By Kyle Stucker and Dan Tuohy
Hampton-North Hampton Patch , March 1, 2013
[The following article is courtesy of Hampton-NorthHampton.patch.com
The best strategies and ideas typically come to fruition after careful, thorough deliberation, but at a certain point action must be taken in order for a plan to be a plan — not just a discussion.
That's the precisely the point that officials think Hampton Beach has reached in its efforts to make itself a year-round tourist destination.
Many residents feel they've spent far too long — decades and generations upon generations, in fact — just the discussing the need to do it, but not actually acting. Because of this, Hampton Beach Area Commission Chairman John Nyhan and others say it's time to take a more concerted effort. Not in the way many would expect, though, regardless of whether new numbers and anecdotal evidence really does prove that offseason visitation has increased this offseason.
"Before we continue to say, 'Yep, we're going to expand the season,' we need to make sure that we do it in a way that we're not just talking about it and that we're actually doing something about it," said Nyhan, who said "baby steps" are being made to extend the summer season. "I think what we can do is continue to focus on how we can improve the quality of the tourist experience in the summer months, but I think we’re a long way in doing that. I think we’ve made major strides in recent years in doing that, and I still think we need to work toward that [before focusing on expanding the summer season].”
Tom McGuirk, a beach businessman who runs McGuirk's Ocean View in addition to being a realtor, agrees. He said the focus should be on continuing to improve the summer season, which kicks into full swing on Memorial Day weekend and ends one week after Labor Day thanks to Seafood Festival, and furthering the work to restore Hampton Beach's luster and reputation as a clean and safe resort community.
Other than the benefits that could be achieved by those efforts, McGuirk said it would take "something huge" — whether it be by the Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom's new owner or someone else — in order to change the business market enough to allow Hampton Beach to be become a year-round hotspot.
"There have to be some major changes, and what we're seeing now are changes that are improving ourselves as a tourism destination, but we're not getting anywhere toward turning us into a year-round,” said McGuirk. "That’s where we should be putting our efforts. Until we get the summer season 100 percent, let’s not talk about spreading it year-round. People would rather come to a top-notch seasonal establishment than an average year-round one.
"We're definitely stepping up our game and we're definitely attracting a better clientele. This Hampton Beach is a place people would've laughed about five years ago. People used to say, 'I'm not going there, I'm going to York.' People now are saying, 'Wow, have you been to the new Hampton Beach?'"
Among some of the ways that Hampton Beach could improve itself is by improving its base economy. Nyhan said this could be accomplished by working closely with the University of New Hampshire and other local schools — an area where Nyhan said he and other beach leaders "haven't done a good job" — to create greater and better opportunities for students looking for careers related to the various fields comprising Hampton Beach.
This simple step could diversify and strengthen the local job market, and if done in tandem with efforts to make it easier and more appealing for larger, non-service industry employers to move to Hampton Beach, Nyhan said it could lead to more year-round businesses and greater job opportunities with a reduced overall cost to the businesses themselves.
The cost of doing business, the greatly reduced application pool and the lack of residents living on Hampton Beach in the winter are the biggest reasons why many businesses can't stay open year-round right now, according to McGuirk.
He estimated that only "about 700" of the few thousand residents who live on the beach in the summer — excluding the hundreds of thousands of tourists — stay during the winter. Using the estimate that an average person dines out only once a week, McGuirk said that means on any given night restaurants would be fighting for their share of "100" or so customers.
That total doesn't factor in any of the 15,000 or so in-town residents, although McGuirk said relatively few of them make a routine habit of visiting the beach in the winter. Because of this, McGuirk said Hampton Beach doesn't really have enough population to sustain even three competing year-round restaurants — there are currently closer to between half a dozen and a dozen — because "you can't even break even at 27 customers a day."
These numbers are why McGuirk's Ocean View stopped being a year-round restaurant after its third year of existence, and likely why others have never been open year-round or have cut their hours down to just a few days a week like the 100-year-old Ashworth By The Sea Hotel did a few years ago.
"A beach is a summer activity. Unless there's something other than this idea of 'restaurants need to bite the bullet and be open year-round,' it just doesn't make any sense," said McGuirk. "You can't just open the doors and decide that the customers are going to be available to you.
"This isn't the 'Field of Dreams.' We're not closing down because we're making so much money that we're sick of making money. That's the truth of the matter. We don't make much money to begin with. The last thing we want to do is work twice as hard to make half as much money."
State Sen. Nancy Stiles, R-Hampton, said she sees real, incremental progress so far in improving the summer season. She said everyone is a stakeholder in the master planning process behind those efforts, as well as the work to make Hampton Beach a year-round destination. Stiles also said conversations about the issues need to continue at all local and state levels to accomplish those goals.
One such conversation took place at a Hampton Beach Area Commission meeting Thursday night, during which Nyhan raised the idea of using the economist who helped secure the $14.5 million for the state's Hampton Beach revitalization project to propel small business improvements.
Nyhan said he'd "love" to use the economist to come back at the end of summer 2013 to "do an economic development report that would show what revenue was coming in prior to development, compared to two years later." Nyhan said this could help find ways to better support beach businesses in addition to improving what the overall beach has to offer.
Nyhan said crunching those numbers could also help lead Hampton Beach toward year-round operation, an involved process that officials say is now really looking possible at some point in the upcoming decades. Just not in the immediate future.
"It's nothing that's going to happen overnight," said Stiles.