A Strong New Hampshire Economy Starts in Our Own Back Yards

Robin LeBlanc

The information contained in this article is not intended as legal advice and may no longer be accurate due to changes in the law. Consult NHMA's legal services or your municipal attorney.

The state is doing a great deal to increase opportunities, and according to Commissioner Taylor Caswell of the Department of Business and Economic Affairs in a July 6, 2018 article in New Hampshire Business Review, “vastly improve the focus and practice of how we do economic development.”  We applaud these efforts.

In addition to innovative state strategies, we cannot overlook the important role that our New Hampshire cities and towns themselves play in the economic future of our state.

We are learning that nationally many young adults are choosing where they want to live before they look for jobs. These are most often walkable/ runnable neighborhoods with work, amenities and social/cultural and even natural assets nearby.  If they are hikers or skiers, they want to be near the mountains.  If they love to bike, they want to be near good trails or bike routes.  If they play adult soccer, lacrosse, or tennis, they want fields and courts.

Older adults, too, are looking for walkable neighborhoods with amenities that support their interests as they downsize and move into the next phase of their lives.   

In addition, many businesses are thinking of relocating to where a worker population already is.

So what might we in New Hampshire do with this information? 

If you are thinking about growing your economic and/or demographic base, start with taking a look at who and what you already have.   

You have people and businesses who have already chosen your town.Who are they?Why are they here?What can you, as a community, do to nurture and foster those who have already invested in your community?

Note:  Make no assumptionsAsk them. Talk to people one on one.  Do surveys.  Find out who they are, why they are here, why they would like to stay.  And what challenges they might be facing.   Look at these challenges as opportunities. (Use the positives as quotes in marketing your town!)

Next, look at your overall community assets.What are the overriding, defining characteristics from which you draw your identity? How can you leverage these to attract, retain and grow your business base, your demographic base, and visitors?

Say you are a smaller town in the mountains, with a river running through.There is cross country skiing all winter and lots of trails year round for mountain biking and hiking Your town center is stereotype New Hampshire – town hall, library, school, church with steeple, general store. Using these to build your economic base:

  • People love to visit our small towns for their “quaint, picturesque” feel.   What can you do to make their visit a real “experience”?  What do you offer that could engage people in your community?
  • Is your river one that can be canoed or kayaked?  Fished?  What enterprises could support this?  How could the river be used as a draw for visitors or newcomers?
  • And what do you have in place for non-residents who might be hiking or biking?  Do you have places for people to get something to eat, sleep, or simply spend time?  Get skis or bikes repaired?

People are moving to Colorado and Montana for the skiing and hiking and kayaking and fishing – and jobs are following.  We have those same offerings here!

However, this aspect of quality of life can only go so far.  There are some fundament resources that communities of all sizes and attributes need to consider paying attention to.

In 2016, the Michigan Municipal League identified eight “assets that Michigan’s communities need to grow and strengthen in order for [their] state to grow and prosper in coming years.”  Their consultant, Public Sector Consultants, found significant relationships between these areas and “economic prosperity”.  We believe that these are relevant to our own future here in New Hampshire:

  1. Community design based on walkability.  Of course, this is not feasible everywhere, but many communities in New Hampshire could have walkable, mixed-use town centers.  Just getting from the Library to the Post Office without having to get into the car again might be a goal.
  2. Choices in ways to get about.  Complete streets where they make sense, and vehicular options for those who do not drive – whether on-demand or regularly-scheduled.  It will never be perfect, but we need to acknowledge that at any given time there might be 20% of the  population who do not drive.
  3. Support for natural assets from wetlands to trails.  These are not just part of the important ecosystem of your physical environment, they are a significant part of your identity and why people love your community.  When we think of favorite places, we do not think of asphalt.
  4. Arts and cultural amenities. These give a community a sense of place, and are underrated economic drivers.  A 2017 report revealed that in four regions of this state, the total economic impact was $120 million. This includes money spent on jobs, on ticket fees, on spending in restaurants and other places near an event.  
  5. Encouraging start-ups and other entrepreneurial activity.  There are many ways to do this, depending on the enterprises and on your community.
  6. Diversity and welcoming culture.  New Hampshire has a rich heritage of diverse people and cultures contributing to the fabrics of our communities and the economy.   Recent studies show that today, new arrivals to our country and even our state are extremely innovative and entrepreneurial.
  7. Quality schools.  Good schools are usually deal-breakers for families looking to put down roots.   Keeping schools open, with top-quality teachers, is an important, if not critical, investment in the community itself, with long-term benefits.  Without young families, how can your community continue?  Quality schools attract families and become a social hub of the community.
  8. Communication.  This means not only communication with and among community members, but providing infrastructure to support it. Broadband is not just a nice-to-have, it is a necessity for a healthy future – for people, for businesses, and our institutions.

Finally, it is critical for every community to be able to offer choices in places to live:  choices in design (e.g., one floor or two, cottage or traditional), choices in location and in price-point.   Your community members have different needs – whether young families or single people, or older adults or in between, one type of place to live may not be suitable for everyone. 

To keep existing and to attract new businesses, there have to be places to live for the people who work there, from entry-level on up.  To attract and keep people as residents, there have to be choices in where they can live. 

This is an exciting time in New Hampshire.  How we approach economic development and growth is changing.   Our communities are our biggest asset – with vision, skill and will, each can become a contributor to the overall health and vibrancy of our state.

Robin H. LeBlanc is Executive Director of Plan NH. Robin may be reached by phone at 603.452.PLAN or by email at info@planNH.org.  Plan NH is an independent organization with a mission to “foster excellence in planning, design and development of New Hampshire’s built environment”.  Its members are municipalities, architects, landscape architects, planners, engineers, builders and others with an interest in the impact of what we build, where we build, and how we build (or rebuild) anything.  Plan NH raises awareness of this impact through its charrette program as well as through workshops and newsletters.