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'Shout it from the hilltops': Millennials driving downtown projects

New Hampshire Union Leader

November 12. 2016 5:24PM

BEDFORD - Fewer millennials want to own cars than their parents, and more empty nesters want to live downtown.

Companies are finding they are competing for workers who increasingly are factoring in quality of life - as well as a paycheck - when deciding where to work.

A greater desire to live downtown is spurring projects such as new apartments in the Citizens Bank building on Manchester's Elm Street and a planned $500 million village of shops, restaurants and housing at the former Rockingham Park in Salem.

"It's not only the millennials that we're seeing, but empty nesters ... who want to stay in their community and are really kind of rewriting some of the rules about downtown development in the cities that we work in," said Susan Silberberg, founder and managing director of CivicMoxie, a planning and urban design firm.

The Southern New Hampshire Planning Commission hired the Brookline, Mass., firm to develop a transportation and land use plan for Manchester's downtown, Millyard and riverfront.

"We're in an information economy and people want to be where there are ideas, where there's vibrancy, where you can connect not only on the internet, but with people within your public space, within your work space," Silberberg said during last week's economic development and infrastructure summit at the Manchester Country Club.

Silberberg said she is exploring how to make the Millyard more of a destination location, to improve parking options and to tie the riverfront and Millyard into the downtown area.

Companies looking to settle in New Hampshire are going beyond searching for a site with good highway access, according to Carmen Lorentz, director of the state Division of Economic Development.

"We're hearing a lot more about it, particularly when it comes to the ability of companies to attract the workers that they're looking for that the quality of place," she said during the summit.

"So all of the stuff together, the walkability, the quality of a village center or a downtown, is really important to companies and they do talk to us about that," she said.

"We have CEOs that say, 'Well, I need to bring people in from other countries and other parts of this country for really important meetings. I want really nice hotels, I want them to be able to walk from our office to the hotel, and I want there to be a lot of restaurants,'" Lorentz said.

"Manchester looks real nice to those types of companies," she said.

In recent months, plans have solidified for a hotel downtown and another in the Millyard.

But New Hampshire has disadvantages, Lorentz said.

Public transportation "can be a real challenge particularly when companies are looking at trying to bring in a younger workforce, less likely to want to buy cars, want to live in more urban settings," she said.

State Transportation Commissioner Victoria Sheehan said the state is not only working to fix deficient bridges but also addressing changing lifestyles.

"When you started talking about this desire from the younger generation to have more livable and walkable communities, we're expanding our sidewalk networks," she said. "We're building these (walking) trails."

The state's unemployment rate ranks tied for the lowest in the nation. Many companies have noted difficulties in attracting skilled workers.

"I don't think we've given the marketing effort a fair shake," said Matt Cookson, executive director of the New Hampshire High-Tech Council. "We've never appropriately funded a marketing effort in this state."

Cookson said the marketing effort could stress the state's assets.

"No taxes, great environment, safe, convenience, great location and oh, by the way, we have thousands of jobs that pay six figures," Cookson said. "I think there's a huge value proposition there, and I think we need to shout it from the hilltops."

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