January 02. 2013 11:47PM

A whole new look at rest areas on I-93 in Hooksett

Union Leader Correspondent

HOOKSETT - The rest areas off Interstate 93 in Hooksett are set to undergo a major redesign in coming years, with the Department of Transportation soliciting bids from companies to design, construct and maintain brand new "full-service" facilities.

"It's a big project," said Hooksett Town Administrator Dean Shankle, a member of the project committee. "They're trying to make it a more positive experience for people traveling on the highway. It's supposed to have a nice visitor center. There's going to be food, there's going to be gasoline, they're expanding the size of the liquor store. I think it'll be a good project, not only for Hooksett but for the state, having a nice-looking facility."

The Hooksett Rest Area Redevelopment Project will be a private/public partnership, with a contracting developer/operator signing a 35-year ground lease with the state "to construct and operate for and on behalf of the state" new facilities and service areas at the northbound and southbound rest areas on I-93 in Hooksett.

Built in early 1970s

The current facilities were constructed in the early 1970s, making them approximately 40 years old. The new site will provide fuel services, restrooms, car/truck/bus parking, a visitor information center, Wi-Fi, telephones, and take-out and sit-down food concessions providing "major branded or locally recognized food concepts." New, larger, 20,000-square-foot liquor stores will also be constructed, to be operated by the New Hampshire Liquor Commission under a sublease agreement to the developer/operator. The current liquor stores are 8,700 square feet.

Shankle said a key part of the project is to create a "distinctly New Hampshire" feeling for commuters and visitors alike.

"When I was on the committee before, one of the things they were very concerned about was getting something that looked New Hampshire, not New Jersey, and not New York, and not Massachusetts," said Shankle. "They want the entire feel of the visitors center to feel like they're in New Hampshire, and not anywhere else in the country. It's going to be distinct, and that can only be a good thing for Hooksett and New Hampshire."

The state of New Hampshire, through the New Hampshire Department of Transportation, is currently accepting bids for the project.

Three firms have passed the qualification process and been invited to submit proposals and designs. Of the three, only one - The Common Man, Inc - is a New Hampshire business. The other bidders are Host International, Inc. (formerly a part of the Marriott Corporation), headquartered in Maryland, and First Equity Group, LLC out of Chicago.

When asked if he felt The Common Man's status as a local business would help their bid, Alex Ray, founder and owner of the family restaurant and hospitality chain, said that he "hopes so."

"It's very important to us, personally, that it is contributing to that New Hampshire feeling, branding, and image," he said.

Ray said he was hoping to "build something that would be more than just services, but would be contributing to New Hampshire's branding and imaging ... using our major gateway through New Hampshire."

"I really don't want it to be average," he said. "I don't like average. We going to try our best to make it exhibit itself as energy-saving and also interesting, not pedestrian or boring," he said. "That I'm really looking forward to. I'm very excited about that."

Jan. 29 deadline

Proposals are due by Jan. 29. Once the contract is finalized, it will have to be approved by the governor and the Executive Council.

Each bidder will include their own time lines in the proposals. Bureau of Turnpikes Administrator Chris Waszczuk said that DOT believes "that sometime in either late 2013 or early 2014 is when construction would start, and that would last for 12 to 18 months."

During demolition and construction, the rest areas will remain open, with temporary heated bathrooms and at least approximately 75 parking spaces to be maintained. The liquor store will also remain open during the work, with the current stores only being closed and demolished upon completion of the new facilities.

Twice before the state has attempted to find a developer for the project. According to Waszczuk, "the first two tries were quite restrictive and rigid in their requirements."

In this third attempt, he said DOT has attempted to be less "prescriptive" in their requests.

"We wanted to allow more flexibility to let the developer/operators provide us with what they felt was reasonable for these sites and what they could accommodate," Waszczuk said.

Developers had expressed concerns with the initial requirement of relocating utility lines in the area. The state will now take that responsibility. There were additional concerns about a lack of information on the building conditions at the site. Geo-technical studies have since been prepared and provided by the state.

State gets its share

A share of the revenue generated by the new rest areas will return to the New Hampshire Turnpike system, which operates just under 89 miles of state highway, including the New Hampshire portion of I-93. The specific contribution percentages will be a part of the proposals and negotiated. Revenue from the liquor store will go to the state's general fund.

The state will still own the land, but the winning bidder will provide the cost for the designs, demolish the current sites, construct the new facilities, and operate and maintain the site.

Shankle noted that the town of Hooksett did have concerns about ensuring that the facilities meet the town's building requirements, but otherwise noted that he "couldn't see any way this could be a bad thing for the town."

"The state does what it wants in terms of local rules and regulations, or not," said Shankle. "Though most of the state's requirements for fire and protection and things like that are as stringent as ours or more so."

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Brendan Clogston may be reached at bclogston@newstote.com.