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Littleton: Reinventing Community
Published Tuesday, November 21, 2017

June 2014 ribbon cutting for the River District Demonstration Project. Courtesy of Littleton River District Redevelopment Project

Editor’s Note: This is part of a series highlighting economic development in various cities and regions.  

Littleton has long been known as “the crossroads of the North Country,” but these days the picturesque northern NH town on the Ammonoosuc River has become more of a destination than a junction.

With its prize-winning Main Street, celebrated industrial park, attractive highway accessibility and diversity of downtown shops—not to mention a certain tradition of whimsy—Littleton continues to draw both commerce and tourism to its borders.

A parade on Main Street in Littleton in November 1955. Courtesy of Littleton Area Historical Society.

Nowhere else will you find the world’s longest candy counter, an opera house where Bette Davis once celebrated her birthday, a gallery given to “bad art,” an annual “Be Glad” festival and a thriving arts, business and recreation scene all in the same place.

Littleton’s success is partly due to the ability of town officials and business leaders to keep a finger in the economic winds and change course accordingly, whether the challenge is the sudden departure of two shoe factories and hundreds of jobs or the construction of a Wal-Mart on the town’s outskirts.

“There is really good anticipation of potential difficulties and addressing those,” says Jessica Nellson Bunker, executive director of the Littleton Area Chamber of Commerce. “That’s a theme throughout Littleton—anticipate, anticipate, anticipate.”

Richard Alberini, curator of the Littleton Area Historical Society Museum, agrees. “Littleton keeps reinventing itself. I’ve been here 43 years, and I’ve never seen a place reinvent itself and people pick up the reins and lead things forward like they do in Littleton.”

A strong tradition of volunteerism and civic partnerships have also played a role, according to Greg Eastman, president of the Littleton Industrial Development Corporation and owner of Hunkins & Eaton Insurance.

From Humble Beginnings
The town, which has garnered accolades from entities ranging from the National Trust for Historic Preservation to magazines like “Travel and Leisure” and “Outside,” began as a riverside farming community in 1770 and soon hosted a diverse array of businesses. A dam was built on the river in the 1790s, leading to construction of a sawmill and gristmill, and other industries—furniture, carriage, scythe, casket and bobbin makers among them—also flourished. When the railroad came through in 1853, it ended in Littleton, creating opportunities for boarding houses and innkeepers to cater to tourists.

Like many mill and factory towns in NH, Littleton faced a major challenge in the 1970s when two major employers, shoe makers Connors & Hoffman and Henschel Shoe, closed, leaving more than 700 jobless. It was a huge hit in a town with just over 5,000 residents. But unlike other NH industrial towns that saw factories shutter their doors and head south, Littleton never lost population after the closings, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures. That is primarily due to swift action by local businesspeople who came together to revive and restructure a for-profit industrial development corporation as the nonprofit Littleton Industrial Development Corporation (LIDC), allowing it to apply for government grants.

In an online history of the group, former LIDC president Paul McGoldrick described the organization’s efforts to purchase land and create infrastructure to support businesses, finally purchasing the original 108-acre park property for $68,000 in 1974, using $23,000 from a community fund drive and $45,000 from a Farmers Home Administration grant.

Today, the 380-acre Littleton Industrial Park is home to some 15 businesses, ranging from Littleton Coin Company, a national supplier of coins, paper money and collecting supplies with more than 300 employees, to the Quebec-based grapple manufacturer Rotobec. Firms in the park pay out more than $35 million in wages and employ more than 1,100 people while taking advantage of some of the lowest electric rates in the state, as the town has its own utility company.

The staff of Littleton Coin at the Littleton Industrial Park. Courtesy of Littleton Coin.

Developing Downtown
Civic and business leaders also set their sights on the struggling downtown, which at one time had a storefront vacancy rate of more than 20 percent. They formed the Littleton Economic Development Task Force in 1992, became an inaugural member of the NH Main Street program in 1996 and made major investments in downtown infrastructure and aesthetics.

With the help of Littleton Main Street Inc., formed as part of the Main Street program in 1996, some 168 downtown building improvement projects were completed and property owners were given design guidance to restore their historic buildings.

That accompanied $9.5 million in construction, including an affordable housing project and an assisted living facility between 2001 and 2003. In 2009 and 2010, “We renovated Main Street with a lot of infrastructure work, water and sewer,” says Jim Alden, president of Main Street Inc. and the owner of the candy store Chutters, home to that 112-foot candy counter. “In the final phase of the project, we also put in new sidewalks and street lamps.” As Main Street lacks trees, some other improvements were as simple as merchants coming together to hang baskets of flowers, he says.

The world's longest candy counter located inside Chutters. Courtesy of Main Street Inc.

The storefront vacancy rate is now down to 2 percent, and Littleton’s Main Street and downtown have won an embarrassment of awards: a 2003 Great American Main Street Award from the National Trust Main Street Center, honors in 2005 as one of the Best Towns in the USA by “Outside” magazine, placement on the Huffington Post’s 2016 list of America’s Best Main Streets, recognition this year as one of the 50 Best Small Towns in America by, a 2015 designation as the sixth best small town in the U.S. by Best Choice Reviews and becoming the recipient of the first NH Profile Community Award for preserving, protecting and promoting NH’s spirit of independence.

Anchoring that prize-winning downtown is the stately Littleton Opera House at the corner of Main and Union streets—the site of a 1941 birthday ball for Bette Davis when she was in town for the premiere of “The Great Lie” at the nearby Jax Jr. Theater, which still stands. The Opera House is now the venue for Upstage Players performances and is available to rent.

Beth Simon, owner and manager of the League of NH Craftsmen Fine Craft Gallery in Littleton. Courtesy of the Littleton Area Chamber of Commerce.

Bunker of the Littleton Chamber says visitors enjoy the town’s “very walkable Main Street,” with its “beautiful mix of historic and current… Each of the shops you go to is a destination in itself.” Among them are a host of specialty shops: a League of NH Craftsmen store, Bad Art, Just L Modern Antiques and America’s oldest ski store, Lahout’s.

Jon Stroker, owner of Bad-Art in Littleton, with actor Luis Guzman and a painting of him by Stroker. Courtesy of Jon Stroker.

Just L Modern Antiques on Main Street. Courtesy of Just L.

Across from the library is Thayer’s Inn, first opened in 1850, which has hosted five presidents and Bette Davis. A state historic sign marks the building that was the Kilburn factory, which once produced 3,000 stereoview cards (cards viewed through a stereoscope to appear 3-D) per day, and is now an apartment building. The covered bridge over the Ammonoosuc River, accessible via Mill Street, provides an optimal spot for photo-taking visitors.

Thayer's Inn, first opened in 1850. Courtesy of the Littleton Area Chamber of Commerce.

Main Street restaurants range from the elegant, Fodor’s-rated Tim-Bir Alley to the classic Littleton Diner, with its breakfast-all-day menu. Schilling Beer Co., which opened in 2013, offers small-batch brews and menu items from a brick oven at its Mill Street location, a renovated gristmill.

From left: Schilling Beer Co. Co-Founders Stuart Cozzens, COO; John Lenzini, head brewer and Jeff Cozzens, CEO. Courtesy of Schilling Beer Co.

“We don’t have golf courses, we don’t have grand hotels, we don’t have a lot of things other communities have, but we do have our Main Street,” says Eastman. “There’s a tremendous amount of volunteerism here,” he adds. “It’s a culture of people giving and working together to make the town better all the time, from the group on the Main Street board to the chamber. There’s a lot of dedicated people.”

One of the more visited sites in the downtown is the library lawn, home to a bronze statue of Pollyanna, the perpetually optimistic protagonist of the book by the same name, written by Littleton native Eleanor Hodgman Porter (1868-1920). The statue was commissioned by a local philanthropic family, the Eames, completed by artist Emile Birch and unveiled June 15, 2002 with grand ceremony. That led to an annual “Pollyanna Day” celebration, which local merchants and artists have enlarged to a weekend of activities, including “positive pancakes” breakfasts at a local church. Crowds have grown from the hundreds to the thousands as the weekend festival has expanded.

The official annual Pollyanna Day group pose on the library lawn. Photos courtesy of Pollyanna of Littleton.

“Littleton has that fiber and fortitude and grit and ‘can do, will do,’ that North Country fervor, so it was almost a natural connection with the ideals in the Pollyanna story of ‘be glad, be cheerful, if something bad happens, keep going,’” says Karen Keazirian, head of Pollyanna of Littleton NH, a nonprofit that oversees the Pollyanna statue. “What I love about the character is she’s solution-oriented, she makes friends. It’s that community spirit, that civic attitude.”

That was on display in the mid-1990s when Wal-Mart announced it was coming to town. Rather than panic, local businesses learned to coexist with Wal-Mart. Eastman says while there were a few business casualties, many adapted. Northern Lights Music began offering more musical instruments and fewer of items, like CDs, that customers could get more cheaply at Wal-Mart. The idea was to be “not a victim but a partner with Wal-Mart,” he adds. “So there is not only a tradition of volunteerism here but of partnership.”

The Arts Scene
Littleton also has a vibrant arts scene, with a number of galleries, a summer arts festival, art walks in the summer on the second Friday of the month, and historic tours by Alberini and his wife, Debbie, who dress up in Victorian garb and point out not only historic buildings but give histories of who lived there and the various incarnations the buildings had over time.

Harmony Park, located behind Main Street and overlooking the river, allows visitors to make music and songs at five musical stations. The Littleton Piano Project was started in 2011 to invite people to play music at painted pianos (and one guitar) stationed at various downtown sites.

Recreational Haven
The town, in the shadow of the White Mountains with four exits off I-93, also offers a number of recreational opportunities. Cannon Mountain is nearby, and a number of local trails, many maintained by Littleton Conservation Commission volunteers, offer year-round hiking. Littleton is in the process of expanding its rail trail through downtown to connect the river district and downtown to both borders of town and connect downtown to other communities through the existing 30 miles of recreation trail to the west.

“We’re really in this nexus of recreation opportunities,” says Bunker. “There are few places in New England where you can hike 4,000-foot mountains, cross a stream, go rock climbing, or mountain biking or fat biking on established trails, and our cold waters for trout fishing are amazing. The entire range of New England outdoor activities you can get within a stone’s throw of here.”

River District Redevelopment
One of the biggest projects in town has been the Littleton River District Redevelopment Project, aimed at redeveloping the riverfront to take advantage of its beauty and proximity to Main Street. The first phase was a demonstration project funded by 30 local businesses that contributed $250,000 to improve pedestrian safety and enjoyment along the river after the commission was formed in 2013, says John Hennessey, chair of the commission and CFO of Littleton Coin Company.

Improvements included sidewalk upgrades, decorative safety fencing, lighting, a cobblestone view deck and archways.

Next came a new $600,000 pedestrian and bicycle bridge, which opened in 2016 at the west end of the district, and was financed by NH Community Development Finance Authority tax credits and a Northern Border Regional Commission grant.

A child on a pedestrian bridge in Littleton. Courtesy of the Littleton Area Chamber of Commerce.

This fall, the town will break ground on a $2 million infrastructure reconstruction project on Saranac and Ammonoosuc streets to replace the sewer and stormwater system, rebuild the road and sidewalks and install lighting, with $500,000 from the town (part of a $900,000 bond voters approved in 2016 for infrastructure improvements), $500,000 from a Community Development Block Grant and $1 million from the U.S. Economic Development Administration.

The town was recently awarded an $800,000 grant though the state Department of Transportation’s Transportation Alternatives Program to improve pedestrian safety in the downtown corridor, with engineering to begin this year.

Regional Economic Approach
Civic and business leaders are also reaching beyond the town’s borders to keep the economic ball rolling.

Last year, the Southern Coos-Littleton Area Partnership was launched to provide a growth agenda for the entire region. Brien Ward, a former state representative who is involved in the development of the partnership, says northern Grafton County, where Littleton is located, and adjoining southern Coos County have much in common.

He says there’s a need to “promote our combined assets,” including two grand hotels, two large ski areas—Bretton Woods and Cannon Mountain—and Franconia Notch State Park. “The people who come here to visit don’t care where the county line is,” Ward says.

The partnership, led by Northern Community Investment Corp. President Jon Freeman, wants to help find skilled workers—a tall order as NH has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation.

“We’re currently the fifth largest employment center for Coos County folks and, by 2020, we’ll probably be the second largest,” Ward says. “We’re doing as much as we can on a local basis, but we really need an enhanced regional presence.”

The help can’t come too soon for people like Alden, the owner of Chutters, who says finding and keeping good workers is a challenge.

“You’re constantly looking, trying to find the right employees,” he says. “We have a lot of high school kids so if we hire someone, it’s like ‘do you have any siblings or any friends?’”

But many say the town is used to facing challenges. Littleton remains “a 40-year overnight success,” says Bunker, quoting Ward’s description of the town. “To many people, this is a blossoming community, but it happened after hard work and planning and the visioning of folks 40 years ago to start the ball rolling and bring us to this point.”

Eastman says there’s no reason to stop. “We’re not just satisfied with where we are,” he says. “We have to look to the future and continue to make this an attractive place for people to be in, and have our children come back to if they like, and not just rest on our laurels.”

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