Every day, my commute to and from work takes me past a construction project in Candia. Just beyond the offramps of Exit 3 off Route 101, a gas station sits in the middle of a work zone, earth movers and machines carving pieces of the terrain away bit by bit. It’s a dramatic sight if you know what used to be there.
But in some ways, it’s more dramatic when you recall what was there ten years ago, or longer.
For most of my youth, Candia was just somewhere you passed through on the way to somewhere else. You got off Route 101, and a car dealership sat atop the hill at the end of the Exit 3 offramp. From there, you followed Route 43 to Route 27, the old east-to-west highway to and from the beach, before Route 101 was a reality. Or you followed Route 43 north into Deerfield to get to the Deerfield Fair. For a kid, there was little reason to visit Candia for Candia’s sake.
But as an adult, you become aware of the businesses lining Route 27 from Hooksett to Raymond, providing transportation and landscaping services, or selling appliances and clean pool water. You recognize the real estate opportunities in Candia and Deerfield, not too far from the city, but set back in the quiet, undeveloped countryside.
And you come to understand that places you pass through from one place to another are gateways.
Candia is a gateway to Deerfield, to Northwood, to Raymond, and all points beyond.
Gateways are not merely waypoints, though; they need to be welcoming and inviting, both to those making home within and to those just passing by. Candia had two small gas stations, one with a sandwich shop inside, plus a local pizzeria and a low-key diner. For years, off Route 43 there was the Candia General Store, a local hub of activity and news. But little of that was plainly visible off the highway.
What was visible was the former car dealership, having rotated through periods of housing a trucking company and an equipment rental business, among others. And just beyond the exit were large parcels of land with little beyond rumored uses. One town rumor suggested a grocery store had tried to buy one of the parcels. For my early years working in Candia, both remained vacant, full of trees and opportunity.
But then, about seven or eight years ago, the trees were cleared, then the land was flattened, and what emerged was the Candia First Stoppe. Opened in March of 2011, the Candia First Stoppe was the gateway concept made real. A convenience store, sandwich shop and coffee stand sat at the center of a modern gas station, complete with diesel pumps and parking for tractor-trailers. It was a boon for locals who wanted to avoid a trip back to Manchester or Raymond and an oasis for road-weary travelers.
Since its opening, the First Stoppe has made some incremental improvements, swapping its own coffee for Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and adding a seasonal ice cream stand. Another seasonal vendor appears in the fall to sell pumpkins. On Thursday nights in the summer, the First Stoppe hosts a weekly Cruise Night, gathering car lovers for a casual show of street rods, classics, antiques and muscle cars. The Cruise Nights are popular enough to line Route 43 with parked cars as enthusiasts gather.
The gas station was built off an unfinished stub road, and stub roads mean opportunities, even if none seem immediately obvious. Earlier this year, the earth-moving equipment reappeared. This time, it broke through the stub road and beyond, carving into the hills and earthen berms surrounding the gas station. Big plans were afoot.
The biggest portion of the plan involves the trucking industry. The First Stoppe is making upgrades to position itself as an independent truck stop, including expanded parking, more diesel pumps, restrooms with showers, and a laundry room. A separate truck entrance will keep the increased truck traffic from overwhelming the gas station. With changes in the hours-of-service regulations taking effect in December, and considering southern New Hampshire is notoriously thin on formal truck stops, the upgrades will be welcomed with open arms.
Expanded parking has already been implemented, which helped to thin parking along the highway during the later summer Cruise Nights. The new accommodations for trucks will surely make Cruise Nights a bit smoother, as the two worlds will no longer have to mingle.
Also on the plan is a pub adjacent to the gas station. There are few sit-down dining options in Candia or Deerfield. Judging by the success of the nearby Tuckaway Tavern in Raymond and the Auburn Tavern one exit away, there may be more opportunity for a casual eatery between the two.
In some ways, it seems like a celebration of the mundane. But for a small town like Candia, it’s a welcome upgrade from ten and fifteen and even twenty years ago. I think back to when a relative bought a house in northern Vermont. The rural life was appealing. But if you forgot eggs or milk on the way home, it was an hour round-trip to the nearest store. In Candia, that might be more like thirty minutes. But the thirty-minute trip that sounds simple at five o’clock becomes shockingly daunting by 7:30. It may not be a daily stop, but it’s there when you need it.
The Candia First Stoppe is a means of bridging the gap between the rural life and the convenience of city living. It’s a benefit to those who work in town, and an encouragement to those who might consider working there. And it’s an oasis to those who find themselves at the exit looking for some form of refreshment.
In many ways, it’s the gateway to a gateway.