Unwelcome: Tight budgets mean closing Epsom welcome center
C.A. Waller, who lived in New Hampshire for 35 years and who has been summering in the Epsom area for 15 years, has felt the sting of the Epsom rest area’s closing so strongly that she recently wrote a letter to the editor that was published in last week’s Hooksett Banner. When her children visited her during the summer, she always had “a stack of brochures” for them, she said, and “off we’d go to all these wonderful places.”
“Local merchants are not happy at all,” said Waller. “Route 4 is nicknamed Antique Alley,” but now there’s “no information about the antique shows around the state, the county fairs, any of that.”
The three seasonal rest areas in Epsom, Rumney and Antrim are now scheduled to remain “permanently closed,” said Bill Boynton, public information officer with the state Department of Transportation.
“The longer term intent is to tear down the buildings and/or sell the properties,” said Boynton.
“This decision, like all major budget decisions” at the Department of Transportation, said Boynton, “is made at the director and commissioner level,” with no financial impact analysis or studies regarding how these decisions will impact local businesses.
With a wide range of fundamental transportation-related services, the DOT has to make hard decisions about “cutting back in such critical areas as bridge maintenance, pavement markings, numbers of miles resurfaced, street lighting, guardrail repairs, tree trimming, mowing, etc.,” said Boynton. “Virtually everything but winter maintenance operations” have been cut due to budget constraints.
“While the rest areas open across New Hampshire continue to provide a high level of service to New Hampshire residents and visitors,” he said, “I am sure if current budget constraints continue, there is a very real likelihood that additional closures may once again have to be considered.”
According to Boynton, rest areas in Colebrook, Lebanon, Littleton, Shelburne and Sanbornton have also been considered for closure.
When asked about the Epsom closure, democratic gubernatorial candidate Maggie Hassan acknowledged that, “Tourism is a critical part of our state’s economy and we must ensure that New Hampshire is welcoming to visitors from near and far who bring business into our local shops, hotels and restaurants.”
“Promoting New Hampshire’s tourism economy includes making sure that New Hampshire’s welcoming centers are truly welcoming,” she said, proposing that she will “help sell New Hampshire, and its products, across the nation and around the world – and work to bring more tourism dollars into our economy.”
Republican gubernatorial candidate Ovide Lamontagne agreed with Hassan that “the natural treasures our state has to offer, along with our welcoming people and four seasons worth of activities, make us an obvious tourist destination.”
“As governor,” he said, “promoting our state to our neighbors in New England and across the nation will be a top priority as a part of a comprehensive economic development strategy.”
To fund the rest areas, Lamontagne proposes “a public-private partnership for the leasing and management of our state’s rest areas.”
“Doing so,” he says, “would allow each stop to operate as any business would – offering friendly service, a clean environment and products visitors are looking for.”
Whichever candidate is ultimately elected as governor, he or she will be facing some tough decisions. Gov. Lynch’s recent proposal, according to Boynton, would close eight of the state’s 16 rest areas in the next two years. With the DOT workforce already reduced by more than 160 positions, even staffing could be an issue.
In prioritizing, the governor will have to realize that “the three seasonal rest areas that were closed permanently had by far the least numbers of estimated visitors annually,” said Boynton.
The Epsom rest area, which he said served about 43,000 visitors a year, in contrast to the 375,000 visitors a year at the Springfield rest area, cost taxpayers an average of $21,000 a year to operate. Antrim and Rumney were similarly budgeted at $21,620 and $31,260, respectively, according to Boynton.
But “this is not about someone singing ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone?’” said Waller in her recent letter, or lamenting “about changing times.”
“It’s about New Hampshire’s tourist-dependent economy,” she said, and the impact of budgetary decisions being made that affect the very businesses and tourists that support that economy.”
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