December 23. 2012 11:15PM

City business leaders against elminating city economic development post

New Hampshire Union Leader

MANCHESTER - Business leaders are pushing back against plans to possibly eliminate the position of city economic development chief.

The Board of Mayor and Aldermen is debating the future of the post, along with the overall mission of the Economic Development Office, following the resignation last month of Jay Minkarah.

Mayor Ted Gatsas has argued that Minkarah's departure presents an opportunity to take a different approach to development. He's questioned how effective Minkarah and others who have held the post have been in bringing employers to the city, and he has argued that what the city really needs is someone is to guide developers through the building and permitting process.

Representatives of the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce, the Manchester Development Corp. and Amoskeag Industries all have argued that the city needed to maintain, if not expand the authority of, an economic development director.

"We need an independent economic development chief," said Robin Comstock, the president and CEO of the chamber, at a special aldermanic committee meeting last week. "The chamber feels strongly about this."

Bill Sirak, the executive director of Amoskeag Industries, a group that was involved in the development of the downtown mill buildings, said, "I was very disappointed when Jay Minkarah left," he said. "We need a person to fill that capacity, to be that quarterback to drive (development)."

Sirak is also a past board member of the MDC, a volunteer organization that works with the city economic office to provide financing for redevelopments projects.

The two spoke following a presentation by Sean Owen, the president of the marketing firm wedu, who argued that the economic development office needed to be strengthened.

"We want a department that is marketing the city, nationally and in our region, that Manchester is a vibrant community and is growing," Owen said.

Owen added, "Someone needs to look at larger opportunities that exist around a parcel of land, whether it's a new office buildings or an entertainment complex. We don't have that in the city now."

Mayor Gatsas, who also addressed the committee, noted that, based on inquiries he made to city officials, Nashua, Concord and Rochester had all begun to move away from the economic development office model employed by Manchester.

"Change is difficult and scary, but I can tell you change is better than staying with the status quo," Gatsas said.

He suggested that the idea of an economic development chief who goes out and brings employers to the city is outdated. "In this day and age of computers today," he said, "a developer might punch in a computer, look at the tax climate of a place, look at the things there the company might need, and after that, what ever community is picked is the order taker."

Alderman Patrick Arnold, who chairs of the special committee, has been advocating for maintaining the economic development post. He called the most recent meeting a "productive discussion."

"One thing I take away is that more and more people are coming to agree with us, that (economic development) hasn't been a priority in Manchester. Some of us want to change that," he said.

Alderman Pat Long, whose ward includes downtown, said that he would like to see the business community lend more financial support to an economic development entity. In turn, he said, it would have more say over its direction and leader.

"This person needs to fly on their own," Long said. "It doesn't have to be a government entity. Because government often thinks it knows best how to deal with a situation. That hasn't worked. I think maybe that was the issue prior to now."

The debate over the future of the economic development office comes as a difficult budget season gets underway and department heads lobby for their fiscal year 2014 spending plans.

The Economic Development Office has a budget of $204,000, in 2013, and more than half of this amount was designated for Minkarah's salary.

The office was responsible for overseeing antenna tower leases, which brought in around $150,000 in revenue annually. Mayor Gatsas, in one of his first moves after his office was given temporary authority over the department following Minkarah's departure, transferred the tower leases, along with administration of the revolving loan fund, to the Finance Department.

Gatsas has maintained that any changes he might want to make to the department weren't based on budgetary calculations.

The joint Committees on Jobs/Economic Development and Administration is expected to continue to debate the future of the office.