Hampton's Downtown Becoming A Ghost Town

By Patrick Cronin

Herald Sunday, Sunday, November 13, 2005

[The following article is courtesy of Herald and Seacoast Online.]

Downtown Hampton on Route 1 is empty except for one car at 7:30 on a recent weekenight. Town officials worry that as businesses close, the downtown will draw fewer people. [Photo by Jay Reiter]

Downtown Hampton has gone through many changes over the years as businesses have come and gone.

Tommy Gone Loco became Just Gens Sandwich and More, Pizza Hut turned into Fast Eddie's, and depending how far back you want to go, the old post office turned into Depot Deli.

Recently, the closings or planned closings of Colt News Store, 7-Eleven, Bib 'N Crib and Shell gas station have some officials worried that downtown Hampton is not what it used to be - a shopping destination.

There are no longer clothing shops, and the only nightlife is a handful of restaurants. The rest of downtown after 6 p.m. is a ghost town.

Selectwoman Ginny Bridle-Russell said the town needs to do something to revitalize downtown, but selectmen Chairman Jim Workman doesn't know what selectmen can do.

"I think as far as luring businesses into town, that's more of a role for a chamber of commerce," Workman said. "We try appealing to businesses by providing a good level of services (such as trash pickup and police and fire)."

Two years ago, the Hampton Area Chamber of Commerce established a downtown destination committee to focus on creating a "destination" point downtown, but it fizzled out after only two meetings.

Several business owners said the only thing that will lure business back to the area is parking and less traffic on Route 1.

Al Casassa, owner of Colt News, said those issues and a change in shopping habits are why his store's closing after 81 years.

When the store first opened, there were no malls. Now, more people are just going to malls to get all their shopping done.

Greg Dollarhide, owner of Seacoast Coin & Jewelry, said lack of parking in front of his store on the east side of Lafayette Road was one reason he moved out of downtown.

Al Szymczcha, co-owner of Caffé Fresco on the west side of Lafayette Road, said traffic, more than parking, is an issue for his business.

The spaces in front of the café are head-on, which allows drivers to easily pull in, but not back out, Szymczcha said. for his business.

Town Manager James Barrington said while a lot of businesses are leaving, there are plans for others to come in.

Some have already been approved by the Planning Board and others are pending.

Barrington said there are things the town can do, including seeking out advice of economic development resources and the chamber.

"I would not want to invest our time solely in Lafayette Road," Barrington said. "It should be a combination of Lafayette Road and Ocean Boulevard. If we make an investment, we need to get as much bang for our buck as we can."

One of the ideas tossed around was seeing what the Coastal Economic Development Corp. could offer.

Fred Rice, one of the organization's founding members, said the corporation is there to help local businesses with gap financing. While it also helps start-up businesses, the group is not in the business of luring businesses into town.

Rice said the town could get involved in New Hampshire Main Street Corp., which assists in revitalizing downtown areas, but he doesn't see that happening.

"If the town was going to get involved in it, they would need to fund a full-time position for three years," Rice said. "I don't see the town doing that."

Rice said the town's mindset is, "We can't afford anything."

He added if the town wants to lure businesses downtown, it needs to have a parking garage on High Street.

"Selectmen need to take the bull by the horns and establish policies that attract businesses. There needs to be a downtown parking structure. Businesses won't come here if there is no parking."

He believes tax incentives could also work.

Rice plans to address selectmen about the issue on Monday night.