By: Julie Renaud Evans, Maura Adams and Jessica O'Hare
Exploring Lancaster, NH is like finding a hidden jewel. It’s a beautiful town nestled between the Northern White Mountains and the Connecticut River valley in northwest New Hampshire. The waters of the Israel River that run through town once powered manufacturing and mills; today it weaves quietly through the heart of the community. Fertile fields along these rivers support one of the largest family-run dairy farms in New Hampshire, and provide a pastoral setting to two covered bridges. Downtown Lancaster is home to successful businesses – a bakery, movie theater, fitness center and more on the way. The former Lancaster National Bank that dominates one end of Main Street is currently being renovated as a business center with a brew pub, an art gallery and maybe a business incubator.
On a recent visit to town, we visited with two alumni of White Mountains Regional High School who returned to their hometown to raise their families. They’re also part of a group of leaders the Center has been working with over the last year. Ben Gaetjens-Oleson, the town planner, and Rob Scott, career and technical education director at the high school, gave us a tour of Lancaster and surroundings. They eagerly shared why they returned home, why they think more of their former classmates should return as well, and a bit about the efforts underway to revitalize Lancaster that excite them.
Ben and Rob know Lancaster has impressive community resources that benefit their kids, including an endowed recreational department with extensive sports fields, a hillside recreation area, and a historic gymnasium that gets nearly constant use. Main Street has a large library, churches, parks, a popular farmer’s market, and a modern movie theater (in a historic building) playing first-run films. The town has revised its zoning laws to maintain its historic downtown while proactively guiding growth. Today, Lancaster’s center is experiencing investment, growth, and new business.
It’s easy to see why Ben and Rob love their town. They know most of its 3,500 residents; they know it’s a great place for their kids to play outdoors, participate in the school theater or athletic programs, walk to food, playing fields and forests, and catch new music at the summer concert series every Friday at the gazebo - all the things that feel good about a small town.
Given Lancaster’s assets, it seems like a natural place for growth, but it faces similar challenges to many other Northern Forest communities. Perhaps most significantly, the town is aging. To sustain itself, the community needs to increase the number of young families and school-aged children while also creating more well-paying jobs for current and new residents.
A year ago, Center staff began talking with a small group of local leaders to learn more about existing community development activities and to see if there were gaps we could help fill with the long term goal of recruiting new residents to the community. We were impressed by Lancaster’s combination of energetic people and great natural assets, but saw a need for increased coordinated action and wanted to help the community as it worked to make itself stronger.
Since then, we helped secure funding for a wood pellet boiler, hired a great digital marketing trainer to lead a workshop for area businesses, helped create a community energy program, designed a recreation brochure promoting fun things to do in town. We plan to help the town explore opportunities for its 260-acre town-owned forest, and are beginning to explore how an alumni recruitment effort might remind people with roots in Lancaster about the opportunities in the region.
We don’t take credit for the progress in Lancaster, which has been driven by its longtime residents and leaders, but we know we’ve helped spark ideas, brought structure and capacity to move specific projects, and contributed to the town’s broad revitalization strategy. That’s one reason why we appreciate partnering with Ben and Rob to support the community. We, as they, see the value to testing new ideas, engaging new people in community efforts, and promoting the benefits of Lancaster which all help build the promise of tomorrow on opportunity and innovation rooted in real people.