When all the construction is finally done, Interstate 93 will be wider. And that could be a growth opportunity for central New Hampshire, long viewed as a forgotten sliver of the state.
But how much growth is possible in central New Hampshire, and how much do those communities even want to grow?
On summer evenings, Tom Fredenburg spends time on his dock. He’s lived on Snow Pond in the northern tip of Concord since 1979. "This was the boondocks. It was a schlep to get into Concord," he says.
But it’s no secret anymore. Fredenburg guesses the number of homes on his road has tripled since he moved here. It’s still peaceful and beautiful. But it’s different.
"It’s not rural at all. It’s not a neighborhood and it’s not rural. It’s something in between."
That describes a lot of the state north of downtown Concord and south of the Lakes. Not quite suburban, but not quite rural. The main appeal of this area? It’s quiet, cheap and close to I-93. In towns like Boscawen, Canterbury or Franklin, you can live within ten minutes of the state’s most traveled highway, which gives you quick access to more populated southern cities all the way to Boston.
The Office of Energy and Planning says the population in this part of the state is growing slowly. Boscawen, for example, could see about 400 new residents between 2010 and 2040. Not a huge change you’d notice as an outsider; but it’s making a difference, according to Alan Hardy, Boscawen’s planning director.
"This area is an example because it was formerly part of a farm," Hardy says.
Downtown Boscawen is a hybrid between a rural village and a light-traffic highway. And a few blocks off that busy road, Hardy drives me around the edge of a subdivision with 14 new lots, and likely more in the future.
About seven houses a year are springing up in Boscawen—that’s roughly half of pre-recession levels. Hardy says retirees are relocating from out of state, while younger families often move in and commute south to work.
"I think what we see is, with 93 widening it allows people to move in and out of state—more people, more quickly. But people who drive through sometimes come back and stay."
Particularly if they’re looking for a good deal. New homes in Boscawen are relatively cheap, about 10 percent less than the average sale price in NH. And in Boscawen and other towns, development tends to cluster within a five-minute drive of I-93.
Right now, I-93 carries more than twice as many cars as it was designed to. That’s why the Department of Transportation is widening the road from Manchester to the Massachusetts border. And that is really important for central New Hampshire, especially towns with a Main Street close to the highway, says DOT spokesman Bill Boynton.
"If you look back historically, some towns advanced much more rapidly than others because of their proximity to major highways. Plymouth is immediately off the exit. Franklin has a little bit of a drive."
A wider, faster highway will make commuting north and south easier. In fact, the state is preparing for this with a project—currently on the shelf—to widen the highway through Concord. If that ever happens, Boynton says towns north of Concord need to think about something: Who are you—in relation to this road?
"Are you a destination point, are you a stop along the way?"
Most towns have a sense of who they want to be, and it’s mapped out in something called a Master Plan. It’s a sort of vision document for growth in a community.
"You know it was about ten years or more ago when I saw the town of Canterbury as being somewhat in the center of some extremely intense development," says Kelly short, chair of Canterbury’s Conservation Commission. "With all of the commercial at Exit 20 in Tilton. With the racetrack, with development that was expanding up 93 from Concord."
Development still hasn’t touched the heart of Canterbury, in part because of that Master Plan.
Ultimately, we don’t know exactly what building out I-93 will mean for this part of New Hampshire. But the bottom line, it seems, is to think ahead about what you want to be: a rural town, a suburb, or something in between.