By Patrick Cronin

Hampton Union, Friday, April 28, 2006

[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online.]

Despite the recent closings of several businesses, downtown Hampton is thriving as new establishments move in.
[Photo by Jackie Ricciardi]

The closings of Colt News Store, 7-Eleven, and Bib ‘N Crib earlier this year had some people worried that the downtown is not what it used to be — a shopping destination.

Several months later downtown Hampton appears to be coming back to life. And while more businesses have closed, including the Stoneweaver Book Store and Just Jens, others have replaced them.

Just Jens became Amelia’s Bistro while the Stoneweaver Bookstore site is now home to Accountable Contractors.

Me & Ollie’s Cafe and Bakery opened in March replacing 7-Eleven on High Street and the site of the former Hampton Union office at Depot Square is now Yongevity Spa.

There are reports that a Starbucks coffee shop and a Fed Ex/Kinko’s will set up shop replacing the Shell gas station, which is closing today after 35 years at its Route 1 location.

Selectman Ginny Bridle-Russell said she believes downtown is making a comeback while Selectman Ben Moore said downtown is just changing with the times.

“I hate to say it, but I think the days of the Bib & Crib and the shoe stores are gone,” Moore said. “I don’t think we will see that kind of retail again because people can just go to a mall. I think we will see smaller and more specialty shops.”

Several business owners have said the only thing that will keep and lure businesses downtown is more parking and less traffic congestion on Route 1.

Greg Dollarhide, owner of Seacoast Coin & Jewelry, said a lack of parking in front of his store on the east side of Lafayette Road was one reason he moved out of the downtown. Al Casassa, owner of Colt News, said parking, traffic and a change in shopping habits are why his store closed after 81 years.

Town Planner Jamie Steffon said he doesn’t believe traffic and parking is the problem and the downtown is still vibrant.

“I have heard talk since I’ve been here about the demise of downtown Hampton due to traffic and parking,” Steffon said. “I don’t really see traffic as problem. Traffic is usually a good thing for a downtown.

“I think if you have the right business that draws people, you want traffic.”

Steffon said the High Street parking lot is never full and underutilized. There are plans to repave the lot. The addition of 12 residential condominiums and first-floor office space at the site the former Odd Fellows Building should help businesses in the area, Steffon said.

“Anytime you add residential, it should help the downtown,” Steffon said. “Those people will be right there and can utilize those shops and restaurants.”

Bridle-Russell said while she believes downtown is making a comeback, the town can’t forget about older businesses in town.

She has concerns with the impact some of the newer businesses such as Starbucks will have on ones that already exist like Cafe Fresco and Dunkin’ Donuts.

Pat Morgenstern, director of membership development for the Hampton Area Chamber of Commerce, believes downtown Hampton’s future is bright.

“I think it has great potential to be a destination spot depending on the mix of businesses that end up here,” Morgenstern said.

While it may never be a Newburyport, Mass., or Portsmouth, the downtown already has several successful restaurants draw people such as Hagens Grill, Widow Fletchers and the Old Salt.

Morgenstern said the downtown is still healthy despite the recent turnover of businesses.

“There have been a lot of business turnovers, but you’re also seeing a lot of business that have a great faith in downtown succeeding,” Morgenstern said.

She points to the investment Galley Hatch owner John Tinios is making with the addition to his restaurant that will serve as the new home of the Hatch’s bakery goods and a retail food store.

Warren Bambury of the Rockingham Planning Commission said recommendations in the Route 1 Corridor Study, which could be implemented in the next 10 years, could also help the downtown. Consultants who worked on the study suggest relocating Route 1 in the downtown to behind the railroad tracks. The proposed road would start where Route 1 exists at the marsh in Hampton and hook back to Route 1’s present location over the bridge in North Hampton. Consultants also recommend changing the interchange of routes 1 and 101 to make it a more modern interchange without the circle.

Bambury said relocating Route 1 would give the town an opportunity to widen sidewalks and increase parking in the area.

The Route 1 study suggests constructing a parking facility/bus stop between Newburyport and Portsmouth, where the current interchange is located.

“I think that would bring the people here,” Bambury said.

Officials earlier this year discussed getting involved with New Hampshire Main Street Corp., which assists in revitalizing downtown areas, but Steffon said he doesn’t believe it’s needed in Hampton right now.

“I worked with the organization when I was in Somersworth,” Steffon said. “It was beneficial to the town because its downtown area was so underutilized. I’m not sure how beneficial it would be for Hampton because there is still a lot business coming in.