From left to right, Mary Doherty (of Peabody and Smith Realty), buyer Bob Chapman, and Executive Councilor Joe Kenney celebrate Chapman's recent purchase of the former Hitchiner Manufacturing building in Littleton. (Photo by Justin Roshak) (click for larger version)
May 16, 2018LITTLETON—The vast, vacated manufacturing complex across the Ammonoosuc from Apthorp and Lakeway Elementary has been sold to area developer Bob Chapman. The starting gun has been fired on negotiations and plans for the complex, which includes a five-story central keep and annexes at 24 Beacon St.
Chapman is well-known by area economic advocates for redeveloping Groveton's Warsaw Mills.
"He's the one that brought Groveton back to life," said Littleton business veteran and River District commissioner Dave Ernsberger, "He has the means to get things done, and is moving forward rapidly."
Many involved in the sale expressed confidence that Chapman can do for the Hitchiner building what he did in Groveton.
"Bob Chapman was a single man wrecking crew to get that done," said Executive Councilor Joe Kenney. "He cares about the North Country, his heart is in the North Country, and he looks at the Hitchiner site as an opportunity to help the North Country."
Hitchiner Manufacturing announced its departure in March, 2015, and shuttered for good a few months later. For the next two years, the building was vacant, though not absent from the minds of local economic boosters. A 'Hitchiner Renaissance Group' took charge of the building's future, led by Stan Fillion and Greg Eastman, both members of Littleton Industrial Development Corporation (LIDC).
"Two years ago, we weren't quite sure what we were going to do with this building," said Mary Doherty of Peabody and Smith Realty, which arranged the sale.
That changed quick: business promoter Benoit "Beno" Lamontagne called her with a buyer, and one visit later, the sale was on. Lamontagne works under Littleton native Taylor Caswell in the state's Department of Business and Economic Affairs.
"It was our hope to be able to turn over the keys to a buyer who would consider the best interests of the community, and bring jobs back to the area," wrote Hitchiner Manufacturing CEO and New Hampshire native John Morison III, who added that, "The town of Littleton has been a good home to us for over thirty years."
Chapman will be the building's eighth owner since 1910.
Originally known as Littleton Meadows (nowadays a name more often applied to the big box strip), the town-owned parcel was conveyed to a development company, Littleton Realty. Transferring vacant parcels to a nonprofit development firm, which then seeks a private buyer, is a long Littleton tradition. In 1910, Sears and Roebuck purchased the lot and built a large shoe manufacturing complex, which consolidated six smaller Littleton operations, according to economic organizer and LIDC veteran Brian Ward.
Fifteen years later, Sears-Roebuck left, and the complex became a knitting mill for seven years. It returned to its shoe-making roots under Rudolph Holly, great grandfather of Greg Eastman, the current president of LIDC. A shoe factory until 1952, it was transferred to Connors and Hoffman. In 1984, Hitchiner came to town.
A previous departure in September of 2001 was prevented by speedy effort by a local task force, which saved some 340 jobs and kept the firm in town for another 14 years, Ward said. When the final departure was announced, another task force organized a transition for many of its employees, and secured some of them jobs at other area firms.
Brian Ward said that returning the Hitchiner building to North Country ownership for the first time in a half-century would aid its redevelopment along lines that would benefit Littleton:
"Having local ownership to make the decisions on that property is absolutely critical," Ward said.
Potential uses are still being worked out, and indeed, Chapman expressed the possibility that portions of the building might be demolished.
Nonetheless, it was suggested that a mixed-use model, incorporating education, a business incubator, and housing, might fit local needs.
White Mountains Community College is looking seriously at a major expansion into the Hitchiner building, a possibility encouraged by College President Dr. Chuck Lloyd at last week's announcement meeting.
While Lloyd stressed that a decision had not been made, he pointed out that the range of amenities Littleton offers in close proximity to the Hitchiner site, made it idea for an "open campus" model. He identified the Jax Jr movie theater, range of restaurants, and an attractive downtown, as key assets in that vision. He said that no other North Country locations are being considered, and if the college expands up north, it will be in Littleton. Negotiations are ongoing.