|Phil Abirached, right, and wife Rita manage the Metro Market on Route 28.|
By CAROL ROBIDOUX
Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY – Philip Abirached wants to see the future. He wants to know that his livelihood as a businessman in this town is not endangered by lack of a blueprint for economic development.
Yes, talk of the town these days is all about economic development. Progress has been made in the TIF district, with Wal-Mart waiting in the wings. Downtown looks more vital each day, with a new anchor pub, a weekly farmer's market and rumblings about enhanced parking options. But Abirached wants to know that he and others, struggling to survive along the town's southernmost corridor, are not forgotten.
Two years ago, traffic along Route 28 between Windham and the Derry rotary was brisk to his Metro Market plaza. Abirached was ready to add a second plaza with another four or five shops to the existing Shell station, convenience store, hair salon, pizza place and dry cleaner,
Since 2008, several businesses along Route 28 have folded, including two long-time tenants in his plaza. He has remodeled one empty storefront as a beer and wine outlet attached to the convenience store. The other, rented by the same hair salon for 20 years, remains vacant.
“I've had a sign up for almost 18 months. I've offered it for half-price rent. You can see the big sign out front that says, 'space for rent.' Not even a nibble,” said Abirached, who runs the plaza with his wife, Rita.
Another factor is northbound traffic into Derry has slowed more than ever, now that a crack down on counterfeiters has driven the flea market's knock-off designer bag vendors elsewhere. Abirached said ridding the market of counterfeiters is good, but now what? Will there be any marketing efforts to breath new life into the old flea market and repair its reputation, from “flea bag” central to something else, like a mecca for homegrown goods worth driving to Derry for?
“The police are complaining about traffic. Isn't that what we want? More people coming into Derry? Look at the downtown, at all the empty store fronts. Each one of those could employ two or three people, which feeds two or three families. I understand why they are making that a priority. Downtown is the face of Derry. But what about us? We are the arms and legs that get you to the downtown,” Abirached said.
He would like to propose that business owners along that stretch, beginning around the Frost Farm and heading south, come together with the town to talk about the future.
“The potential for growth here is incredible. The downtown is restricted, but here we have empty land ready to be developed,” Abirached said.
“In the process, we need to talk about how to market this part of town – and Derry as a whole. What do we want it to be? We have the Frost Farm, which is great. So if we know people are coming here to get to there, how do we let them know there's so much more for them in Derry? What about a welcome center, or a brochure? If they're coming to visit the flea market, let them know about the Humphrey Road water park for the kids, or options for dining in town.”
He pulls out his tax bill to illustrate another issue related to development.
Since 2007 his tax bill has jumped $9,000, from $21,000 to $30,000.
“Know what? I'm willing to pay $40,000 if the town of Derry has a plan to put in the infrastructure needed to bring in some major businesses,” said Abirached.
Talk about bringing public water and sewer to that stretch of town always comes back to cost – it is a state-owned road, so it would involve widening. And because of the hilly terrain, it would be a major engineering undertaking, beyond what the town can afford without creating another TIF district. Everyone agrees that doing so would likely be the key to attracting more – and significant – businesses, including hotels or larger restaurants.
But no one agrees on how to make it happen – or how much of a priority it is for the town.
“If we keep increasing taxes without services, we're choking the businesses. What I'm against is high increases in my taxes without reinvestment from the town. And I'm not the only one who feels this way,” said Abirached.
Councilor Joel Olbricht was appointed last week to head up a “big tent” task force – like a SWAT team for economic development. He has floated the idea of considering reestablishing a full-time economic development position, currently a contract position held by the Arnett Group hired to promote the TIF and boost the downtown.
Hitting achievable short-range targets while aiming toward longer-range goals is what the task force will shoot for, said Olbricht.
“Maybe the only problem we have right now is with commercial real estate being down so low, that it may not be a proper time to develop over there. But having a plan is important, so that if a business wanted to be a big customer, we could get going on a plan,” Olbricht said.
Council Chair Brad Benson said community members including Abirached should consider raising their hand for the task force, which is still forming.
“We have to have a blueprint for Route 28. I think once we have a new Town Administrator in place, pretty quickly there will be more talk about future planning and what our next major development should be,” Benson said. “Patience will be a virtue for Mr. Abirached. But if he wants to get involved, I think he will be pleased with what he sees.”