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Developing former Old Salt seen as key to beach’s future

By Patrick Cronin

Hampton Union, February 19, 2012

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

The lot where the Old Salt restaurant and several other businesses once stood before a devastating 1999 fire has been an eyesore to many at Hampton Beach as the property has been used for nothing more than a temporary parking lot since then.

But now,after 12 years, there is movement to increase the property tax contribution of the valuable real estate — assessed at $2 million — with a proposed four-story 36-unit residential condominium building with ground-floor retail space. The town Zoning Board of Adjustment on Thursday approved more than a half-dozen variances for the project at 83, 89 and 81 Ocean Blvd. and 5 J St.

Several business owners said they are ecstatic that a redevelopment may finally get off the ground.

“I think it’s great,” said Selectman Rick Griffin, who owns Eccentric Hair Salon at Hampton Beach. “Hopefully, this is just the beginning of more development down there.”

A similar project was proposed and approved for the site in 2005, but a shovel was never put into the ground due to litigation. Abutters, led by Michael Scanlan, fought the project, which was first to be known as the Majestic, then the Breckenridge, all the way to the state Supreme Court. While developers won their legal battle in 2007, construction was held up because of the recession.

Attorney Peter Saari, representing the developer, said this project is much smaller than the one originally proposed. “It’s less than half the size, but that is the economy of today,” Saari said.

The four-story building will house 36 one-bedroom residential condos with six retail spaces on the ground floor per the town’s ordinance.

Bob Preston, owner of Preston Real Estate, said the project has been a long time coming, calling the parking lot an eyesore. He said he hopes the project will be built. A good sign is that while the initial project talked about in 2005 was heavily opposed, no one at the ZBA meeting spoke against what is being proposed now.

“I think it’s going to be a big improvement,” Preston said.

Preston, who owned the Beachwalk Enterprises, which also burnt down in the 1999 fire, said the blaze was devastating not only to the business, but the beach in general.

“Hampton Beach really stopped at the playground because everything down on the south end was beach houses and cottages,” he said. “When the Old Salt was there, it was the place to be.”

Tom McGuirk, whose family restaurant and bar, McGuirk’s, abuts the property, said if the project is built, it will once again give tourists a reason to come to the south end of the beach. “People would walk down to J Street and they’d turn around and say, ‘This must be the bad end of beach,'” said McGuirk, who noted at one point the state didn’t even bother putting on the street light in the area.

“This project is going to start extending the boardwalk back to the way it used to be 13 years ago,” he added.

McGuirk said the recent addition of Ocean Gaming, a charitable gambling operation, at the former Guido Murphy’s site and the new bathhouse at the south end of the beach has already increased foot traffic.

“This is going to help bring people to the area,” he said.

John Nyhan, chairman of the Hampton Beach Area Commission, is excited about the project. The commission in 2010 held an economic summit to brainstorm economic and commercial strategies to help support the businesses along Ocean Boulevard, including redeveloping vacant lots like the Old Salt property.

“The conceptual intent at this point with them putting retail stores on the first floor and residential on the above floors is the right mix, especially down in that area,” Nyhan said. “It makes more opportunities for businesses to thrive, people to live and tourists to enjoy.”

Nyhan said it’s another sign of the rejuvenation of Hampton Beach that started with the $12 million sewer infrastructure project passed by the town in 2004.

The project was done because the old sewer system lacked capacity to handle redevelopment projects proposed in the Hampton Beach master plan. The state, he said, did its part with the recently completed $14.5 million redevelopment project that included the construction of a new Seashell Stage and complex.

“I think in a lot of ways,” he said, “the business owners are trying to play their part in trying to increase and improve the season and the way the beach looks. I think the investments that both the town and state made has helped in bringing in new ideas and new investors.”

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