MERRIMACK - If any one building in town could have a personality complex, it might be the former Merrimack Hotel and Conference Center. In its near 30-year existence, the Executive Park Drive building has traded hands at least six times. With that has come six name changes. The latest former owners even hoped to spice things up by adding an indoor water park.
Now, the vacant building may take on a whole new shape and clientele, as two New England companies will pitch plans to renovate and open a large living complex for seniors. The building's current owner, New Stream RE Funding LLC, of Connecticut, and HMS Winward LLC, of Vermont, may invest up to $25 million to turn the 203-room hotel into 118 apartments for older adults.
Dan Hassan, president and chief executive officer of HMS Winward - a senior-housing consulting and management company - said the plans are very preliminary, but added that he's "hopeful and optimistic" about the outcome. His initial appraisal of the building, however, was not so rosy. Hassan first toured the former hotel last winter and recalled "trudging through the snow" to have a look. He admitted that the building itself - a 1970s era, utilitarian style and boxy structure - was "not too exciting." But, results from a feasibility study that measured occupancy rates in the local competition, demographics and other factors showed there is a demand for such housing for age- and income-qualified older adults, Hassan said.
At that point, HSM and New Stream decided to move forward with a joint venture, Hassan said. The project, called "Merrimack Grand Senior Living," would offer studio, one- and two-bedroom apartments. The rooms would be tailored for several types of folks: independent people, who might need housekeeping, a meal program, activities and transportation; those in assisted living, which would include medicine management and personal care services; and "memory care," a secure, residential option for people with dementia or Alzheimer's disease, Hassan said.
If the project were completed as planned, developers estimate it would create up to 90 to 100 new full- and part-time jobs, Hassan said, which would include administrative positions, nurses, aids and staff for food service, housekeeping, maintenance and transportation. Hassan said in comparison to a hotel, the senior housing project would create less traffic, require lower water and sewer capacity and still generate the same taxes and the new jobs.
The planning board is scheduled to review the concepts Oct. 20. Hassan said he hopes "to get an indication of whether we're planning is acceptable." A meeting with the zoning board is scheduled for Oct. 22, in which the companies will request a special exception for a change of use in the commercial zone. He estimated if the companies clear financial hurdles and gain town approval, the project might be complete in late 2011.
The Merrimack Hotel and Conference Center has changed hands many times throughout the years. The 140,000-square-foot building was constructed in 1979 and opened the following year as a Hilton Hotel. In the mid-1980s, it was converted to a Ramada Inn. Sometime in the early 1990s, it carried the "Merrimack Inn" name. In that time frame, then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton logged a second-place finish in the primary, delivering his "comeback kid" speech at the hotel. Later in the decade, an independent group took over, calling it the Merrimack Hotel and Conference Center. According to Telegraph reports, still more changes occurred in the early 2000s. The Procaccianti Group of Providence, R.I., took over and completed a $3 million makeover, then joining the property to the Radisson hotel group. Finally, within the past three years, the Marriott hotel company filed plans to add additional floors and a 50,000-square-foot indoor water park that would be almost as big as the hotel itself. The property was gutted and stripped for that work, but the project stalled and never came through.
The most recent owners, Merrimack Hotel Investors LLC, in Dublin, Ohio, foreclosed in November, according to the town's assessing department. That's when New Stream picked it up at auction for $6.1 million. Peter Annon, a real estate agent from the Portsmouth-based broker Wason Associates, said in January he was marketing the building on behalf of New Stream, perhaps as a potential hotel, assisted living facility or for student housing. For the Merrimack project, Hassan said, New Stream would provide the investing, while HSM Winward would take on the development, management and operations.
For the last nine years, Hassan's company has mainly been involved in senior-living consulting, but it's now getting into ownership and management of senior living communities, Hassan said. HMS Winward now has part ownership in two senior communities: Summercrest Independent and Assisted Living in Newport, and the Lodge at Otter Creek in Middlebury, Vt. Hassan said senior housing projects generally come with age restrictions based on a community's zoning laws. They normally fall in the "55 and older" or "62 and older range." The age requirement for his project will be determined later on.
Merrimack has seven age-restricted housing developments, including Souhegan River View Village on West Chamberlain Road and Parker Village on Front Street. Together, those developments have more than 125 age-restricted units.
The latest age-restricted project approved in town was for 57 townhouses to be built on Horseshoe Pond, a project by the Nashua-based Melton Associates LLC. It went through a lengthy court battle due to neighbors' environmental concerns, but was ultimately held up in court. Construction has been put on hold due to the economy.
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