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Another View -- Rebecca Perkins: Rebranding the NH Advantage for millennials

April 20. 2017 5:39PM

This state is amazing. It may sound trite, but as a 34-year-old who grew up here, left after college, and came back, it bears repeating. New Hampshire is an amazing little state.

That said, I have been listening for 15 years to the discussion about attracting young professionals to New Hampshire. It is clear that the workforce in New Hampshire is our current economic constraint — employers across the state are clamoring for workers to fill open positions, or grow. As barely a millennial myself, I view the key question we should be asking millennials is: “So, what brought (or keeps) you here?”

Because of the high cost of housing, we’ve lost our traditional “New Hampshire Advantage,” which used to be a low cost of living relative to the Boston market. For some, this creates a sense of defeat. But from my perspective, creating more expensive downtowns is exactly where we need to start.

Here’s the thing about millennials. We are looking for a place to build our life, and we will look everywhere, even nationwide, for that perfect place. It will likely have nothing to do with where we went to college. Once we find an interesting job, we will look at what else a place has to offer. It must have good schools, because we want to stay in the same community to have our families, and become a part of that community by joining the local boards. We want a small home — house or apartment, to rent or own — that is easy to maintain. We want the downtown to be built well enough to serve as our living room; the beach and mountains our gym. The building environment and land use regulations are a key component of creating this right mix.

What does all this mean for our state? It means we have a new “New Hampshire Advantage.” The access that we have to the outdoors is something that Boston, Brooklyn or Washington, D.C., can’t replicate. Our small cities have all the right authentic, civic, entrepreneurial energy. If the millennials of America knew about our little state, they would be flooding here!

In order to accommodate what millennials (and also, by the way, baby boomers) are looking for, we need to focus our local zoning and our state planning on dense, walkable, mixed-use downtowns, with logical commuting routes that incorporate robust, convenient, multimodal public transportation — so we can get to work and then get home, or out to the mountains. This will attract the workforce we need to continue to grow.

As a state, I see signs we are recognizing this. In Nashua, James Vayo and others are leading an organized charge to revamp the downtown and bring in commuter rail. DRED Commissioner Jeff Rose should be given the budget to follow his vision to market New Hampshire outside of our state. State Sen. Dan Feltes is advocating for funds for the Workforce Housing Trust Fund in this year’s state capital budget through SB 94, but it is currently tabled by the Senate. The 603 Initiative is advocating for policies that benefit and attract young professionals, including local projects that use these land use patterns. And in Portsmouth, I just led a housing committee to recommend zoning changes to the city council that will be up for a vote this year focused on creating dense, mixed-use centers across our city.

But we can’t stop there. You can’t market something successfully if it’s not the “real deal.” The promise of our little state is that we have all the right elements; we could be the real deal.

Thus, we must be bold. We must invest time now in rethinking our land-use patterns in order to attract the workforce that will keep this state growing over the next 5, 10 and 25 years. We must be strategic about investments in infrastructure and public transportation (including commuter rail), and recognize that, regardless of how much we like our independence, stronger regional control over planning and public functions can achieve tangible economic benefits, including economies of scale. Only through these efforts can we ensure continued economic success for our state for the foreseeable future.

Millennials recognize organic, sincere efforts by states and communities to improve themselves. Let’s attract millennial workers into our state and give them ownership as the next generation of stewards for this wonderful place we all call home.

Rebecca Perkins is a Portsmouth city councilor, and a member of the Union Leader’s 2017 40 Under Forty.

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