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Expert says cities, towns need to thaw job freeze

New Hampshire Union Leader

February 01. 2013 9:54PM

GOFFSTOWN - New Hampshire job growth has been essentially frozen for the past decade, and it's up to the cities and towns in the state to do something about it.

That was the call to action from an expert on economic development, who warned a gathering of local business owners and municipal officials on Thursday that federal and state governments are overextended and will have little to offer in the way of economic stimulus in the years ahead.

Local leadership is critical to job growth, because "companies move to municipalities, not states," said Barry Bluestone, founding director of the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University in a presentation to a regional economic development group that embraces Manchester and 13 surrounding communities.

Bluestone was the keynote speaker at the annual meeting of Access Greater Manchester, created in 2012 as Metro Center-NH, under the leadership of the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce, Southern New Hampshire Planning Commission and the state Division of Economic Development.

Bluestone urged government and business leaders in the audience at St. Anselm College to take an objective look at how welcoming their communities are for development, and to awaken to the new realities of the New Hampshire economy. Job growth in the state has been anemic since the end of the 1990s, he said.

The state saw significant job growth in that decade, as the number of jobs in the state rose from 508,000 in 1990 to 627,000 in 2001, which is the same number of jobs now available 12 years later, in 2013. The number of jobs spiked close to 650,000 in 2008, before a loss of about 25,000 jobs in the Great Recession that have yet to be recovered.

"For all intents and purposes, employment has not increased in New Hampshire in a decade," he said. "There is something that's stalled out here. Over the next decade, you are going to be competing in a global and national market, so if you want to maintain the services and wonderful standard of living you enjoy here, you've got to do something."

What does business want?

Bluestone and his associates surveyed 251 relocation specialists - the people who help companies decide where they should locate when they are starting a new business or trying to expand. He said the results of that survey show that many assumptions about what companies are looking for are simply off track, and that policymakers spend too much time on tangential issues while not paying enough attention to the things that do matter.

"When we asked about minimum wage laws, they laughed at us," he said, suggesting they were irrelevant to the kind of companies communities need to attract. Access to rail was not an issue except for heavy manufacturing. When it comes to strong trade unions versus right-to-work, Bluestone said the issue is moot in a country where union membership is down to 11.6 percent of the work force. "No one cares," he said.

Old perks of minimal value

Even tax incentives are of minimal value, he said, since most businesses don't even ask for them until they've already decided on a particular location.

So which location factors are most important to businesses looking to move or expand? Practical things like on-site parking for employees, reasonable rental or lease rates, availability of an appropriately skilled labor force and the timeliness of approvals and appeals.

The last factor is the one that local officials can most effectively control, and which most needs their attention, he said. Being considered a development-friendly city or town will be essential to economic development in the future. That may mean rethinking zoning and land-use procedures and regulations, especially in communities still stuck in the 1980s, when controlling, not stimulating, growth was the goal.

Bluestone and his colleagues at Northeastern have developed a survey that community leaders can take to assess how development-friendly their community is, with the goal of making changes as needed. Nearly 100 communities have taken the survey, including Bow, Londonderry, Merrimack, Milford, Pelham, Rochester and Windham in New Hampshire.

He encouraged communities to create pre-approved sites for development, which the Access Manchester group plans to do through a "Ready, Set, Go" program unveiled before Bluestone's presentation.

Communities participating in the Access Manchester initiative are Auburn, Bedford, Candia, Chester, Deerfield, Derry, Goffstown, Londonderry, Hooksett, Manchester, Raymond, New Boston, Weare and Windham.

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