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Millions Spent On Improving NH Ski Areas

While most skiers and riders are busy enjoying the warm temperatures, New Hampshire’s ski areas have a chance to roll up their sleeves and get to work continuing to improve their resorts for guests.  This summer is no different with many improvements underway across the state.  Following is a list of projects in the North Country’s ski areas for the upcoming 2010-11 winter season.

Cranmore, North Conway – Cranmore is spending approximately $6 million on major improvements to the resort. The South Peak double chair will be replaced with a Doppelmayr eco-Drive, energy-efficient, fixed-grip quad chairlift. The existing South Peak double chair will be relocated near the Beginner Basin. Terrain in Beginner Basin will be altered to make room for the chair as well as provide additional beginner terrain. The tubing park will be relocated and expanded from seven to ten lanes along with a new Sun Kid surface lift in addition to the existing handle-tow. A year-round Mountain Coaster is being installed that will allow guests to ride up the mountain and then descend at rider-controlled speeds. Other improvements include the installation of 70 new energy-efficient tower guns that will increase the quality and quantity of snowmaking, especially during early season periods. At the base of the area, the Arlberg Lodge is being converted into a state-of-the-art children’s center, a new ticketing system will make for smoother transactions for guests, and many other buildings will be upgraded to improve guests’ experiences.

Cannon Mountain, Franconia Notch – A new double chairlift is being installed at the recently re-opened Mittersill Backcountry Area in the location of the original double chair at the area. This is part of a multi-year, multi-million dollar improvement program. Other improvements include a 9,000 sq. ft. addition to the base lodge, snowmaking upgrades and new grooming machines.

Attitash, Bartlett – Over the summer Attitash is adding a new Mountain Coaster to the resort. The ride carries guests up the mountain over 1,400 feet on twin stainless steel rails. Once at the top, riders descend over 2,800 feet of track through dips, banked turns and straight-aways at rider-controlled speeds of up to 25 mph. The Mountain Coaster is open year-round for guests, which means even non-skiers can enjoy the mountain in winter months.

Loon Mountain, Lincoln – Loon is adding 20 acres of new tree skiing over the summer. $1.2 million is being spent on improvements to the snowmaking system, including 428 Low-e HKD tower guns allowing more terrain to be opened earlier in the season. A new Beast Grooming Cat has been added to the fleet of groomers. Other additions include a loading carpet for the Seven Brothers chairlift and a 48% increase in capacity for the North Peak chairlift thanks to 35 additional chairs.

Bretton Woods, Bretton Woods – New terrain is being added thanks to an expansion onto Mount Stickney. For this winter skiers and riders will find new gladed terrain for all abilities.

Wildcat Mountain, Pinkham Notch – Improvements to the snowmaking system will continue with integral pipe replacements that will enhance the system’s capabilities. New trail mapping will acknowledge two additional trails –“Leo’s Leap” and “Sphynx”– as well as identifying established tree ski areas that had only been proposed in the past. The base lodge will see improvements including the availability of WiFi for guests.

Black Mountain, Jackson – The snowmaking system will see the addition of new energy-efficient tower guns on several trails and the installation of air reduction kits that will reduce the amount of air required for operation by 50%, resulting in a more eco-friendly system.

Balsams Wilderness, Dixville Notch – The Balsams Wilderness will be partnering with Golf and Ski Warehouse to operate retail stores at the ski area and resort. This will ensure guests have access to any equipment they may require during their visit.

Ski NH is the statewide association representing 36 alpine and cross country resorts and more than 200 lodging and guest service properties in New Hampshire.  For more information on ski areas, lodging packages, and winter events at Ski NH resorts, call Ski NH at (800) 88-SKI-NH (800-887-5464) or visit the Ski NH website at http://www.SkiNH.com.

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By Jeff Woodburn

GROVETON – An innovative oil mitigation product developed and patented by a New Hampshire company may be used in the cleanup of the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf Coast. Two years ago, MolecuLoc, LLC, a Groveton-based enterprise, began producing Moleculoc, which is an EPA accepted, environmental-friendly spill control and recovery substance.

“We’re being heavily considered at this point,” said Barry Normandeau, MolecuLoc‘s Treasurer.  “It’s a nightmare down there due to the gridlock.” He said of the situation on the Gulf Coast where two of his partners, company President, Lou Niles, and Vice President and General Manager, Robert Larson, have been for weeks. “They’re not doing much of anything to really mitigate the situation yet.”

The Groveton-based business is pressing besieged BP and other officials to use the product. Recently, Moleculoc won an important ally in Congressman Frank Wolf, member of the powerful Appropriations Committee.  He encouraged the product to be considered and outlined its attributes. Normandeau said support from other sources is mounting.

The product, which comes in porous, sand-like, or granular-pellet-like consistencies, sorts Hydrocarbon Molecules and encapsulates the molecules permanently. Made from all natural, volcanic minerals, Moleculoc absorbs up to 20 times its own weight. In addition, it’s reusable, fire-retardant and able to be disposed of in most landfills. Normandeau said his company is capable of producing 10 million lbs. a week.

When the product was first launched, the Coos County Democrat reported that the product — used for environmental or other disaster relief applications — encapsulate gasoline, diesel, motor and gear oils, transmission fluids, glycols, coolants, greases, battery acids, machines oils, paints and varnishes, lacquers, thinners, and any other petroleum-based hydrocarbon liquids. It’s provides a total mitigation that will set a new global standard,” predicted Niles.

Moleculoc has its roots in local, practical problems. During the 2008 ice-storm, Public Service Company of NH needed an on-the-spot mitigation product for small oil leaks from damaged transformers.  “(It) has been very effective removing free product as well as stains from impervious solid surfaces…,” wrote Richard Dumore, Supervisor, PSNH Environmental Operations, in a letter to company officials.

McDevitt Trucking, of Manchester-based heavy truck dealer, uses it as well. Jim Lagana, General Manager, remembers Normandeau coming to his facility to demonstrate Moleculoc for several veteran mechanics, which, as he said, had been “turning wrenches for years.” Normandeau dumped the powdery substance on a puddle of oil and not only did the oil disappear, but the slippery stain as well. “We were blown away,” Lagana said, it was like some kind of “magic fairy dust.”  Previously, the best way to clean up oil was either with absorbent mats or a cat-litter-like substance. Both were inefficient, cumbersome and expensive to dispose of.

“There seems to be a growing perception of helplessness,” said  David Kovach, principal of Reflection Solutions, one of the businesses assisting MolecuLoc try to break through the corporate and government log-jam, “that there is nothing that can be done to battle this man-made disaster, or that we just have to stand by and let nature take its course. But that simply is not true. When I saw the dramatic impact Moleculoc can have in fighting the spill, I jumped in to help spread the word.”

Normandeau agrees, “It’s amazing what this product is capable of doing. There is nothing like it in the market.”

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Trevor and Thad Presby

By Jeff Woodburn

LITTLETON – The North Country is marked by two trends – its young people leave the area and its business community is small and cautious. Two young entrepreneurs, Thad and Trevor Presby, are proving that assumption doesn’t always hold. The brothers, who grew up and continue to live in Sugar Hill, see plenty of opportunities here and other than going off to college, never considered living anywhere else.

The Presbys, who have run their family’s construction business for the past twelve years, have been in the expansion mode recently.  Four years ago, they bought a local heating oil delivery business and recently purchased a Franconia auto salvage company and a Woodsville car wash. They also own various properties, including a commercial building in Franconia and a mini-storage facility in Bethlehem.

Thad, 38, and Trevor, 35, took a break last week from their work to discuss their business philosophy, describe their new ventures and their commitment to the region during a ninety minute rambling interview in the Courier’s office. The conversation moved from project to project with the two men describing the challenge they faced and what they learned from each endeavor.   The key to success in business, they say, lies in efficiency, frugality and taking care of the customer.

Both Profile High School and UNH graduates seem to be tinkers at heart, who love the challenge that a tough construction project offers. Their father, David Presby, a prominent and prolific entrepreneur and inventor, taught them that in business that “you do everything,” Trevor said, “You have to learn to do it all.”  Since they were both old enough to drive, they were running machines under their father’s tutelage. “My job,” the elder Presby said, “was to train the kids to survive on their own.” His sons occasionally ask for his advice, but he says, they make their own decisions.  Trevor and Thad also acknowledge that “their name helps,” them in business, but most importantly it is the example that has been set by their father and uncle, Wayne Presby, who lead the revival of the Mount Washington Hotel, the Mount Washington Cog Railroad and has recently built a biodiesel plant in Haverhill.

While the construction business, which was started by Thad and Trevor’s paternal grandfather, William Lester Presby, in 1948, is their core enterprise, there is a synergy with the other businesses. Presently, they have forty employees and some eighty vehicles. Despite the poor economy, their construction business is down only 5 percent from last year.  They built 14 custom homes last year priced from $125,000 to $750,000.

Beyond residential and commercial building, their services include excavation, septic installation, and wetland, drive way and building permitting. They also sell sand and gravel, plow snow and sweep parking lots. “In the North Country,” Trevor said, “if you’re going to survive you’ve got to do a lot of things.”  They do much of their own work rather than hiring subcontractors. This, the two brothers believe, is the key to running an efficient operation.  Trevor said, we can pull someone off another job if we need to and because they have their own a fleet of rigs, they can quickly deliver the right tool on demand. For example, he says, if a project needs several loads of gravel, they can deliver several truck loads at one time, which is a lot more effective than making several trips. It also keeps the Presby’s crew busy, which is the important to employee retention and delivering good price and services. Trevor adds his motto is to “make a living, not killing.”

They credit their employees with their success. “We’re not yellers or screamers,” Trevor explained, “We’re organized, we have the tools.” Thad adds, “We give responsibility (to employees) and see it grow.” They also utilize their employees to find new recruits, since it is in their interest to find good co-workers, who will carry their own weight.

The brothers share their family’s passion for Yankee ingenuity. They realize that many of the opportunities in this economy are a result of too much debt.  “We don’t buy anything new,” Thad said, “everything is slightly used and we have no debt on the equipment.”

The Presby brothers’ bought Stevenson Oil in 2005. They acknowledge that they got into the oil delivery business at a rocky time, but they learned a lot. The oil delivery business, they say, fits perfectly with the ebb and flow of the construction business because both tend to be somewhat seasonal.  This allows, them to keep everyone working.  Presby aims to provide the best price and the most comprehensive service. It’s a business where there is little control over the product and the price. “Oil is oil,” Trevor said, they aim to provide the lowest price in the region. “Quality goes a long ways,” he adds. The company also installs and cleans furnaces and unlike many oil suppliers allows customers to buy on credit. With the trend toward larger regional and even international oil delivery, the Presbys like their market position as a local North Country business. “The money is staying here,” Trevor said.

In December, they purchased Hunt’s Auto Salvage, in Franconia. When they heard that a deal to purchase the business fell through, they stepped in and made an offer. It was viable operation, they said, that they knew they could bring to the next level. “There is a point in every business,” Trevor said, “where you have to let it loose and let someone else progress it.” They are expanding the business to include salvaged steel and metal and a wrecker service.

Recently, they purchased another business, a bank-owned car wash in Woodsville. While this one is a little bit outside of their focus area, which is Littleton, Franconia and Bethlehem, they’re confident they can make it work. “We look for problems,” said Thad “we love the challenge.”

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By Jeff Woodburn

It is easy to underestimate David Keller. He’s a slight, courtly man, old beyond his thirty-eight years, but underneath is man of simple truths, steel convictions and unconventional ways. Before he moved to Littleton last year to purchase the Pillsbury Funeral Home and the Beal House, he founded a very successful mortuary and removal business and then a funeral home in Memphis, Tennessee, which also happened to be the nation’s second most dangerous metropolitan areas in the country.

One night, while in line to get a coffee at convenience store, he interrupted a robbery and was assaulted, but quickly recovered and pulled out his handgun.  He told his assailant, not once, but twice to stay on the floor, and promised “I will shoot you.”  The man nonchalantly ignored the command and slowly moved toward him, and Keller fired and shot the man in the arm. The injured man fled, but was later apprehended.  An experience like that Keller said, “Makes you want to move to Littleton.”

Keller’s approach to business is no less practical or straight forward. He lives by some simple axioms that include providing the best price, highest quality, avoidance of debt and, in a industry famous for its euphemisms; he doesn’t beat-around-the-bush. His funeral home has run advertisements that encourage people to consider pre-planning services and not to leave the decision to, as the ad suggests, their possibly tattooed or pierced children.

Born in central Pennsylvania, Keller grew up in working-class family and after graduating from high school enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. There he earned a degree in logistics, but it was the separate deaths of both of his grandmothers that spurred him toward a career as an embalmer and later a funeral director. Keller was not impressed with how his grandmothers looked or more specifically the job the embalmers did. “Embalming is a lost art,” he said, in reference to the process of preserving the body of the deceased for public viewing.

Keller enrolled in a mortuary Science College in Atlanta, and after graduating worked for several funeral homes in Tennessee. Then he saw an opportunity to put his talents for logistics together with his passion for embalming.

In 2000, Keller started a mortuary and removal service company in Memphis. His idea was simple, yet novel in the marketplace. He provided services to the smaller, locally- owned funeral homes, which didn’t have the time, inclination or the skills to embalm and move bodies across the region or country. His idea took off and business was successful, but as the large conglomerations increased their hold on the Memphis funeral market, he saw the writing on the wall. Large corporations aren’t going to outsource profitable services and, if they did, they’d dramatically mark up his services. Keller also saw the need for a good-old fashion, local funeral services, which were being bought up by large funeral service companies, like Houston-based Service Corporation.  Plus, he knew that he could beat the big funeral homes on price and service.

So in 2008, the industrious Keller purchased a former 11,000 square-foot restaurant near his mortuary and removal company, and converted it into a funeral home.  He aggressively took on his established competitors by talking straight about costs. High Point Funeral Home’s pricing strategy, wrote a Memphis-based newspaper, comes right off the price list of other funeral homes in town, with a discount of 33%-70%. Caskets are one of the major profit centers and Keller gets a 50% mark-up, compared to 200%-300% elsewhere. “I’m not the advocate of burying your money,” Keller said at the time. His idea worked. He plans to bring that philosophy to Littleton as well. “My business is based upon the death rate; I can’t control that,” he said, “All I have to play with is my profit margin.”

But, Keller insists, his Memphis business, which became the third largest funeral home in the city, wasn’t based solely on price. As consumers, he said, “we have become accustom to substandard.  It is the new standard.” For him, this means treating the deceased as the “guest of honor.”

The heavy work-load and hours mounted, and Keller found himself managing people, not doing what he enjoyed most dealing with the families and embalming. “I’m an embalmer first,” he said.  In August, 2009, Keller sold his funeral home for $3.4 million to an associate and began looking to get back to basics at a small-town funeral home. It just happened the company that helped him sell his funeral home was also working with the Pillsbury Funeral Home to find a buyer. It was perfect fit. “I intentionally came here to slow down,” he said, but along the way, he ended up in the restaurant business.

Because Keller used the IRS section 1031 tax free real exchange process, he was required to purchase commercial property equal to the amount realized in the sale of his Memphis properties. He also needed a place to live. Around the same time, the Beal House Restaurant and Inn had sold at a bank foreclosure auction to a local investor, and when Keller caught wind of its availability, he jumped on it. So, he had a place to live, but soon found himself in the hospitality business.

Besides waiting on tables as young man, Keller had no formal experience in the restaurant business, but he believes that certain successful principles are universal. The chief among them is overhead.  He can regularly be found tending tables, the bar or cleaning up. Keeler’s most important task was to hire a good chef to run the operation and imbed a sense of thriftiness and humility. His philosophy for dealing with his employees is based up the idea that “I don’t need you, I want you.”

Keeler’s goal is to be the most affordable, fine dining experience in the area. He also has knack for detail and an eye for and interest in historic buildings.  Keller has made changes that add to the functionality and appeal of both the Beal House and the funeral home. He also emphasizes a personal touch that easily can be lost in growth and efficiency.  Customers calling both of his businesses don’t get an answering machine during reasonable hours, but get him, his sister, Candy, who works for him or another responsible person.  He’s proud to note that the Beal House has made great strides towards being one-hundred percent green.

One practical attribute that could come in very handy is Keller’s his modest frugality and his aggressive up-beat personality. After such a spectacular success at such a young age, he has not let success go to his head. He understands that it is this condition as well as taking on too much debt that has destroyed many entrepreneurs. He has sworn off any debt. Despite conducting extensive renovations at the funeral home and the restaurant, he says “I struggle to stay out of debt.” When he sold his Memphis business, he realized, he said, “I’d never have this amount of money ever again.”

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Alex Ray, right, with Rusty McLear

By Jeff Woodburn

In the spring, 2009, amidst the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, Alex Ray, the venerable but quixotic restaurateur and founder of the Common Man Family of Restaurants, was midway through a $17 million renovation of a decrepit old mill building in the downtrodden city of Claremont.

It was a property where the last three developers had failed, and Ray was a long way from home and his model of building restaurants near Interstate 93. This project was by far his largest and most complicated — so much so that he even brought on a business partner.

Despite it all, Ray was nothing close to discouraged. He went looking for a good deal on a used vat fryer at a Portsmouth restaurant auction, but instead ended up coming home with yet another restaurant – the former Victory Restaurant on State Street.

It was not an uncommon occurrence for the founder of the Common Man Restaurant chain. It was, after all, classic Alex Ray. In fact, since then, he’s also acquired at auction the landmark Bobby’s Girl Diner in New Hampton.

In 1987, after nearly two decades of running a small restaurant in Ashland, Ray took his show on the road and began turning rundown real estate and poisoned properties into unique, eclectic places that house his restaurants. He now sits atop an empire of 17 restaurants, two hotels and numerous other properties.

Ray is an unlikely real estate guru. He is famous for his shortcomings – he’s impulsive, erratic, disorganized and, his lawyer and builder agree, too nice and honest in a business that counts those qualities as weaknesses.

Sometimes he leaves admirers wondering if his model isn’t a recipe for disaster, but in the end, Ray’s passion and true brilliance for building shines through.

You have to understand, says longtime friend and attorney Jack McCormack, who cooked with Ray in the early 1970s, “He has no history of failure and has a youthful enthusiasm, an eye for detail and an innate market sense.”

‘Gut builder’

For Ray, real estate development is more of an art than a science. He doesn’t follow systems, models and, at times, seems to defy the old carpenter’s rule to “measure twice, cut once.”

Jeff Downing, president of Conneston Construction Inc. of Gilford, who has a long association with Ray, says he’s “a gut builder” who seems to have an innate sense of style, location and the perseverance to navigate through the obstacles that can engulf a complicated project.

While most of Downing’s commercial clients want every detail worked out on paper in advance of building, Ray seems to relish the challenge and knows that the process will ensure that the result will be a one-of-a-kind property in a sea of commercial “vanilla boxes.”

Michael Coyle of Sugar Hill, a real estate and business broker, has seen that vision unfold within minutes in an abandoned old factory in Plymouth. The property was, as Coyle remembers, “frozen in time” with an enormous “steam boiler that looked like something that came out of the Titanic.”

After a quick tour, Coyle recalls Ray saying, “I like it and I think I can do it,” and then he picked up a used paper bag off the floor and ripped it in half and began to sketch some renderings. The other half was used to write up a sales agreement.

Within nine months, the hotel and restaurant were open. “What he built was on that bag,” says Coyle.

The unsightly boiler, which many people would have seen as a detriment, became a central part of the building. Ray knows, Coyle says, “If something isn’t broke, he doesn’t fix it.”

At 64 years old, Ray says that he is motivated by “pride and pleasure,” not money, but he also seems to be driven by solving the riddle that can befuddle a building, and he does it with uncanny innovation and daring solutions that Downing says sometimes “scare me.”

He also has an inner confidence that comes after considerable thought. “He’s constantly thinking about this stuff,” Downing says, “he does not have a hobby. He lives for working.”

Eminent confidence

In 1987, Ray bought a 1950s-style Howard Johnson’s restaurant in Concord that was entangled near two highways, an intersection and a river. It was his third venture — the Capital City Diner — and his first foray into a big market. In time, the state invaded more and more of his land, ultimately offering to buy him out or proceed with eminent domain.

But Ray wanted to stay. He had faith in the location.

Leon Kenison, then the commissioner of the Department of Transportation, says that in cases like these all but 2 or 3 percent get settled and very few retain ownership.

Kenison credits Ray with rising to the occasion. “He’s a negotiator,” says Kenison, “and was willing to make some trade-offs. He knew his limits and could recognize ours.”

McCormack says it is Ray’s personality and reputation that have made cooperation possible. While many developers would prepare for a big fight, Ray took a different approach, he says. “He’s amazingly practical and sees the big picture,” McCormack adds. He’s also down-to-earth and able to make quick decisions.

In the end, Ray’s persistence paid off. He was able to stay and eventually construct a new building – a Common Man restaurant — with salvaged old house parts that he proudly notes sit “on the existing cellar” on the tiny sliver of land that remained. But this left him with a parking problem, so he convinced the state to lease him some nearby contaminated land. The location remains the Common Man’s most successful restaurant.

‘Tilting diner’

Shortly thereafter, Ray fell for an unlikely piece of swamp land in an industrial neighborhood in Tilton just off Interstate 93.

In 1992, after much negotiating, he convinced paving mogul Milo Pike to sell him his company parking lot. He got a three-acre lot for $250,000. His builder and lawyer had their doubts — Downing because the property was “too wet” and unstable to build on, and McCormack because of the barren, backwater location and the uncertainty of the casual diner market.

Ray’s prophetic view of what the location would become is now legendary. Today the area is packed with retail outlets and box stores, but before that he had to figure out how to build a restaurant in a swamp.

There were basically two options – neither very good – to build on the spot: use expensive steel pilings that reach into the earth in search of good footing or build a floating slab that Ray describes as being “like a raft in a lake.” He chose the latter.

Unconvinced contractors began to refer to the place – to be known as the “Tilt’n Diner” – as the “tilting diner.” But Ray’s idea worked, and even though the building with an attached 1951 steel diner has since moved somewhat, it has settled uniformly.

Later, as the area began to boom, he subdivided the property (at a handsome return). His neighbors chose the pilings approach, and their parking lots are sinking around their buildings.

During the construction of the floating slab, the contractors installed a dug well to draw the water from the soils so the foundation could be set. When completed, they began to dismantle the well, but Ray stopped them, and the well was left in place.

Back then, he said, “he didn’t know why” but now, some 17 years later, he’s making plans to use the well water by jury-rigging a geothermal operation to help reduce the cost of cooling in the summer and heating in the winter.

‘Reverse snob’

Succeeding in the restaurant business may have been good training for Ray, who has a rabid compulsion for efficiency – or, as he says, he “hates waste.” His friends call him cheap, and he admits he’ll work for hours fixing a $9 clock, but he also spends heavily on energy saving investments because it makes him feel good.

He also is well known for his philanthropy, including turning one of the nation’s most threatened landmarks – the ancestral home of Daniel Webster — into a substance abuse facility, which is funded by his company.

Ray regularly gathers new restaurant employees together and gives them a pep talk about the importance of efficiency. He asks new hires to guess his profit margin. They respond with 75 percent, 50 and so on. He then tells them: 5 percent (this year it’s 4.79 percent, to be exact). So, he continues, if you break a $1 glass, you have to sell $20 worth of product just to get back to even.

For Ray, it is not just about money; he wears old clothes, drives used cars and calls himself “a reverse snob.” He likes physical work and can be found long after the construction crew is gone, laying brick for a walkway.

Then there’s his collection of salvaged architectural parts. Each of his restaurants has a different theme, but the commonality is old doors, wood floors, exposed structural elements and an array of old things that give the eateries an organic, eclectic, homey feel.

During the renovation of the Claremont mill, Ray installed hardwood floors that came from the old JFK Coliseum in Manchester. It was a deal in which everyone made out – the arena, salvage company and him.

“He uses a lot of junk and sometimes it’s cost-efficient,” says Downing. “Sometimes it’s not.”

He recalls once when Ray bought a bunch of used showers and toilets that needed to be rebuilt and eventually torn out.

McCormack says each of these projects takes on a life of its own, and because he generally develops properties in more rural, offbeat locations the entire community gets involved.

The walls are full of old photos and artifacts that people give to him. “People see him (and his restaurants),” McCormack says, “as a repository of their history.”

Ray is, as he notes, absolutely accessible to everyone, with his home number published in the phone book. Anyone who knows him says the last place he’ll be found is at the corporate office or any of his restaurants.

With the Claremont project completed and Portsmouth well under way, Ray is at home in his old farmhouse on a back road in Holderness. He’s relaxed and reflective, but old habits are hard to break. He’ll soon be on the prowl for another project, but today, for a moment, he’s looking back to his high school days in a small North Country town.

He recalls that a guidance counselor laughed when he told him that he wanted to “do something with architecture.” Instead he became, like many kids in the tourist town of North Conway, a cook.

But nearly a half-century later, he’s doing what he loves and always wanted. “We’re like tomatoes,” he says, “we’re either getting ripe or rotting.”

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By Jeff Woodburn

Two years ago, Coos County, the state’s beautiful and beleaguered northern outpost, embarked on an ambitious branding campaign built around the county’s three grand hotels. But the branding effort — with its slogan, “Grand Resorts, Grand Adventures” — may be in grand trouble as it fends off a barrage of criticism from the county’s three elected county commissioners and other North Country leaders.

At the heart of the debate is the basic identity of the region and its people, who are decidedly not feeling too grand these days as the harsh economy destroys jobs, businesses and optimism.

As part of the campaign, each community in the county will be asked to support changing the region’s brand name from “Great North Woods” to “Grand North.” It would be the third such name change the region has undergone in a dozen years. But the greatest controversy has been caused by the selection of businesses in the region to be showcased in the marketing effort.

Not surprisingly, those that made the cut and have been certified as “grand” defend the selection criteria, while those that didn’t are more critical. The loudest voice in opposition has been County Commissioner Tom Brady of Jefferson, whose family’s Western theme park, Six Gun City, was stripped of its top billing because the brand leadership team felt it didn’t meet the criteria.

Branding guru

For three years, the Northern Community Investment Corp. of nearby St. Johnsbury, Vt., has been working on the creation of a single brand for the Coos County region. Eventually, NCIC secured funding through various federal grants, the three grand hotels (The Balsams in Dixville Notch, Mountain View Grand in Whitefield and Mount Washington Resort in Bretton Woods) and the Tillotson Fund, among others.

In December 2008, Roger Brooks, a Seattle, Wash.-based community branding guru hired for the effort, presented his plan to, as he said, “use the grand hotels as the hook.”

His plan was warmly received with hardly any criticism.

Coos County is New Hampshire’s anomaly, and a distant reminder of what state use to be. With nearly 2,000 square miles of wilderness, it is geographically the state’s largest county — nearly as large big as Hillsborough, Rockingham and Strafford counties combined. Isolated by a meager road system, mountainous terrain and famously aggressive weather, the county is slightly populated, with just 18 people sharing each square mile.

Katie Paine, a prominent marketing executive who moved her company from Durham to Berlin several years ago, notes that there is a mythical frontier mentality that draws and keeps people in the county. And since few people live there because of a job, it is a heightened definition of place that dominates the region’s politics.

Selection process

Brooks recently returned to Coos County to unveil a new Web site and reveal nine “grand adventures,” which included the three grand hotels, a theme park, a rally school, hiking, canoeing, ATV and snowmobile trails, a mountain-climbing railroad and auto road and a canopy tour.

The Web site promotes two dozen businesses that are certified as the “best of New Hampshire Grand.” The local “Grand North” brand manager, Samantha Kenney, explained that businesses were vetted through a process that included being nominated by a group of volunteers and then privately inspected. Several businesses expressed surprise by their inclusion, while others were involved in the organization from its inception.

From the start, Brady’s family theme park was on the list of Grand Adventures, along with its neighbor, Santa’s Village, but as the criteria formalized and inspections occurred, the brand team became troubled by the park’s “deferred maintenance,” said Cathy Conway, NCIC’s vice president.

“It missed some of the criteria,” she said, but the problems were “not expensive items.” This enraged Brady, who said his family had spent $200,000 in repairs over the summer and some projects were not completed because of poor weather. “We’re not being treated fairly,” he said. He insinuated that the action was retribution for his vote to cut economic development funding from the county budget. He said he has pondered legal action.

Brady was not the only businessperson who felt snubbed by the branding effort. Mary O’Connor of Christy’s Maple Farm in Lancaster, was surprised to learn that her competitor was selected as one of the best businesses and she had not heard a word from anyone about the program.

It “bothers me,” she said. “How did they get there and we didn’t?”

Defenders of the branding effort say it is essential that the experiences they promote are indeed grand. The process, NCIC President Jon Freeman said, “is not perfect, but it’s for everyone. We have to have criteria.”

He said his organization is ready to provide technical assistance to businesses that want to be certified. The goal, he said, is to have more, not less, participation.

The basic premise of taxpayers’ money being used to promote one business over another troubles Coos County Treasurer Fred King of Colebrook. Access needs to be available to everyone, the former state senator said. Government should not be critiquing competing businesses with a process that essentially says, “These sheets are cleaner than those sheets,” he said. “It’s grossly unfair.”

George Bald, the state’s commissioner of the Department of Resources and Economic Development, who met with members of the Coos County Delegation begged them to stay the course. “We need to do something different,” he told them.

For and against

Some damage appears to have already been done. Brady’s two colleagues on the county commission joined him in criticizing the NCIC’s branding effort and refused to support a $3.5 million federal grant to improve signage throughout the county.

Paine, who is well-versed in the business branding business, is confident the plan will work, but said it needs time and support. “All they know how to do is knock holes in things,” she said of the naysayers.
Nevertheless, some observers have their doubts about the use of the word “grand” as part of the region’s brand.

John Harrigan of Colebrook, a veteran Coos County newspaper publisher, said the branding concept “smacks of elitism and doesn’t reflect the workaday world” of the area.

Dick Hamilton of Littleton, a retired tourism official and North Country native, doesn’t like it either, calling it “an insult to most of the residents. It’s not what the North Country is about. There’s a hell of a lot more here than the grand hotels.”

But Stephen Barba, who ran The Balsams in Dixville Notch for 35 years before moving on to become executive director of university relations at Plymouth State University, spearheaded establishment of the Great North Woods region, takes a broader view.

He acknowledges that the word “grand” may not capture the true essence of the region, but he added, “it doesn’t matter. No one theme could ever please everyone, and this theme can work so long as it’s given a fair chance to succeed. It is really important for Coos County to come together. Doing it the way it’s been done has not been effective and it doesn’t work.”

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Brad Lufkin, Jr.

by Jeff Woodburn

WHITEFIELD –Brad Lufkin can remember when he had to compete with 5-full service gas stations in Whitefield. Now, he is the only one in town, and one of only two full service auto repair station left in Coos County.  Self service stations with convenience stores have grown so popular that they are threatening the very existence of old style filling stations that provided services from windshield wiping to the local news. All told there are only 3 gas stations–  Lufkin’s Service Station in Whitefield, Lemieux Garage, Inc., in Colebrook and Munce’s in Berlin — that pump gas for their customers.

Gas stations are struggling despite the high gas prices because their margins are slim, competition is stiff, regulations are strict, upgrades are costly and credit card fees are high. Many sell gas as a way to attract customers to their higher margin goods or services. The age-old gas station offered gas, but was really in the business of repairing automobiles. That was the model followed by Scott Lambert, owner of P & L Auto, on North Main Street in Lancaster, who recently closed his full service Sunoco gas station, but remains in the auto repair business.  Lambert, who leases the building from Falcon Petroleum, said, ““Self service is taking a lot of the profit away. (I have) to pay the help (to pump gas.)”  He says that if he is only 1 or 2 cents greater than his competitors he’ll lose business. But, what really forced him to close was the requirement to replace the old oil storage tanks. He estimates the cost for new tanks is from $100,000 to $150,000.

“You’d be surprised at the number of people who don’t know how to pump gas,” said Lambert. This leaves his customers—many of whom are elderly literally out in the cold, ice or rain trying to pump their own gas and figure out how to operate the complicated automated systems that vary from station to station. It also means lots of walking back and forth between the car and cashier, as well as waiting in check out lines. Not only that, Mr. Lambert says his customers will miss the social connections that are the hallmark of small towns.  “I really think that we’ll be missed,” he said, “the ‘personable-ness’ is gone.”

Lambert is not alone. Many old style gas stations are being closed or converted into convenient stores often with food service. For forty-years, Dean Blanchette, of Lancaster, has been the guy to see in the North Country about commercial fuel tanks and pumps. He has also watched the steady decline of old style filling stations. Up until the late 1970s, he recalls “everyone who had a gas station worked on cars. That’s all there were.”  Back then, he said, it was typical that the buildings, tanks and pumps were owned by big oil corporations and lucrative commissions and incentives were provided to operators based upon volume of gas sold. Banchette remembers the first self-service station in the area,”everyone thought they were crazy.”  The idea took off, he said, and great “change (was) forced upon the small, full service stations.”

“I guess it’s going out the door with dinosaur,” said Richard Cote, who runs the state Division of Weights and Measures.  He out to know, it is his department that insures the accuracy of the 2,800 gas pump measuring devices.  Of the 800 New Hampshire businesses that sell fuel, most are self service convenient stores, he adds.  “The few full service stations that exist have been service stations for generations.”  The trend worries historic preservation leaders. The remaining full service stations build community and preserve tradition, said Linda Wilson, Deputy Preservation Officer at the State’s Division of Historical Resources.  “They create a place for people to come together and create (social) connections… and invest in their local communities.”

The 3 remaining stations that offer full service in Coos County are deeply rooted in tradition. When asked why they pump gas for their customers, Robbie Munce, who grandfather opened the station in 1968 on Pleasant Street in Berlin, answers “We always have. It is just the way we’ve always done it.” Munce’s is not simply nostalgic throw back. They are formidable enterprise with 200 employees and nearly 2 dozen stores throughout New Hampshire. Berlin is their oldest and only location that offers full service gas. The location offers a convenient store, but does not repair cars. It is a service that the people of Berlin want, said Mr. Munce, and are willing to pay 2 cents more per gallon than their closes competitor. Munce’s hires high school students to pump gas, wash windows, check oil and tire levels. Robbie Munce grew up pumping gas and said, “It’s an easy job, but it takes initiative. When it’s nasty weather people don’t want to pump their own gas.” He recalls once it was so cold that he saw “gasoline gel.” He credits the experience with the basics of running a good service oriented business. Munce, an Anglophone, had to learn to “make change in French.” The service station was the local social center, he said, we were the “first to know the scores of the hockey games that were out of town,” and people came not only to get gas, but also the news.

Pauline Limieux’s family has been in the gas business in Colebrook since 1934. She is the vital link between the past and the present.  She is presently owns Limieux Garage, Inc. with her son.  They fix cars and also are snowmobile dealers. When asked about the distinction of being one of the last remaining full service stations, she responds: “I don’t know how long we’ll be able to do it,” but then she turns very practical, “the pumps aren’t set up for automatic. Can’t put in a credit card.” She says her customers seem to like “to know the person that pumps their gas,” and often “like to pass words.” Mrs. Lemieux also noted that some customers’ dogs have come to expect a treat from the pocket of the long-time attendant.

Back in Whitefield, Lufkin’s Service station has been pumping gas and repairing cars for customers since 1945. You can’t buy a soda, sandwich or snow machine. The current owner, Brad Lufkin, keeps the family close – his son Mark and his grandson and namesake Bradley make up most of the work force. Mark Lufkin ticks off the attributes of this small, local operation. “We have long standing customers some of them for 30-years.” Meanwhile his son, Bradley, cleans the windows and fills the tank of Virginia Poole’s car. She’s writing a check to pay for her purchase, something she can’t do at many of the big self-service outfits. Poole likes the convenience and service that the Lufkins’ provide, and doesn’t seem to mind the conversation. Mr. Lufkin pauses and looks at his son and says we have to be careful, “Brad will talk their ear off.”

PHOTO:
1) Bradley Lufkin washes Virginia Poole’s windshield at Lufkin’s Service Center, in Whitefield. (Photo by Jeff Woodburn)

2) Scott Lambert, of P & L Auto, in Lancaster in front of his defunct gas pumps. (Photo by Jeff Woodburn)

3) Bud Matott’s American Gas Station shown here in 1961 sat were the present Cumberland Farms is in Whitefield.  This photo is from www.suitorsgarage.com., a web site that documents some of Whitefield’s old garages.

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