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Lebanon Delays Conference Center

Lebanon — The giant pile of dirt off Route 120 won’t be giving way to a building foundation any time soon.

The Planning Board last week granted a 15-month extension to a proposed 100-room hotel and conference center initially approved in January 2011, a project that has since been held up because of pending sewer work at the intersection of Route 120 and Etna Road.

At the proposed hotel site, a large pile of material referred to by developers as a “pre-load,” meant to compact the earth where a structure would be built, has turned into a symbol of delay, often drawing the inquiries of curious passers-by.

“It’s not like the hotel gets built on top of (the pile of material), people have wondered that,” said Jay Campion, a Hanover-based commercial real estate owner and developer of the hotel. “ ... Since we were caught midstream here, we are sitting with what appears to be a hotel on a hilltop.”

The proposed four-story, 93,300-square-foot hotel would be built off Labombard Road, in between Etna and Heater roads along the Route 120 corridor. It would include 100 rooms and a 300-person conference center, an amenity that many in the business community would like to see more of in the Upper Valley.

While recognizing that the city of Lebanon is performing long-overdue upgrades to its infrastructure, Campion also expressed frustration that he has been forced to tread water while the market for conference centers and hotels in the Upper Valley has evolved without him.

“It’s pretty frustrating, because a lot of things have changed over that time period,” he said.

The Hanover Inn, for instance, has since upgraded and renovated its conference center, which seats around 320 people and was re-opened in the fall of 2012.

“If we had been permitted at a reasonable time, we would have been up and running years before the Hanover Inn,” said Campion, who also owns the Dartmouth Bookstore and Citizens Bank buildings on Main Street in Hanover.

Another hotel approved in the lag-time can be found near Centerra Park just up Route 120 from Campion’s proposed hotel site. The 120-room Element Hotel, planned for the new Altaria business park just south of Centerra, could be headed for construction this spring as it has already received Planning Board approval.

West Lebanon’s Fireside Inn and Suites, which has the capacity to house about 400 people in its conference center, is located within a 5-mile drive of the proposed hotel off Route 120. Kristina Withington, director of sales at the Fireside Inn and Suites, declined to comment on what potential impact a new conference center might have on business there.

At last week’s Planning Board meeting, Senior Planner David Brooks said that sewer work in the Route 120 area would likely begin in October, but could continue to the following October in 2014.

Angela McCanna, who works for Hanover-based developer Lyme Properties and has been recently overseeing operations at the Wilder Center, said the renovated-church-turned-event-center can accommodate about 205 people, if spread out on both levels of the building. Generally, McCanna said, “We’re a smaller venue.”

The Wilder Center opened in October of 2010, and typically has events every weekend. McCanna said there could be as many as six events in four days, or a lull of four days with no events.

The largest conference center in the region is at the Lake Morey Resort in Fairlee, but with an 18-hole golf course and other recreational attractions, the destination is more accurately described as a resort that has a conference center.

Director of Marketing Christine Cecchetti said that the Lake Morey Resort conference center holds about 500 people, and that events with more than 400 people are typically held about four times per year.

“We’re unique in that we do a lot of business with Dartmouth College and the medical center, but the reason that we do business is because they want to get them off site, away from that (campus) environment,” Cecchetti said.

Cecchetti said that demand for the conference center has been going through a relative boom, and that the resort is coming off “the best winter we’ve ever had,” along with a month of May that has so far proven to be “rock solid.

“It’s certainly not 2007, but it’s also not 2009,” she said.

The demand for meeting spaces, however, hasn’t just affected the hotel economy in the Upper Valley. Beth Krusi, marketing director at the Montshire Museum of Science, said that children and young adults’ science center has been renting out a 100-person community room and the entire interior of the museum — at a capacity of 300 people — for “quite some time,” but could not pinpoint what year the museum started renting.

Krusi said that the museum offers “something more than a square room,” for wedding and bar or bat mitzvah venues, and added that the museum’s Porter Community Room was donated to provide a meeting space for the area’s nonprofit groups, which can meet there free of charge if the meetings are planned well in advance.

“There was a real need, and non-profits especially don’t usually have budgets to spend on renting spaces,” Krusi said.

Paul Boucher, president of the Lebanon New Hampshire Chamber of Commerce, said that conference centers ripple out economic benefits into the area businesses, from transportation services to retailers, restaurants and even gasoline purchases.

“It’s a real trickle-down,” he said.

Because the Upper Valley already has comparably-sized conference centers, it’s unclear if the hotel on Route 120 would attract any suitors who don’t currently have the Upper Valley on their radar screens.

Mary Ann Rupert, the conference manager for the New England Library Association, said that there are only about eight hotels in New England that would be able to accommodate her organization’s annual conference, excluding Boston, which Rupert said was too costly and presented traffic issues.

Rupert, a former Hanover resident, said that the library association would need at least 12,000 square-feet of exhibit space, a room to feed 300 people in, and about six “breakout rooms” that seat around 100, not to mention four or five smaller rooms for offices.

“I know there’s nothing (in the Upper Valley) that would be big enough for us, so I haven’t really looked,” Rupert said yesterday.

“I’d love to be wrong, but I don’t think I am.”