By CAROL ROBIDOUX
Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY -- Seeing the forest for the trees, in the case of Derry’s downtown, means recognizing that despite a string of empty storefronts along the main drag, business is actually booming.
In the past year, some 36 businesses have either moved in to Derry or relocated from one spot to another, better, retail location in town, taking full advantage of a down economy and landlords willing to negotiate.
“Rents are so reasonable out there. Moving from this space to the Derry Meadows was a matter of pennies, and the square footage is almost double,” said Cindy Hoyt, owner of The People’s Barbershop, who is planning to move her shop 1.3 miles north once she makes settlement on her new space later this week.
“We’ve outgrown our location here. We need more parking, and we don’t have handicap access. Up at Derry Meadows, we’ll be near the movie theater. Everyone will have to drive by our front entrance at the end of the mall,” Hoyt said. “I’m so excited.
Her biggest problem was being limited in the number of barbers she could accommodate.
“On Saturdays I was doing 70 haircuts, but I could be doing 100 — except I had no place to put another chair. One of my customers asked me if I’d ever considered moving up by the Hannaford. I never in a million years thought I could afford to move. I was surprised, to say the least,” Hoyt said.
Her real estate broker, Ralph Valentine, said now is an ideal time for business owners to reevaluate where they are and where they might rather be. Despite a sputtering economy, there is a tangible increase in the volume of inquiries he’s getting from businesses, not just those looking to relocate within town like Hoyt, but from those looking to move their businesses from someplace else. “It’s not just because of the TIF district. People are just seeing Derry as a good place to do business. That’s what I’m seeing,” Valentine said.
He mentions another business that just moved its operations to town — Total Air Supply, a manufacturer that is consolidating businesses in Hooksett, Manchester and Nashua, and moving the operation to B Street, where the old Merrimack Valley Wood Products used to be.
Town Planning Director George Sioras says manufacturing operations bring more than hope to a dismal economy: They also bring jobs.
“That was huge, a great bit of news for Derry because, potentially, that’s 60 new hires,” Sioras said.
He ticks off a number of other new businesses that have come to town in the past year: three restaurants, including How’s Your Onion?, Two Guys Burgers and Fries, and Amphora, an authentic Green eatery; Sally Beauty Supply, which has also just set up shop in the Hood Plaza; an upscale consignment store is ready to launch on Linlew Road; Head Start has purchased the old CVS building on Crystal Avenue, which will also bring upwards of 75 jobs to town.
Another local manufacturer, Sanmina Corporation, has increased its employee base from 30 to 120 in the past two years.
“To me, that shows real signs that the economy is starting to pick up,” Sioras said. “What we hear is that it has a lot to do with our process. We try very hard to be business friendly, and I think that’s a big part of it.”
Certainly bringing more businesses to the downtown would make the signs of recovery even more obvious, but things are happening just below the surface there, too, and Sioras is confident that all the groundwork toward economic development will really begin to bear fruit over the next year or two.
“When you look at the downtown, it could be discouraging. But we now have Moving Derry Forward and the Downtown Committee dedicated to solving the puzzle of what it will take to bring businesses into the downtown,” Sioras said.
To that end, plans for a medical college are still on track, although the location is not settled yet, and Sioras has he’s heard that there are at least four or five parties interested in buying the old Depot Steakhouse when it hits the auction block later this month.
“I don’t know yet if it will be another restaurant, but it looks like something will be moving in there by summer,” Sioras said.
Meanwhile, Hoyt is looking forward to building a new barbershop from the ground up, fitting it with all new equipment and looking to add a few barbers to her operation.
“We’re looking to hire up to five more barbers over the next six months, barbers with unique cutting techniques, while staying old school . We have an old school policy in here,” said Hoyt, who learned just about everything she knows about the trade from her dad, Normand Longval, owner of Normand’s Family Haircare on Manchester’s West Side.
He learned the trade from his dad.
“I’ve been in this business for 44 years, and it’s a challenge. But under these circumstances, Cindy’s doing the right thing — expanding her business and drawing a new crowd,” said Longval.