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NH Executive Council approves I-93 Hooksett rest area makeovers

CONCORD — The Executive Council on Wednesday unanimously approved plans for a $32 million makeover of the Hooksett rest areas on Interstate 93 in a private-public partnership that will bring jobs and new revenue to the state.

“This could be a model not only for New Hampshire and the Northeast, but for the entire nation,” said Department of Transportation Commissioner Christopher Clement.

Owners of the Common Man restaurant group, bidding as Granite State Hospitality, can now proceed with construction of a single-building visitors’ complex on each side of the highway to include new state liquor stores, visitors’ centers, 1950s-style dinners, Italian farmhouse restaurants, old-time delis, breakfast shops, convenience stores and gas pumps.

Over the term of a 35-year land lease, the developer has guaranteed the state a minimum of $23 million in rent, with opportunities for additional state revenue based on concession sales that could bring the total to $38 million.

“Not only are we getting a base rent no matter how well the developer does, but we also stand to get a share of the profits,” Clement said.

The state will reimburse the developer $8.4 million for the state liquor store portion of the complex.

Once up and running, the new Hooksett service area will create 137 jobs, according to the DOT, not counting employment during the construction phase.

The project is a cooperative effort of the Department of Transportation, state Liquor Commission and Department of Resources and Economic Development. Clement told the councilors that the Common Man was the only one of three bidders to offer a guaranteed rent to the state. All three departments are parties to the Common Man contract approved on Wednesday.

The buildings will have a New Hampshire mill architectural style and will offer quality amenities, according to the DOT. “This is not going to be like what you see on the Mass. pike, with a bunch of fast-food chains,” said Councilor Colin Van Ostern, D-Concord.

A boost for tourism

Gov. Maggie Hassan was delighted by the council vote. “I hear on an almost daily basis from our citizens and visitors as well that they wish we had better welcome centers,” she said.

Councilors questioned DOT personnel on protections for the state in the contract and were told that the lease could not be transferred or sold without state approval. A $5 million performance bond will guarantee the minimum rent to the state.

“If the developer and operator doesn’t hit our milestones, we can bring in another developer or operator,” Clement said. “The project is financially backed in a number of different ways, with guarantees on the debt and operations.”

The liquor stores will be built as a shell, with the Liquor Commission completing the interiors to match the decor of the newest state store in Nashua, increasing the size of the liquor stores at the sites from 8,800 square feet to 20,000 square feet.

Liquor Commission Chairman Joseph Mollica said the state can expect 25 to 50 percent revenue growth in liquor sales after the renovation, based on experience in Nashua. He said renovations have consistently generated new sales for the commission, without cannibalizing sales at existing stores elsewhere.

Work at the Hooksett sites is expected to start in the fall, with the complex scheduled for full operation by Memorial Day 2015. “This is something that’s uniquely New Hampshire,” said Van Ostern. “Tourism is our second largest industry, and this could be a huge magnet for it.”

Commissioner confirmed

In other votes, the council confirmed James W. Craig of Manchester as Commissioner of the Department of Labor at a salary of $104,364.

Craig, 62, is a former House Democratic leader and unsuccessful candidate for Congress in the First District.

“Jim Craig’s long record of public service, as well as his deep understanding of the legal and policy issues that affect both our workforce and business community, will make him an excellent Commissioner of Labor,” said Hassan after the vote.

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