Leader Q&A: Michael King, retiring executive director of North Country Council
BETHLEHEM - Michael King, executive director of North Country Council, the regional planning commission and economic development planning district agency for the northern part of the state, announced he is stepping down. He recently sat down for an interview at his office.
Q. What attracted you to the position of executive director, and to the area, and what year?
A. In 1995 I came to North Country Council. We had a condo up here. I lived in southern New Hampshire and came up here because I was part of a little bit of downsizing at Digital Equipment. It was a complete career change for me. So you have to retrain yourself; you have to look at what you can do and what interests you.
I began in the financial management of North Country Council, and became executive director when Preston Gilbert left. So I was fortunate to get this job, and that was about 12 years ago.
Q. What was the general mission of North Country Council when you began?
A. I don't think the mission has changed much. The general mission was to be advisory to all the communities. In North Country Council we're an economic development district also. The mission was to promote good planning process and economic development to help the communities. We continue to do that to this day.
Q. When did you become an Economic Development District?
A. The region planning commission was formed in 1973 and the economic development was formed in 1975.
Q. What is CEDS?
A. The Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy, CEDS, is a planning document and a process that is intended to get economic developers in the region together and talk about different economic development projects and ones that would be eligible for all sorts of funding, not just EDA (Economic Development Administration) funding, but CDBG (Community Development Block Grant) funding or rural development funding, even private funding sources to see what things we can develop.
We continue to struggle with the Groveton mill and what we could put in there. We do have some EDA funding to do some work with, what businesses could go in there, how we could help the development with that project. We're working closely with DRED (Department of Resources and Economic Development) and the new owner. The bottom line is, we're going to do the best we can to try to create jobs in that facility, a very attractive facility given that it has a pipeline that goes by there and a possible rail line.
But the economy is the economy today.
Q. What do you see as some of the major accomplishments while you've been here?
A. When I first came to the council we were in a different place, so the building itself is an accomplishment. We bought it from the Forest Society.
I think some of the economic development projects we've done, we helped the Mountain View Grand be refurbished. It's a jewel of a grand hotel today.
The Dartmouth Regional Technology Center was a building that we partnered with Grafton Economic Development Council and Dartmouth College; putting a very successful business incubator in the Lebanon area, a little bit out of the North Country, but something that is very, very good for the state.
We helped communities with master plans and different kinds of ordinances. We've assisted DOT, to improve our transportation system throughout the state.
Q. What about the state not kicking in promised share for water and sewer projects?
A. In my opinion, like our transportation system, the projects around infrastructure in the communities, such as waste water treatment plants, water and sewer, they're also getting old, like our transportation system, and communities are going to have to spend some money on it. We're not really positioned well as a country to support that kind of infrastructure. And of course we have a major energy issue going on in the North Country, in terms of Northern Pass, and at North Country Council we're very supportive of a statewide energy plan. We're kind of disappointed that doesn't get anywhere.
Q. North Country Council is the regional planning agency through which northern New Hampshire has input into the 10-year transportation plan. Do you think the North Country gets a fair shake?
A. I think we have a pretty loud voice, and I think that serves us well. And I think in the transportation plan, our transportation committee, we're very supportive of the widening of I-93, we think that helps the North Country. We're supportive of some kind of better funding for transportation. We sort of have a failing system, and if we don't pay attention to it, it's going to get worse.
Q. What about the Conway Bypass?
A. We'll support what the communities want. It's a very expensive project.
Q. How did the region change during your time here?
A. It hasn't changed that much, I don't think. Obviously our changes are the same changes that happen in every region. The technology moved quite a bit, so how we do our business, how we do our plans, is quite different.
Obviously the downturn and the loss of the mills over those 18 years is a fairly significant change. Berlin has changed some, in terms of how much population has been lost over the 18 years, and it's kind of nice to see Berlin a little bit reinventing itself in many ways.
I don't know if tourism has changed that much. The major land purchase in Pittsburg, that's conservation land now. That's a big deal. The slow death of all those (Coos) mills, that was hard. Now the Gorham mill is starting to move ahead and employ people again, that's encouraging.
The economy dictates where we're going, and our work force dictates where we are going. We've got to come back slowly. The weather has changed, and that's made a difference. The season's become much shorter for snowmobilers.
Q. Are you feeling any revenue crunches, and if so, from what sources?
A. The federal portion is significantly more than the state revenue. It's kind of disappointing to all regional planning commissions that the state has not more supported us as well as we'd like. In the last 10 years, the state share has gone down consistently.
There is one funding source for the state and it is called the target block grant, and it's in the general budget, and it gives about $10,000 to each commission.
We are responsible for developing, by law, a regional plan for the state that is completely unfunded by the state, except for the $10,000. We're responsible for doing a housing needs assessment in each region, by law, which is completely unfunded.
Granite State Future is a great (federally funded) project, providing funding for us to do, at the grassroots, regional plans throughout the state. That is the first time in a long time the state has received funding to do a project that will go out to all the communities and all the citizens in the state, and ask "What do you want New Hampshire to look like?"
Planning is a way to try to figure how to improve the quality of life for people, all people.
Q. What's your hope for the future of North Country Council?
A. I think we'll continue to grow. Granite State Future will help the region develop a comprehensive plan that communities can use as a guide to their own planning. Providing we get the funding, we'll continue to help communities develop, and help the state. We work closely with the state, too, both in planning and economic development.
Q. What are the top reasons why a CEO should bring his company to the North Country?
A. Our community itself is attractive, it really is a nice place to live; the tax situation, in terms of no income or sales tax. We're very accessible in our town government and state government. We talk to each other. We all know our senators, and we all know our congressmen. We all know the governor and we all know the commissioners throughout the state. In the North Country we have Ray Burton as an executive councilor. Those kinds of things are important. We participate here, and we're all trying to make it better.
You go to other states, and you're not going to get a meeting with the governor very easily. We just simply have more access.
Q. What about your future?
A. I'm going to try to do something. The press release said I'm retiring. That's probably not entirely true. I made a lot of friends in the region; it's home. I'll stay involved in something, and maybe go south in the winter.
After 12 years as executive director, it's time for this organization, North Country Council, to get some fresh ideas, and get somebody with some with fresher ideas on how to move this organization forward and what they can do to help the region.
The search committee is taking applications for King's position until Feb. 22.
Editor's note: Sara Young-Knox is a selectman in the town of Albany, which is a member of North Country Council.