Bob Mitchell can’t wait to reopen Mrs. Mitchell’s Gift Shop.
His business was one of several Hampton Beach businesses destroyed in a fire last year, but Mitchell plans to be back by Memorial Day.
Just as Mitchell’s seaside village-style shop is going through a rebirth — with a stone foundation, white-trimmed windows, and a rooftop cupola — so is the nearby beachfront.
Halfway into a two-year, $14.5 million facelift by the state, new pavilions house a visitor center and park offices, and extra bathrooms, park benches and spots to escape from the sun welcome beachgoers.
It’s unbelievable what the state has done across the street,” Mitchell said. “All things considered, the timing was OK for both of us.”
In a state with only 18 miles of seacoast, New Hampshire’s Hampton Beach State Park is in a popular spot, convenient for many New Englanders who want to escape the Cape Cod traffic. But after years of being subjected to strong winds, rain, snow, salt mist and flooding, buildings like the beach’s 48-year-old outdoor performance stage — the Seashell — sorely needed a major facelift.
Hampton Beach now has new LED streetlights. Large, sail-shaped markers in different colors called “Sunfish” line crosswalks along nearby Ocean Boulevard to help visitors remember where they parked. Water-spouting columns outside the bathrooms on both ends of the beach will help people wash the sand off their feet. Lockers can be rented. Parts of the beach walkway have been widened.
Even the World War II memorial on the beach, a granite statute of a woman holding a wreath in honor of those lost at sea, received some attention. Construction workers extended the sea wall, circling it around the statue.
“It looked like an orphan out there,” said Tom Mansfield of the Department of Resources and Economic Development, who is overseeing the project. “Now it’s swept into the whole design.”
On one recent afternoon, people driving by the new buildings remarked on how beautiful the new buildings looked.
“This isn’t just a regular construction site, this is a resort area that’s vital. … We know it can make a big return.” said Beverly Hollingworth, a former Executive Councilor who grew up in nearby Hampton, was 1952’s Miss Hampton Beach Pageant runner-up, then ran local restaurants and hotels.
A state study done in 2008 that tourists spent about $170 million at the beach that year on shopping, eating, lodging and recreation. The study said improvements would increase that revenue by $31 million annually by 2014.
Perhaps the most anticipated project is the renovation of the Seashell, the center of free summertime concerts. The building is expected to be finished in the fall and will feature a function room with a semicircular group of windows facing the ocean.
“The idea is to rent it, as well as hold weddings,” said George Bald, commissioner of the Department of Resources and Economic Development.
“There’s new life down here,” said John Nyhan, who heads a commission dedicated to improvements and planning at Hampton Beach.
The state projects have spurred discussion about creating more parking, fixing up parts of Ocean Boulevard and side streets and coming up with a master plan for future economic development. There are still vacant areas where businesses once stood and weather-worn storefronts on existing ones.
“We want to provide those private business owners incentives on how we can get them to reconsider rebuilding on these vacant lots,” Nyhan said. “And what would be the best fit? Is it a mixture of retail and condos? Is it bringing in a national franchise? What is it and how can we help?”
Hollingworth likens the state park improvements to sea grass, which has very long roots that makes new grass to stabilize sand dunes.
“I hope that this will be like sea grass, that it will send out roots to all the other businesses,” she said. “A lot of the places, need to be refurbished and brought up to modern times.”
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