October 22, 2010

Panel: Town Needs to Sell Itself

Stu Arnett, of Arnett Group, leads a discussion with about 20 local business
 and community leaders during yesterday’s Moving Derry Forward task force meeting.
Union Leader Correspondent

 — Toward the end of Thursday’s two-hour meeting at Parkland Medical Center of the Moving Derry Forward committee, business owner Phil Abirached asked the million-dollar question: “Say I’m a business coming to Derry, and I want to talk to someone: Who do I contact?” said Abirached.If there had been crickets chirping in the room — along with the 20 attendees representing various business, private and public sectors of the community — they would have been the only audible sound.
It was an “a-ha” moment, according to Michael Gallagher, senior vice presi
dent of Enterprise Bank, who felt that Abirached’s question cut to the chase of what’s missing from the economic development equation. 
Laurel Bistany, executive director of the Rockingham Economic Development Group, followed up by suggesting what’s needed is an ambassador, whether it’s the temporary role of a current employee, or the head of some volunteer group. 
The meeting began with Stu Arnett of The Arnett Group recapping what the committee’s marching orders were when the group was approved by the council as a temporary steering committee — create a short list of tasks crucial to keeping the Route 28 North Tax Increment Financing District on track, and map a plan for raising tax revenue by $2.5 million in the downtown district. 
The third item — figuring out the missing link to tangible economic growth — appears to be the most crucial, given Abirached’s question and the group’s lack of a collective answer. In fact, the need for an information conduit — not just as an outreach to potential businesses, but internally — was underscored when Town Administrator Gary Stenhouse put Gent Cav on the spot. 
“He just told me something and I want him to tell the group,” said Stenhouse, who was seated next to Cav in the back of the room. Cav is CEO of G4 Communications, a local provider of high-speed Internet and data services. 
“If you look at the fiber infrastructure, Derry is the highway compared to other communities around us. We have the capacity to light every business up like a Christmas tree, but we aren’t attracting businesses,” said Cav. 
He told the group that because he has connectivity that runs directly to Boston, Derry is the perfect site for a satellite operation virtually linking a Southern New Hampshire workforce with its Boston headquarters. 
“From my perspective, bandwidth and capacity is something businesses are struggling with, so if you have all that capacity here in Derry, you should be putting it to the forefront of your marketing efforts,” said Bistany. 
Many others present said they had no idea that Derry was a high-speed hub, which led to a lively discussion over the urgency in packaging the town’s strengths and then marketing them promiscuously. 
“Derry’s pluses include our schools, our hospital and that it’s a safe town. The negatives are taxes, lack of government support for small business and our vacant buildings, especially in the downtown,” said state Rep. Robert Letourneau. 
His comments prompted commercial real estate developer Ralph Valentine to point out that, dollar for dollar, Derry’s property values are competitive. 
“It’s not just the tax rate, it’s what you pay — and our costs, per square foot, are not outrageously high,” said Valentine, who said commercial space in Derry is going for about 68 cents per square foot, compared to similar space in Manchester, at $1 per square foot. 
The rest of the two-hour meeting was spent discussing a variety of topics, including the essential role reviving Route 4A could have in expanding the industrial site across from the TIF district, perhaps creating a high-tech commerce park; partnering more with Londonderry as plans for the proposed Woodmont Orchards complex unfold; looking at current town-owned property and creating action plans for development for those that are still viable, while selling off the rest; and working with regional planners to reinforce the need for a traffic signal at the intersection of A Street and Manchester Road, which is currently a deterrent to businesses. 
Although the consensus was that marketing Derry to prospective businesses is still key, how that will be approached is still on the table. Stenhouse pointed out that he has learned marketing should not be a facet of government. 
“Municipalities make crappy salesmen. The town or government should be there to help or support those efforts, but it really takes someone to go out and network, gather the information and make sure everyone knows what’s going on,” said Stenhouse. 
The next Moving Derry Forward meeting is scheduled for Nov. 18, 8 a.m. at Cedar Point Communications on Route 111 in Derry. 

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