Setting The Stage

Seashell Complex ready for 2012 season at Hampton Beach State Park

By Johanna Lyons

Hampton Beach  State Park is a 40-acre linear park that occupies 2 miles of the 18-mile New Hampshire seacoast. The area is heavily developed with seasonal cottages, hotels, attractions, and businesses. The park and its host community, Hampton, N.H. (population 14,976), have over 75 years of social and economic interdependence. The redevelopment of the park is an example of strong partnerships between the executive and legislative branches of government, state agencies and community, clients and contractors, and contractors and community.

A Look Back In Time

The history of Hampton Beach starts at the turn of the 20th century when enterprising individuals laid out the streets, installed utilities, and sold lots on which to build seasonal cottages and resort hotels. The streetcar and railroad were the primary ways to access this tourist and resort area until the mid-1930s when increased personal car ownership made it easier to visit. The proximity to major urban areas such as Boston,Lowell, and Lawrence, Mass., and Manchester, N.H., expanded the appeal to day visitors.

Photos Courtesy NH Division of Parks and Recreation

In 1933, the town deeded the beach and the parking facilities to the state. After World War II, the state made significant investments in seawall, road, and bridge construction that encouraged more day visitors.  The beach facilities remained unchanged with basic amenities, including a small bathhouse and bandstand until 1963, when the “new” Seashell Complex opened. The complex provided much-needed visitor services including a modern outdoor performance space, expanded bathrooms, and office space for park administration and the local chamber of commerce.

Planning For The Next Century

Beginning in 2001, the town, the Department of Resources and Economic Development, and the Office of Energy and Planning partnered on a master plan for Hampton Beach. The town wanted to make some significant infrastructure improvements in the area and due to the close, sometimes overlapping management responsibilities, the partnership was established.

In 2008--recognizing the Seashell facilities were becoming more and more expensive to maintain--the parks and recreation division appropriated funding to prepare a design and development study with a cost estimate to be presented to the legislature. It was recognized early on that, while the physical improvements were to state park facilities, the redevelopment of the park would be an economic development project to benefit the region and the state.

Economic Development

The Hampton Beach area has been a regional and international destination for more than 100 years, and tourism expenditures are an important revenue source for the state. An economic-impact study was done in 2008 and then updated later that year showing the public investment of capital monies will be returned to the state in increased revenue. It is also anticipated that the improvements at Hampton Beach will spur reinvestment in private property and business in the area.

Community Support And Funding

Once completed, the feasibility study was distributed to regional leaders and key legislators. The estimate for the project was $20 million. The Hampton Beach Area Commission--a statutory advisory group of key stakeholders, recognizing that funding this major capital project would be a challenge--took the lead on providing legislative and community outreach. To contact non-resident visitors, the division posted project posters throughout the area, advertised on the project website, and held “sidewalk sessions” to answer questions. In January 2008, the governor submitted a capital budget request to the legislature of $14.5-million for the redevelopment of the park (an outlying visitor center was deleted).  It was not until July 2009that funding was appropriated.

Change Is Hard

The beach season is a short 14 weeks, from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend, and it was important to the state and community to provide minimal disruption to key visitor services and to let guests know the park and attractions were open during the reconstruction. To begin as quickly as possible, the undertaking became the first state project to use a new construction-management delivery system. This allowed the project to start in record time, provided a collaborative framework to make decisions, and kept open communication with the community.

In April 2010, construction began on the two new bathhouses located at either end of the project area. To minimize disruption, construction areas were kept to a minimum, and off-site material laydown areas and contractor parking were utilized. Work went smoothly during the summer, but it was apparent a tight timeline and major disruptions to the community were looming in the fall when the three buildings that made up the key visitor services at the Seashell Complex were scheduled to be demolished. It was decided to concentrate on rebuilding the two most important components of the complex--visitor services and park administration--and to delay the third building, containing the performance stage and the lifeguard operations.

To replace these resource areas thriftily, a steel frame from a retired fire tower was erected, and a lifeguard watch station was built on the top to provide an area for the lifeguards to monitor the beach. The lifeguard administrative offices and muster area were located in a temporary trailer off-site. Working with the community, a section on the beach was designated for the performance stage. A large event tent covered an area of the beach, and a stage was installed with two construction trailers to be used as dressing rooms. To provide access to the beach, adjacent stairwells were filled with sand and an interlocking mat was laid down.

The two new bathhouses opened in April 2011, providing early-season facilities. The visitor services and park administration buildings that opened in June equaled the total number of bathroom facilities provided previously. Construction continued on the building throughout the summer, and was completed in December 2011.

A Park For The 21st Century

One of the key recommendations of the 2001 Master Plan was the dispersing of use from the central Seashell Complex. Two new bathhouses now bookend the site improvements, and at each end of the project area “pocket parks” have been built to allow gathering areas off the beach. Another key site feature is the inclusion of shade structures and landscape areas along the boardwalk, filled with native grasses and shrubs and intended to be low-maintenance and drought-tolerant.

The complex was rebuilt on the same platform as the former one. The Visitor Services Building contains an information desk, public bathrooms, administrative offices, and a small conference room. The Park Administration Buildinghouses park operations, including State Park Patrol and Park Maintenance. The new Seashell Building contains modern stage-support services, public bathrooms, the Oceanfront Conference Room, and State Beach Patrol operations (lifeguards and first aid).

Looking To The Future

The Division of Parks and Recreation is looking forward to making happy memories for the thousands of families who visit Hampton Beach State Park. The new facilities have addressed operational deficiencies, and have given the park and community room to grow. During construction, the state and nation have weathered the worst economic recession in modern times, and now the park and community are poised to take advantage of renewed economic confidence and investment.

Johanna Lyons is the State Park Planning and Development Specialist forNew Hampshire’s Department of Resources and Economic Development, Division of Parks and Recreation. For more information, visit