By Doug Ireland
---- — SALEM — With a simple pen stroke, Gov. Maggie Hassan has opened the door to $17 million in infrastructure improvements in Salem.
When Hassan signed a $245 million capital budget into law last week, she authorized construction of a $5.4 million liquor store on Route 28 and nearly $12 million in Salem school upgrades.
That includes $10.7 million to renovate the Center for Career and Technical Education at Salem High School — a program that attracts nearly 700 students from schools throughout Southern New Hampshire.
The state’s $17 million investment in Salem and its economy is a bright sign for the town, Selectmen’s Chairman Everett McBride Jr. said.
“I think it’s great,” McBride said of the funding. “It’s very positive news.”
Replacement of the approximately 10,000-square-foot liquor store with a new building is long overdue, McBride said. The store has been at 417 S. Broadway since 1965. It will remain at the same site.
“The liquor store is certainly outdated,” McBride said. “It will enhance the ability to bring in even more sales.”
The facility — one of 77 across New Hampshire — ranks fourth in annual sales at $22 million, according to state Liquor Commission administrator Craig Bulkley. The building is a former state police barracks not designed for retail, he said.
Constructing a new store, possibly double in size, is expected to significantly increase sales, Bulkley said. It would not open for a few years.
“We want to start as soon as possible,” he said. “Our objective is to build a new store while the old store still functions.”
The $17 million for Salem projects comes at a time when residents are wondering how to keep property taxes down and revitalize the community.
State lawmakers defeated an expanded gambling bill in May that could have brought a $600 million casino complex and 3,000 jobs to Rockingham Park.
In March, 81 percent of Salem voters supported a nonbinding casino referendum because they believed gambling would give the town the economic boost it desperately needed.
More funding for Salem’s schools is an added bonus, McBride said, since the district is faced with the need to upgrade its 26-year-old CTE program and aging high school building.
School Superintendent Michael Delahanty is pleased as well.
“We are grateful to get the money,” he said.
The school upgrades include nearly $900,000 for kindergarten space at Fisk and Soule schools. They are two of three elementary schools to be renovated over the next year through a $16.2 million bond approved by voters in March.
Receiving state funding for a 1,200-square-foot kindergarten classroom at both Fisk and Soule will please taxpayers, Delahanty said.
“It will save tens of thousands of dollars in interest over the 20-year bond,” he said.
Renovation of the CTE center would be its first major upgrade since its construction in 1987, Delahanty said. A lot of the equipment and space, including labs, are outdated, he said.
“The programs need updating,” he said. “There have been advancements in the industries and the spaces that have to reflect industry standards.”
The center offers 13 career programs for students from Salem, Windham, Pelham and the Timberlane Regional School District.
Those programs include automotive technology, biotechnology, culinary arts, and health and science technology. A cosmetology program is being added because it’s an increasingly popular career field, Delahanty said.
Although the state appropriated $10.7 million for the center, Delahanty and CTE director Christopher Dodge said more money will be needed. But they aren’t sure how much more.
That’s partly because the 53,000-square-foot center’s renovation would be tied to plans to upgrade the high school, a three-year project, Delahanty said.
“The renovation of the center can’t be done in isolation,” he said.
Both proposals are expected to go before voters in March, Delahanty said.
“Both facilities are in desperate need,” Dodge said. “(The center) doesn’t support 21st century education.”
The CTE project does not call for any big increases in space or staff, Delahanty said.
When the Plymouth school district wasn’t prepared to upgrade its center, the Salem project was moved up a year on the state’s list, he said.
The state Department of Education has committed to renovating two of its 23 CTE centers each year, despite major cuts in funding for state programs, Delahanty said. Pinkerton Academy in Derry received $7.8 million from the state to upgrade its own center.
But there was uncertainty this year, so Salem was fortunate to get the money while it was available, he said.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen with the state budget a year or two from now,” Delahanty said. “There was an idea this go-around to eliminate funding for one center, which would have knocked us out of the queue.”