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February 20. 2013 10:34PM

Nashua watchers predict a boom

NASHUA - Officials are laying the groundwork to attract more industry and jobs to Greater Nashua, which has done a little better than the national average on its unemployment rate but has recently seen its three largest employers cut jobs.

Statistically, the New Hampshire unemployment rate has remained consistently below the national average. The Nashua area unemployment rate remained around 5.6 percent in 2011, according to N.H. Employment Security's Economic and Labor Market Information Bureau. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a national average rate of 8.9 percent in 2011. Unofficial numbers for 2012 reflect little change in the Nashua area number while the national rate drops to 8.1 percent. The 2012 numbers are expected to be revised and finalized in March.

Nashua area unemployment data consists of Amherst, Brookline, Chester, Derry, Greenfield, Grenville, Hollis, Hudson, Litchfield, Londonderry, Lyndeborough, Mason, Merrimack, Milford, Mont Vernon, Nashua, Raymond, Wilton and Windham.

"This region has done a little better than the nation as a whole, said Thomas Galligani, economic development director for the City of Nashua.

He credits the resilience to a diversity of industries that includes technology, health care and a retail base. BAE Systems, St. Joseph Hospital and Southern New Hampshire Medical Center are the city's top three employers, each with more than 1,000 employees.

All three have weathered their share of economic difficulties. Both hospitals had layoffs in 2011, and BAE Systems recently announced upcoming staff reductions.

The BAE Systems announcement is a huge concern not only because it's the city's largest employer but because the company has a lot of relationships with local subcontractors, Galligani said.

"We love to see BAE Systems strong. As the largest employer they are a critical component of the local economy," Galligani said.

Concern over the deficit and the possibility of forced cuts through sequestration may affect any employer that relies on defense contracts, Galligani said.

"In any industry, if there's uncertainty they're going to pause before they hire somebody," Galligani said.

Still, Galligani has seen slow but steady improvement since the recession started, including companies planning to expand or relocate to the area.

"We've seen a lot of growth that continues to take place," Galligani said.

Much of the activity involves Nashua Technology Park on Innovative Way. The building was sold by Hewlett-Packard Company in 2007 and is now fully occupied by the Flatley Company, Galligani said.

Many of the tenants are high-tech companies looking to mine the labor pool, Galligani said. Hillsborough County had the fourth largest concentration of people employed as engineers, according to the 2002 U.S. Census. Areas in California, Texas and Middlesex County in Massachusetts ranked higher.

"The Nashua region is really a hotbed for engineering talent, and companies want to take advantage of that," Galligani said.

Employers are also drawn to the city's transportation system, highway access, and proximity to the Boston and Manchester airports. Many high tech managers are excited about passenger rail coming to Nashua, Galligani said. The move will help local companies recruit more young talent from Boston to Nashua, he said.

As the economy gains some traction, Galligani has changed his focus a bit.

"A lot of what we do is business retention work and outreach," Galligani said.

Mayor Donnalee Lozeau regularly meets with local companies to identify and resolve issues they face, Galligani said. The city has also paved the way for new opportunities by investing in infrastructure as part of the Broad Street Parkway project and rezoning for future growth at the Nashua Technology Park.

Galligani said one exciting new project is a rebranding initiative the city is undertaking in collaboration with the chamber of commerce and local businesses.

The local business climate is split, with some industries doing well while others aren't, said Hollis McGuire, manager of the Nashua Regional Office of the New Hampshire Small Business Development Center (NHSBDC). The Nashua regional office advises companies in Nashua and surrounding communities.

NHSBDC clients have created 189 new jobs in the Greater Nashua area over the last two years and launched about 23 new businesses, according to Mary Collins, state director of the NHSBDC.

Collins and McGuire both see sequestration as one of the biggest challenges facing the area.

Sequestration could cause federal contracts to be shortened or put on hold, affecting defense contractors and their sub-contractors, McGuire said.

"If we can get through that, I think we could see some really good growth," McGuire said.

Companies that rely on federal funding programs such as Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer programs are also feeling the pinch. Most are seeing changes in what funds are available and when, McGuire said.

"A great deal of innovation in this country has been funded by government. It's been an incredible partner for innovation," McGuire said.

The Granite State has worked hard to find and deploy capital in the right areas, McGuire said.

"It's not the easiest capital environment, but I see improvement from two years ago," she said.

Despite the difficulties, McGuire said she's seeing some exciting things happening along the Nashua, Manchester and Merrimack strip. Small software companies and industry-specific software companies are doing well. The newly opened Merrimack Premium Outlets will be a key element for the area going forward, McGuire said. The Nashua Technology Park has added many technology-based companies to its profile and had potential to draw companies over the border because it's attractive, accessible to the highway and continuing to build, McGuire said.

"Certainly the city of Nashua is taking some very good steps to attract industries through its policies, communication and city management," McGuire said.

City officials recognize that the downtown is an important part of the community and works closely with business owners and residents. Every area is included in the decision-making process, McGuire said. The city has changed the look and feel of walking downtown and changed the parking situation to make it welcoming for business. Pursuing commuter rail is also a positive, McGuire said.

Collins agrees the pieces are in place.

"I think we're poised, when we come out of this downturn, to have an active and vibrant business community," Collins said.

Economic development is always a priority, said Alderman Brian McCarthy. Funding remains the greatest obstacle, but he believes the city has made strides in providing better access to industrial areas downtown, improving sidewalks and streetscapes to create a better business environment and pursuing ways to bring industry and jobs to Nashua Technology Park.

"We are always concerned with the next step in economic development and that's put us in a good position; but there's still work we need to do," McCarthy said.

jhanson@newstote.com



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