All it took was one snowstorm and Rusty McLear turned Bruce and Cathy Crossman into regulars to this little Granite State town.
The Crossmans used to cut through Meredith on their way from Connecticut to North Conway on Route 3, but one February day more than 20 years ago, they ran into fierce weather and pulled into the new Inns at Mill Falls, hoping to snag a room.
“This guy came out and it was Rusty,” Bruce Crossman said about the man who heads Hampshire Hospitality Holdings, a local company that many feel triggered the town’s transformation from milltown to tourist destination over the past three decades. “He said, ‘We’ll put you up.’ We stayed for two days. We’ve been going back every year since.”
In the early 1980s Meredith, on a Lake Winnipesaukee bay in the heart of the state’s Lakes Region, was a rundown, hardscrabble kind of place, with a bunch of decrepit old mill buildings, including a closed asbestos plant. Not a lot going for it.
All that has changed. Meredith is now home to three area golf courses, several places to stay, more than a dozen restaurants, and marinas, summer camps, playgrounds, and hiking trails. Meredith Bay is also a regular stop for the popular M/S Mount Washington, which this summer kicks off a new Friday night dinner cruise.
“We’ve gone from being the gateway to the White Mountains, long considered the approach to somewhere else,” said John Edgar, Meredith’s community development director, “to becoming a destination.”
In the early 1980s, the local Rotary Club put up $60,000 to turn a gravel parking lot by the water into Hesky Park, now a popular picnic spot. McLear, then in residential real estate, saw the town’s potential, and with a partner, Ed Gardner, started buying up mill buildings, razing most but in 1984 turning one into the Mill Falls Marketplace.
McLear’s company built the inn a year later, and the transformation of the town was underway. The company now includes four hotels, all facing the lake, and the marketplace, which is a complex of four buildings with shops and restaurants inside, and a waterfall outside that once powered the mill next door.
That business led to others locating in town, including shops, restaurants, and antiques stores, just up the hill on Main Street, which in 2005 was voted a Best Main Street Community by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The tiny town of 6,200 year-round residents balloons to more than 20,000 in summer, said Edgar. “We are a service economy, no question,” he said. “Hospitality and tourism are our life’s blood.”
The town’s tourist demographic is more upscale and older, said Amy Landers, executive director of the Lakes Region Association. The big draw is the town’s smallness and walkability, she said, with the inns, restaurants, and shops hugging 1,000 feet of lake frontage, where decades ago there was nothing but overgrown shoreline.
“It’s a walking lakefront community,” Landers said. “You have a spa at the Church Landing hotel, canoe and kayak rentals on the water, everything is right where you need it without having to go anywhere.”
Edgar said Meredith’s downtown is thriving, because of the development of inns and restaurants, fitting in with the town’s 1982 master plan that sought to redevelop the waterfront and business district. He credits McLear with having a lot to do with it. Among other things, McLear started a voluntary program that asks guests to donate $1.50 per night to the town’s beautification conservation fund that has resulted in planting trees, flowers, and shrubs all around town.
“The Mill Falls building project was the watershed project for the town turning the corner,” Edgar said. “And Rusty lives here, his partners live here, they’re invested in the town, they’re local people doing big projects that could just as easily been done by a big out-of-state chain.”
The tourism industry took note. In 2008, McLear was named Travel Person of the Year by the N.H. Travel Council. In 2006, Gail Bastone, his general manager, took the N.H. Lodging Restaurant Association’s Innkeeper of the Year award. Last year, Church Landing earned a Travelers’ Choice Award from TripAdvisor, which named the Adirondack-style lodge the third most romantic hotel in the country.
Meredith is a town that takes care of itself, according to freshman State Senator Jeanine Forrester, who lives in town and whose district includes Meredith. Before her election two years ago, she was the director of the Greater Meredith Program, part of the Main Street Program.
“We did an extreme makeover project on the Phu Jee Asian restaurant on Main Street,” Forrester said. “Everyone turned out, town workers, construction workers, electricians, plumbers, designers. They stripped away this ugly green tin facade to restore the beautiful brick underneath, at no cost to the owner of the restaurant, who lives upstairs.”
About 10 years ago, she said, the state transportation department came to town saying it was going to widen Route 3 that cuts right by the lake, opening up the two-lane road to four and greatly reducing access to the economic engine that is the waterfront.
“Meredith said, ‘Nope, it’s not what you’re gonna do,’” Forrester said. “They sent them packing.”
In the recession of the early 1990s, several big New Hampshire banks failed, including one McLear was doing business with. Meredith Village Savings Bank stepped in.
“They stood by us when times were tough,” McLear said. “We wouldn’t be here if not for them. They deserve a lot of credit for what this town has become.”
A new kid on the business block is Kara’s Cafe and Cakery on Main Street, a popular spot for breakfast and lunch, with porch tables outside and a cozy seating area inside with free Wi-Fi. It’s run by a young couple, Carlos and Kara Martinez.
“My wife is from Meredith originally, and we were living in New York City, and always talked about owning our own place,” Carlos Martinez said. “It was a quick decision. We came here and a month later, we opened this place.”
That was last May. Business has been good year-round, he said, summer the busiest, in a building that also houses a tattoo shop and a salon. Across the street are Phu Jee and a cooking store, So Little Thyme. Up a hill on nearby Highland Street, the towering white spire of the First Congregational Church juts into the sky.
“It’s nice here, quiet,” Martinez said, adding with a smile, “quieter than New York.”
And that’s what many people are after, McLear said. A few years ago, a bad winter rain saw about 100 guests canceling their hotel reservations. McLear got on the phone and called them all, not to chide them but to find out why they were coming in the first place.
“I asked them, ‘Were you coming to ski, ice fish, snowmobile,’” said McLear. “Most said they just liked sitting inside and looking at the pretty snow and lake outside.”
And that would include the Crossmans of Connecticut.
“We don’t ski or anything, we just sit in front of the fire, talk to people,” said Bruce Crossman, a retired Navy Seabee. “We come up for our anniversary, and sometimes just hop in the car and come up for a weekend. It’s just all-around nice.”
If you go...
Where to stay
281 Daniel Webster Highway
A four-floor, 57-room Adirondack- style lodge, all with great lake views and fireplaces, free Wi-Fi. Rates from $239.
The Tuckernuck Inn
25 Red Gate Lane
A few minutes’ walk from the lake, the B&B is also close to the Mill Falls Marketplace and the area’s restaurants and stores. Rates from $139.
Where to eat
Kara’s Cafe and Cakery
48 Main St.
Hot spot for breakfast and lunch, with outdoor porch dining in good weather and couches and chairs by a fireplace inside, with free Internet. Breakfast items from $2.50, lunch from $5.95.
233 Daniel Webster Highway
Longtime family-run eatery, popular with locals and tourists, serving turkey in every conceivable way — including tempura — and specials like the Friday night buffet, adults $16, children $8.
What to do
Interlakes Community Theatre
1 Laker Lane
A planned lineup of summer children’s shows that include “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” “The Velveteen Rabbit,” and “Really Rose.” Tickets $8-$30.
Shep Brown’s Boat Basin
31 Lovejoy Sands Road
Rent a 2012 Boston Whaler for $225 a day, or for a bigger group, a 12-person pontoon boat for $395.
Paul E. Kandarian can be reached at kandarian@globe