Rusty McLear shares the history of his hotels during a Meredith Historical Society presentation. (Photo by Erin Plummer) (click for larger version)
November 24, 2021MEREDITH — What started with a project in the old Amatex factory started the chain of hotels owned and managed by Rusty McLear and Hampshire Hospitality Holdings that still bring thousands of visitors to Meredith each year. McLear shared the history of the hotels with his personal stories and insights during the Meredith Historical Society's recent presentation.
McLear presented "The Modern Era of Hotel Development: 1983-2019" at the Community Center on Nov. 9 co-hosted by John Edgar. McLear shared the story of each of the hotels he owned managed and his partners at with Hampshire Hospitality Holdings until the properties were sold in 2019.
McLear also shared some sketches and other documents from the company's history as well as gave some business insight and experience along some extra stories.
McLear was raised in Scotch Plains, New Jersey, and attended Notre Dame and Windham College in Vermont. He owned a small restaurant in Vermont that became a surprising success. He moved to New Hampshire in 1971 with the plan to learn more about the hotel business and take what he learned back to Vermont. He said he found he preferred to stay in New Hampshire and eventually settled in Meredith. He started a real estate company in Laconia, later opening more offices in Plymouth, Bristol, and Gilford.
For the first few years, he would drive from Meredith to Laconia and would regularly pass the mill building on Route 3.
"I noticed when you drove home nobody really looked at the lake, everybody looked at this cinderblock mill building," McLear said.
He said he would try to go inside the building and regularly got thrown out, though eventually they let him wander around the building.
McLear said at the time Main Street in Meredith was vibrant with many different shops, a bakery, and more.
He looked into buying the mill building, which he said he knew would be an expensive prospect. He would write a letter to the owner every three months, but didn't receive any response for seven years. After seven years of letter writing. McLear got a call from the owner saying he was sick of getting letters and would sell him the building if he would stop.
The building was available for him to buy, but he didn't have the money at the time. Eventually he worked with a few people to buy the building in 1983. Construction started in 1985 and the inn and marketplace were finished by 1986. The marketplace opened with around four or five different stores.
McLear said Mill Falls was successful enough to pay the bills, but wasn't doing much better.
"Once you've been in that marketplace for a weekend, you've seen it all," McLear said of the marketplace back then. "What we did have was enough things to draw people back, we didn't have a critical mass of a lot of people saying we'll go back."
In 1987, a new shopping complex in the area and the economic downturn caused some hardship, but they eventually got things going again.
"There were a number of other large failures in the country's economy, but not really any bad ones around here," McLear said.
He said while the marketplace did well, the hotel was barely getting by.
When a property across the street became available, he worked with the owners and came up with a fair price for the property and arranged bank installment payments to pay for it. This led to the opening of the Inn at Bay Point.
"My part Ed Gardner, his wife thought it was absolutely stupid to build a hotel next to a hotel we owned that's not doing very well," McLear said, later adding, "When we opened up Bay Point not only did it succeed the occupancy of Mill Falls went up 25 percent. In the hotel business going up four to five percent is a lot."
The next project was The Chase House, including a hotel, clothing store, and restaurant by his partner Alex Ray from the Common Man
"I remember (Alex) said, 'Are you talking about doing something at Chase House?
I wat to make sure I'm the guy doing the restaurant,'" McLear said.
He said by the time Bay Point and the Chase House were open they had 100 rooms generating people on the weekends. More people meant more people generating interest and bringing out their families and friends.
Church Landing was the next project. The property became available after St. Charles Church found a new location up Route 25 and he bought it on St. Patrick's Day. The church had to be deconsecrated, then work began.
"We cleaned out the altar and church, bought a bunch of pizzas and a couple cases of beer; that was our opening party," McLear said.
With 70,000 square feet of space, the project was huge and expensive. McLear said with everything they put into it had to be a success or them. After 18 months it was a big success and doing almost double the business of the other hotels.
When asked about the future of Meredith, McLear said he thought the downtown area could only get better. A new parking lot project would have a big impact on that. He also said any revitalization in Laconia will have positive impacts on Meredith as well.