the annual budget is to rely on natural attrition. As teachers retire, Moriarty has to decide whether their position is in need of a replacement. Smaller class sizes also allow for the ability to consolidate classrooms, like what was done with the high school humanities position.

Another way to cut costs is to creatively piece together her puzzle.

When there was greater demand for arts classes, she collapsed a humanities position to promote a part-time art teacher to a full-time position. To hire an occupational therapist, contracted services were reduced to give some room in the budget.

Moriarty is aware of the burden on residents.

“Every dollar of that budget is raised through local tax dollars. Balancing that so that people can afford to pay their taxes, and it’s difficult as you have declining enrollment,” she said. “To maintain strong programming, when you have declining enrollment, you lose the economy of scale.”

On average, the Granite State has the lowest poverty rate in the country, but still 1,000 people a month rely on the Meredith Food Pantry for supplies and sustenance.

The pantry puts together boxes for eligible families year-round, with their numbers steady each month.

This need is a known fact in the school system, but something the town’s affluent summer image may obscure.

“When you look at the second homes that are seasonal, there’s a sense that there’s a lot of affluence but it’s not necessarily mirrored throughout all aspects. Families trying to make a living year-round is a reality and there are certainly families that have greater needs than maybe one suspects when they drive into town on a sunny day.”


MICHAELA TOWFIGHI

Michaela Towfighi is a Report for America corps member covering the Two New Hampshires for the Monitor. She graduated from Duke University with a degree in public policy and journalism and media studies in 2022. At Duke she covered education, COVID-19, the 2020 election and helped edit stories about the Durham County Courthouse for The 9th Street Journal and the triangle area's alt-weekly Indy Week. Her story about a family grappling with a delayed trial for a fatal car accident in Concord won first place in Duke’s Melcher Family Award for Excellence in Journalism. Towfighi is an American expat who calls London, England, home despite being born in Boston.



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