Wolfeboro, NH, braces for possible "White House North"
WOLFEBORO, New Hampshire
WOLFEBORO, New Hampshire (Reuters) - If Mitt Romney gets his wish, the ranks of presidential retreats that include Crawford, Texas, and Rancho del Cielo near Santa Barbara, California, could soon be joined by Wolfeboro, New Hampshire.
Big change could be coming to the rustic but affluent lakeside resort town on Lake Winnipesaukee if front-runner Romney becomes Republican nominee Romney, and ultimately President Romney after the November 2012 election.
Residents are already bracing for the good, the bad and the ugly that could accompany a "Northern White House."
The Romney's summer house on New Hampshire's largest lake is a three-story, six-bedroom, 5,400-square-foot contemporary home set on an 11-acre lot with a wide water frontage and estimated value of about $10 million.
The spread includes a large boathouse and a former stable that has been converted into a guest house. It sits well back from the road up a long driveway, invisible to passers-by.
The Romney clan, which includes five grown children and 16 grandchildren, often congregate in Wolfeboro in the summer. Empty-nesters Mitt and Ann Romney also own a townhouse in Belmont, Massachusetts, and an oceanfront house in La Jolla, California, which is undergoing a fourfold expansion.
Locals describe the Wolfeboro house, within walking distance of town, as tasteful and classy, which is also pretty much how they describe the owners.
Romney, the former chief executive of buyout firm Bain Capital and Massachusetts governor, is estimated to be worth some $200 million. He is the richest man to run for the White House since publisher and businessman Steve Forbes, who was worth about $430 million when he ran in 1996 and 2000.
Unlike Forbes, who made little headway in his quest, Romney is a strong favorite to win Tuesday's New Hampshire Republican primary, kick on to become party's nominee and have a fighting chance to take down President Barack Obama.
"We're already talking about how we might change this business if he is the nominee. We know things would change if he's the president," said Judith Colcord, co-owner of the Downtown Grille and Cafe. That might include adding staff or changing operating hours at the stylish coffee shop, with views of the lake from its back room and seasonal patio.
"I would like to talk to businesses in Kennebunkport about how it changed their community," said Colcord, referring to the coastal town in Maine where George H. W. Bush spent large amounts of time while he served as president and vice president.
Almost everyone in Wolfeboro has a story about the Romneys, many revolving around seeing the former Massachusetts governor cycling around town, helmetless (don't touch the hair!) on an old three-speed bike, or going to the town's popular ice-cream stand with various family members.
"I delivered him a pizza once, about five years ago, when he was governor," said Nick Sackos, 22, who works at Dive Winnipesaukee, an outdoor equipment store.
GEO-CACHING WITH THE ROMNEYS?
A few hundred yards off the Romney property at Clark's Point is a sunken rowboat, the Bumble Bee, used for "geo-caching" -- a treasure-hunting game that involves finding targets, including submerged objects, using GPS coordinates.
"We go scuba diving right outside his house," Sackos added. "We would probably do even more dives if Romney were president."
Wolfeboro residents insist they are not star-struck, given the many celebrities who visit the town each summer.
The roster has included actors Drew Barrymore and Leonardo DiCaprio; talk show host Jimmy Fallon; Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, recruiting at the elite boarding school Brewster Academy; and many current or former corporate executives who either own or rent properties here.
"We love the waterfront people in Wolfeboro. They pay almost 70 percent of the property taxes and don't put kids in the schools," said realtor Robert Hughes. "They are people who can live anywhere - and this is a very nice 'anywhere.'"
A 2007 vacation in town by French President Nicolas Sarkozy is remembered more critically than interactions with the good-neighbor Romneys. Some locals spoke of an overly aggressive security detail comprised of local law enforcement and private bodyguards while he stayed at a $30,000-a-week rental.
Teachers Joshua and Jennifer Keaton, out walking the family labradoodle, have seen Romney and his wife Ann cycling through town. "One time we saw him at Mise en Place (a local upscale restaurant). Most of the people in town are used to him," Joshua Keaton said.
Driving through downtown takes just a few minutes in the winter, when many stores are shut and summer residents long gone. The town is congested in the summer, and some residents worry about presidential motorcades clogging narrow roads and nosy tourists taking up the good parking spots.
The candidate was introduced to the Wolfeboro area by members of the Marriott hotel clan - not surprising since Willard Mitt Romney was named after J. Willard Marriott, the devout Mormon businessman who founded the company.
Romney bought the property in 1997 from Butch Cash, another hotel executive, for less than $3 million.
In 2004, realtor Hughes sold Romney, then Massachusetts governor, a small parcel of land abutting the main property. Hughes told him in an overnight letter the piece was available and being keenly sought by developers.
Romney quickly called back. "I dealt with him directly. I had his office phone, his private phone, his cell phone," Hughes recalled from his comfortable Main Street office.
"The residents here take pride in not bothering him. He's not a showy person. He's just a neighbor."
(Reporting By Ros Krasny; editing by Todd Eastham)