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Official Opposes State Park Site

By Patrick Cronin

Herald Sunday, Sunday, April 20, 2008

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

A nonprofit organization is still looking at the possibility of constructing a state-of-the-art museum/aquarium at Hampton Beach State Park, but the Friends of the Earth, Sea and Space Museum says it has work to do to see the project get off the ground.

First on the list is to convince state officials it would be beneficial to allow a feasibility study.

While the project has been backed at the local level with support from Hampton selectmen and the Hampton Beach Area Commission, it has not been endorsed at the state level.

Crystal Kent, director of the Friends, said the group recently went before Gov. John Lynch seeking support.

While Lynch was open to the idea, she said, he deferred the decision to Department of Resources and Economic Development Commissioner George Bald, who is against it.

“We are not sure what the concerns are,” Kent said. “I think they want some new and better information and that’s what we plan to get.”

Bald said while he agrees the project could be beneficial to the community, he doesn’t believe the state park is the location to build it.

“I don’t think, from a state’s point of view, or from my point of view, that’s the location they should be concentrating on,” Bald said.

“There is not a lot of extra room on the state property, and I would find it difficult to support it.”

Currently, the state park is used during the summertime for parking. The parking lot brings in a lot of revenue into the state, a good portion of which goes back into Hampton Beach, Bald said.

“At this time, not all of the area is used, but during a busy time, that parking lot fills up quickly,” Bald said. “It’s an area where there is not a lot of open space on the waterfront side. My feeling is what is there shouldn’t be taken up by such a large building.”

Kent plans to gather information and letters of support from the local legislative delegation and make another presentation to the governor.

Fred Rice, chairman of the Hampton Beach Commission, said his group became involved in the project back in 2004.

The commission got behind the proposal after the Friends concluded the ideal location to construct a $17 to $25 million building would be at the state park at the beach.

The organization has been fund raising for more than five years to construct a museum on the Seacoast.

Rice said the commission sees the museum/aquarium as an opportunity for the beach to become a year-round destination.

It is estimated that such an attraction would attract more than 500,000 visitors a year, which could bring additional revenue into the state.

Kent said if the state signs off on the project, the group will move forward to raise enough funds to conduct a master plan study, which would provide data regarding cost, size, number of visitors, and economic benefit to the Seacoast.

Kent said the group will not spend money on the study until it has assurances from the state.

Rice said it’s important to do the study to see if such an attraction could make it on the Seacoast.

“If the study comes out negative, then that will be the end of it,” he said. “But on the other hand, if the study shows it would be feasible and economically desirable, the organization wants assurance they will be able to proceed with the plan. They don’t want to conduct the study and then have the state say no.”

Rice said he doesn’t understand the state’s hesitation.

While the project would eliminate some parking, the loss of revenue would be offset during the winter months when the museum is open, he said.

“I don’t know the hesitation behind it,” he said. “But these things take time and all we can do is help out anyway we can to assist and moving the project forward.”

But Bald said his decision is made up.

“All I can say is I think they have known my position for a while, and I would think it would be wise for them to look at alternative locations. … “But if they want to continue to look at that location, it is up to them.”

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