August 20. 2015 8:37PM

Hotel and lilacs proposed for Hackett Hill site

By CYRUS MOULTON
Union Leader Correspondent


A bench in memory of Katie Bentley. (Courtesy)

John Bentley said he was looking for a flower that was hardy, beautiful, and would bloom around Memorial Day to plant at his young daughter’s gravesite. He decided on lilacs — loved by his daughter and sporting fragrant flowers in her favorite color of purple.

Now Bentley plans to plant more than 300 types of lilacs as part of a proposed botanical garden/festival venue/commercial development on Hackett Hill Road in Hooksett, creating a monument to the official state flower, the people of New Hampshire and his daughter.

“(Developer Jeff Larrabee’s) got a good spot there, and we needed a home for 300 or 400 different kinds of lilacs,” said Bentley. “It’s a spot that’s going to be a commercial development and normally you would buy a few PJM rhododendrons, a few conifers, and put them in a bed with too much mulch. But instead of having run-of-the-mill Kmart landscaping, we could have a world-class destination that would be the landscaping for the development.”

In 2009, Bentley and his wife Cheryl founded the Katie Bentley Memorial Charity, more commonly known as the Katie Bentley Lilac Project, in memory of their daughter who died of a lung ailment at age 4 in 2007.

Deciding that lilacs were the perfect shrub to put by Katie’s gravesite, the Bentleys began soliciting donations to plant lilacs at the cemetery. The project expanded as other municipal groups and private homeowners throughout the country began buying lilacs through the nonprofit.

But Bentley said that he soon realized he needed a place to put what he plans to develop into his lilac collection.

That’s where developer Jeff Larrabee comes in. For more than a decade, Larrabee has been trying to develop land off Hackett Hill Road just south of the Hooksett toll plaza and Exit 11 to the west of Interstate 93. Bentley attended school with Larrabee and reconnected with the developer while caring for Larrabee’s father’s lilacs a few years ago. The two decided to team up.

Larrabee proposed plans in April for creating a Great Woods-style concert venue and campground with concert promoter Live Nation. The plans for the development, called Granite Woods, included a 110-room hotel, a 300-seat main restaurant and conference center, a 200-seat winery and tapas bar, a brew-pub, destination retailer and a family entertainment area, all surrounded by the lilac and botanical garden, the Union Leader previously reported.

But the Granite Woods plan was dependent on the state declaring 270 acres of Department of Transportation land as surplus property to accommodate the campground. Larrabee said Wednesday that the deal with Live Nation is on hold but he is still going ahead with other aspects of the development.

Larrabee submitted plans for the first phase of the revised project in July — a 124-unit hotel on a 5.35-acre parcel of the now 95-acre total property. The hotel is expected to be the first extended-stay Woodspring Suites franchise in New England, and the planning board this week scheduled the project for a Sept. 21 public hearing.

Larrabee said he hopes construction on the hotel will begin this fall in time for a opening in 2016. He said he plans that a restaurant will soon follow.

And the master plan for the property still includes the lilacs: the development is in fact now called Lilac Park.

But the lilacs aren’t just there to look pretty.

Bentley said that interest in horticulture in general has declined as house lots decrease in size and people are more pressed for time. As a result, many species of lilac (among other plants) are at risk of going extinct, Bentley said.

Bentley said the ultimate hope is to have a botanical garden where a collection of up to 400 varieties of the best and rarest lilacs has the time and space to grow and flourish. A propagator from Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum is currently helping get Bentley and Larrabee ready to plant 300 lilac bushes or so this fall.

“It’s important stuff that we’re doing, more than just a good idea, in my opinion,” Bentley said. “This is our chance, and perhaps the last chance, to preserve these lilacs that are going extinct. So we’re hoping to preserve these lilacs, give the people of New Hampshire a botanical park to go through and celebrate the state flower and do great things for humanity.”

And of course, the developers said the big event at Lilac Park will be a festival when the shrubs bloom in late May.