How Lake Winnipesaukee is fueling the self-storage boom in the Lakes Region

memory boom

Gilford Self Storage District Manager Melissa Aube-French has been in the storage business for 19 years. In that time, she has seen demand increase and property prices skyrocket. (Jon Decker/The Laconia Daily Sun)

Things. Everyone has it – some more than others – and if national statistics are to be believed, Americans have more of it than ever before. What we do with this stuff and where we store it is big business in the Lakes Region now.

Prior to the 1980s, there were no notable self-storage businesses in New Hampshire. Just four decades later, a search of the Secretary of State’s office for companies with the word “storage” in their names yields nearly 1,400 records.

Apparently it all started with Dick Letendre founding Gilford Self Storage a few years after a fateful visit to Arizona. At the time, Letendre was working for Velcro and was trying to find storage space for the company.

“First [storage units] I saw it was 1978,” Letendre recalled during a phone interview from his Florida home. “I said, ‘What the hell are they building?’ I saw and spoke to these units and that was the first idea I had to sell memory.”

After retiring from Velcro, Letendre returned to Gilford with his new business venture.

“He came back here and wanted to do it,” said Melissa Aube-French, district manager of Gilford Self Storage. “The banks thought he was crazy.”

But not every bank shied away from Letendre’s ambitions.

“Laconia Savings was the first bank to fund a self-storage facility in 1983,” Letendre said. “We had to educate people. You had to raise her. Persuade her into it. Back in ’83 you tried to throw a picture by shocking her. That’s why we made orange doors.”

To this day, the orange doors on Gilford’s estate stand. Though much has changed in 40 years, the cornerstone of the region’s storage business remains the same: Lake Winnipesaukee.

“There is a need,” said Donald Demers, who founded Runway Storage near Laconia Municipal Airport in December 2022. “I think a lot of people are moving to the area, and the lakes also amplify the need for storage, along with the age group.”

This age group is the 50 to 65 year olds; People who finally have enough money (or credit) to buy big toys and take full advantage of life in the lake region.

“It’s boats, cars, motorcycles and antiques, antiques, antiques,” Demers said, adding that much of his customer base is from this demographic.

“It’s not the younger people who come off the streets,” Aube-French said. “It’s a middle-aged family with a decent income. We keep building buildings. We put one up every spring.”

When Aube-French meets younger people in her shop, it’s not often in the best of circumstances.

“Often when I rent to someone [younger]they were expelled,” Aube-French said.

Covid waiting list

As housing becomes scarce and unaffordable, such encounters are becoming the norm for the warehouse business.

Property prices in the region have skyrocketed, with more affordable properties topping $350,000. According to the 2020 census, the median household income of Laconia is $55,814 and the poverty rate is 11.2%.

“Pretty much every week someone comes in and says, ‘I lost my apartment because my landlord decided to sell it,'” Aube-French said, adding that many are moving in with their families to live in the area stay . “There’s an influx of stuff like that. There’s just no place to live.”

Aube-French has been with the company for 19 years and has seen many changes in these almost two decades.

“During Covid we had a waiting list – pages and pages. It was crazy,” she recalls. “It’s dead. Now that the economy is becoming less stable we have availability. Not a ton but some.”

This Covid-era waiting list was spawned by a third but smaller demographic: out-of-states. The remote work revolution sparked by the pandemic led to a nationwide exodus of workers to more rural areas like the Lakes Region. Why work in a big, crowded city when most of your work can be done from a laptop?

“The younger families and people are the ones who are moving, storing furniture and spaces like this, personal items, we get some of that,” Demers said.

Such migration patterns may have increased the tax base in rural areas, but it comes at a price. For those who cannot afford to live in the lake region, storage is the first step in their journey to cheaper pastures.

“The other thing we hear is ‘I’ve decided to sell my house,’ ‘I’m going to move to Florida,’ or ‘I’m going to move to North Carolina where it’s cheaper to live,'” Aube-French said. “They’ve sold their house or they’re consolidating or building up here, but the housing market is going crazy.”

No matter how unstable or unfair the housing market becomes, the lake’s demand for boats, kayaks, motorcycles and other recreational toys, and the appeal of people who can afford such trinkets, will likely remain the foundation of the local storage industry.

“Without the lakes, there would be far less need for storage,” says Demers.

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