November 1, 2010

Consultant sees brighter days for Derry

Stu Arnett overlooking the parking lot at Abbott Court, which is ripe for development.
Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY -- An annual checkup of Derry’s economic health shows signs of improvement, said Stu Arnett, who has spent the last year working on a handful of fast-tracked projects given priority by the Town Council.
Farm market manager Bev Ferrante, left, with Arnett.
“In terms of how we’re doing one year later, I look at three areas of assessment, vital signs so to speak. My conclusion is that a year ago, Derry’s vital signs were dangerously low. We’ve made substantial improvements — but we still have a long way to go,” said Arnett, principal of Concord-based Arnett Group, who was hired last October to serve as part-time economic consultant to the town.
Arnett said the three vital signs he looks at are: attitude — whether anyone is having any fun, and whether there is open communication and trust; leadership, extending beyond the municipal level to include business and schools; and community development, which is a competitive “team sport” with emphasis on how the team is operating. 

“Since last year, the council is taking a more active role in building economic development, and that’s important. I guess the obvious question is what has been the result of improvements in these key areas over the past year, and the answer would be that while things are better, there are not yet enough results,” said Arnett. 
However, there are some real and unexpected successes — primarily the weekly farmers market, an idea which had been tried in the past but for some reason, this time around, is flourishing. 
“On Nov. 7 we will move to an indoor market, and it is already sold out — every space is filled. People are excited, and it’s done what we’d hoped it would do, which was to give more exposure to Derry businesses while drawing people downtown on a regular basis to participate,” Arnett said. 
The need for someone like Arnett to provide the missing economic link became evident in mid-2009, when the strained relationship between the council and its longtime economic vehicle, the Derry Economic Development Corp., sputtered to a halt after the town severed ties with the DEDC. 
Arnett, whose resume includes eight years heading the Division of Economic Development in the state’s Department of Resources and Economic Development, was a good fit, hired on a part-time basis to oversee progress with the Route 28 Tax Increment Finance (TIF) District and development of town-owned properties, which have been languishing. 
His third goal — improving communication, both internally and externally — is the one area where Arnett would like to refocus some effort. With a new town administrator in place, he is optimistic that some of that communication will begin to flow naturally. 
Meanwhile, Arnett continues to see potential at every turn, from expansion of the farmer’s market to finally seeing Derry achieve a reputation as a magnet for commerce, or even technology. 
All it will take is continued teamwork, planning and strategizing, said Arnett. The new Moving Derry Forward committee is a short-term think tank that will make recommendations to the council following its third and last meeting later this month. 
It’s a start, said Arnett. 
“What we need is a plan for sustainable growth versus the roller coaster that has been Derry in the past,” Arnett said. Looking forward, Arnett sees great potential around the Abbott Court municipal parking lot, which sits behind a commercial building at 6 West Broadway that is currently for sale. With plans for a medical tech college to launch from that site in January, filling the building with the right tenants — and perhaps adding more tech-based businesses — could be a turning point for the downtown, currently suffering from retail blight. 
“When I look out across the parking lot, I see so much possibility — this is really a central focus of Derry’s future,” said Arnett. 

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