HAMPTON BEACH, N.H. – Mary Donovan calls Hampton Beach a place to come home to.

Donovan, 53, who grew up in northern Massachusetts and now lives in Londonderry, has played football on the beach on New Year’s Day. She’s watched the fireworks, held weekly in the summer. And she’s eagerly taken in the annual sand sculpting contests and seafood festivals.

New Hampshire isn’t well-known for its beaches, but in a state with a mere 18 miles of seacoast, fans feel this strip frequented by generations of families from New England and tourists from other states and Canada is a jewel in the rough. Once a barren place used for farming hay, the beach is undergoing a $14.5 million facelift, getting new bathhouses, a boardwalk and a new Seashell Stage complex for its nightly summertime concerts.

“My childhood is here. My children’s memories are here,” Donovan said as she gazed at the Atlantic Ocean and introduced the 1-year-old daughter of a friend to the joys of crawling around in the sand.

‘A FAMILY TOURIST AREA’

Business and community leaders don’t want to lose the momentum the improvements are bringing. The beach itself last year received a national ranking as one of the cleanest, but the strip shows a number of weather-worn beachwear shops, fried dough stands and motels — some dating back to the 1800s — with faded signs and peeling siding.

There are some vacant lots, including a central block where the long-standing Surf Hotel, the Happy Hampton Arcade and Mrs. Mitchell’s Gift Shop were destroyed in a fire fanned by hurricane-force winds at the end of February. The owners plan to rebuild.

“There’s so many people that look at this and they say, ‘Oh, it’s like really honky-tonk.’ But it’s so typical of what we were brought up with as children, back in the ’50s and ’60s,” said Skip Windemiller, who has run a real estate business in Hampton Beach for 32 years. He used to visit the beach as a high school student in Haverhill, Mass. “You’ve got the cotton candy, and you’ve got the arcades — to me it’s Americana. That’s something that was a bygone era.”

In addition to getting the burned businesses back, a commission dedicated to beach improvements and planning wants to find new businesses that are willing to invest in the area for the long term, interested in staying open beyond the summer and in creating an upgraded uniform “Main Street” look to complement the renovations.

“We want to continue to make this a family tourist area,” commission chairman John Nyhan said.

CLEANING UP THE IMAGE

A study done for the state in December 2008 estimated that tourists spent about $170 million at Hampton Beach that year, much of it from restaurants, accommodations, recreation and retail stores. Factoring in the state’s beach improvements, that amount would increase an additional $31 million by 2014.

Regulars say the beach, established as a state park in 1934, is easy to get to and has so many activities: the concerts, the “Hampton Idol” singing contest and the Catamaran Regatta, to name a few.

Even with those attractions and the planned improvements, the beach has had some troubles in recent years trying to shake off its raucous image. In April, for example, someone in a passing car shot 70-year-old John Gebhart in the back with a blow dart. He was clearing dandelions from the area at the time as part of a volunteer beautification effort.

Gebhart said it was an unfortunate event, and it led him to support a bill already pending in the Legislature that would tighten regulations on the sale of darts, crossbows and other weapons sold at the beach.

But it hasn’t taken away his enthusiasm for Hampton Beach. That’s where he met his wife, Linda, back in 1959, when he was stationed at Pease Air Force Base. The two retired to her family’s summer cottage several years ago after raising their family in Connecticut.

“She is so attached to it. This is where she had her childhood, growing up. This is where all the fun was, the fond memories,” he said.

Windemiller said the basic character of the beach hasn’t changed through the years. First, the students about to graduate from high school show up to work on their tans. Then the college graduates hang out before starting their summer jobs. the end of June families arrive, and retired couples are often seen in September.

“We rent at least 10 places to this big family. They come from California, Colorado,” Windemiller said. “Their family has grown and every year they come back and they all come for the same week” for a big reunion that includes a scavenger hunt.

“It gets in your blood and people come back year after year,” he said.