MOVING DERRY FORWARD COMMITTEE MEETS THURSDAY
By CAROL ROBIDOUX
Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY – On Thursday the town takes a giant step toward future economic development with the launch of its Moving Derry Forward community-driven advisory committee.
There are three key items on the agenda: Swoop in on a short list of tasks crucial to moving the Route 28 TIF District forward toward timely completion; and map a plan for raising tax revenue by $2.5 million in the downtown district.
The third item on the committee's to-do list may be the most crucial: figuring out the missing link to tangible economic growth. Committee chair Joel Olbricht says that comes down to deciding how to staff and fund an economic development department, an area that has been a black hole for the past two years.
In a short period of time much has changed on Derry's economic development front. In November of 2008, Economic Development Director Beth Thompson left her post on sick leave after just 10 months. She never returned, and her job was eliminated in the 2010 budget. Since then, the town also officially severed ties with the Derry Economic Development Corporation after years of strained relationships and infighting with the Council.
Stu Arnett of Arnett Development Group was contracted last October, mainly to shepherd the TIF Route 28 North TIF District along. He has also aided in establishing a downtown Farmers Market. But his contract limits the scope of what he can focus on. For example, part of Arnett's salary was diverted to cover the $2,000 salary for downtown market manager Bev Ferrante – the only available resource to keep the market's launch date on track.
And so far, it is a summer success story – drawing foot traffic and commerce to the downtown every Wednesday, which has had some trickle down to other local businesses.
However attracting and retaining businesses – particularly in the downtown – remains a challenge. As business owners work with the Downtown Committee toward establishing a merchant's association, another prominent anchor business, the Depot Steakhouse, abruptly shuttered its doors in late August.
As for nurturing start-up businesses, in 2009 administration of the town's revolving loan fund was taken over from the DEDC by Rockingham Economic Development Corporation, a regional financial resource contracted by the town for that sole purpose.
REDC Executive Director Laurel Bistany said in the spring the town's first loan deal was successfully with Water's Edge Salon, which relocated from a rental space in Londonderry to a purchased space across from the Hoodkroft Country Club. There are other projects in the works, said Bistany.
Whether another entity, like the DEDC, should be organized is another question that needs to be resolved by the Moving Derry Forward Committee, Olbricht said.
As Derry moves forward, it could be instructive to consider what other municipalities have in place to drive economic development, said Kevin Flynn, communications director for the Community Development Finance Authority, which administers about $40 million annually through tax credits and Community Development Block Grants to help promote economic development.
“We all know how stretched municipal budgets are right now. It seems like they're always asking town employees to take on more and more. It helps to have someone dedicated to that position – the advantage is being able to focus on attracting funds, securing them and handling a project smoothly, to completion,” Flynn said.
Of the top five municipalities, Derry ranks fourth, behind Manchester, Nashua and Concord, and just before Rochester, based on the latest population estimates published in July by the NH Office of Energy and Planning.
Karen Pollard has been directing economic traffic in Rochester since 2003. A former regional economic consultant in Minnesota, Pollard said when she arrived in Rochester, the situation there was similar to the current scenario in Derry.
“They had also eliminated the economic development position which had been unfilled for two years. I came because I felt I had a lot to offer, and it was a good fit. That's part of what that hiring process is about. That person has so much responsibility for promoting the city as a business destination, and in this current climate, everyone is struggling,” Pollard said “What's a town or city's role in helping businesses get through that, to the other side, is something every community has to answer for themselves.”
Pollard credits her team, which includes a full-time assistant, Samantha Rogerson, and a council-appointed Economic Development Commission.
“I might be the only economic development department in the state to be adding a part-time staff person to help with the work – we're in the process of interviewing right now. There just wasn't enough of me to go around,” said Pollard.
A difference between Derry and Rochester is the federal grant money Rochester receives through HUD as a federally designated “entitlement community.” It is one of five such communities that qualify for an annual lump of federal dollars dedicated to supporting economic development.
Concord, as the third-largest municipality, went through some internal reorganization over the past three years and has settled on a formula that is so far successful, said Concord's Deputy City Manager Carlos Baía.
The city has a 15-member Economic Development Advisory Council, established 25 years ago by ordinance, which meets monthly. It includes a cross-section of members representing the city Chamber of Commerce and others who represent business, arts and community interests.
“It's a dynamic group that essentially serves two main functions: Keeping track of the long-term picture of the city, where we're going and making sure are we following the Master Plan; and secondly, providing insight for the Council as to how we're doing-- providing a barometer of the business community,” Baía said.
“EDAC is critical to the success of our community over the years. We have a 15-member City Council, some are from the business sector, some are not, so they look to EDAC whenever there are economic development questions. It's a way of making sure whatever action is taken makes sense to all those involved and affected,” Baía said.
Another key to Concord's reorganization and refocused business economy has been the success of its TIF districts, Baía said.
“One good example is our Horseshoe Corporate Center, which was an abandoned lumber yard in the 1990s that became blighted. Now, as you look to your left in the area of Exit 14 and 15, it's a thriving office park that recently added the Marriot and a conference center. It's done well,” Baía said. “But it's not a simple process. Having a system in place to make sure the process has gone smoothly helps.”