Beverly Donovan has looked at Southern New Hampshire through multiple prisms: as a Realtor, as a School Board member, as a Chamber of Commerce member, as a resident of a small town. She brought her expertise and her observations to the Derry Town Council on Tuesday, Feb. 4.
Donovan, a broker with Collier’s International, helped close the sale of the former Pinkerton Tavern site on Manchester Road. After conversations with Acting Town Administrator Larry Budreau, Donovan was invited to chat with the Council about the best way to promote economic development in Derry, and especially in its downtown.
Donovan’s presentation was to be followed by an open discussion on economic development, but time prevented that and the Council extended its session 10 minutes to allow her to finish.
In his introduction, Budreau acknowledged the reality of life in Southern New Hampshire: the cost of education and municipal services is borne disproportionately by the residents. “Derry’s tax rate is higher than most communities,” he said.
He sketched some of the things Derry had tried in the past. From 1980 to 2000 the town doubled in size, he said. When Budreau came to town in 2004 as Human Resources Director, Planning Director George Sioras was also responsible for Community Development. Budreau worked to relieve him of that responsibility.
The town tried the Derry Economic Development Corporation, a public-private partnership that “fell apart,” Sioras said. It hired a Business Development Coordinator, Elizabeth Thompson, who worked out well for a brief time until she became disabled and had to leave. They hired consultant Stu Arnett and held meetings as Move Derry Forward, but the recommendations from that “did not galvanize” and Arnett’s contract was not renewed. They brought in George Cassas, a “high-tech entrepreneur,” whose vision for downtown was as a “business incubator,” but that didn’t work either and Cassas’s contract was not renewed.
“It’s been start-stop, start-stop,” Budreau said.
Donovan said she’s been working in Derry and “a slew” of other towns. A resident of Windham, she was on its School Board when it was involved with opening a high school the same year it opened public kindergarten.
“It is a hard thing to wrestle with,” she said of the tax burden on residents. “We needed to really look at the commercial tax base, and see how Windham could keep expenses from falling on the resident taxpayer.”
Donovan was at that time involved with the Salem Chamber of Commerce, and after discussions with that group, she approached Windham about the idea of an Economic Development Commission. “With the selectmen’s blessing, we formed a committee, and we were able to obtain grants to do some studies,” she said.
Fast-forward a few years, Donovan said, and that initial committee is now a town-appointed committee. “We have been able to work with the Planning Board on zoning and regulations,” she said. “We have been able to advise on disposal of town-owned parcels.”
They looked at what was standing in the way of “good economic development,” and hired a Community Development Director.
“When new businesses want to come in to town, they don’t know where to start,” Donovan told the Council. “Existing businesses are struggling. But when that relationship is created, it’s phenomenal.”
As a commercial broker, she’s sat “at the other side of the table,” Donovan said. She’s seen different ways towns tackle economic development. “It’s difficult without an organized effort,” she said. “It’s hard to follow the process when you don’t speak the language.”
Economic development is “largely visionary,” Donovan said. “It’s a complement to the technical aspects of planning.” That’s why it’s important to have a separate person doing the economic development piece.
“The staff here does a great job in the confines of their work day,” she said. “They are welcoming, proactive.” But economic development is a different kind of job, she added, saying, “It’s boots on the ground.”
While a Chamber of Commerce is a good ally, and she’s worked with Greater Derry Londonderry Chamber Director Stacy Bruzzese, economic development isn’t its focus, Donovan said. “Their job is to take care of the businesses who are members,” she said.
Good economic development takes a wholistic approach, she said, noting, “It involves all aspects of the community.”
The town must have a dual focus, business development and retention. “It’s great to have new businesses, but if you’re moving into a new area, don’t neglect the old ones,” she cautioned.
The economic development person or department must be in constant communication, using Web sites, communicating with brokers and “site selectors,” going to business expos, networking and holding focus groups, she said.
The department or person must also be in constant contact with local, regional and state development offices, according to Donovan.
And they must promote local pride. “It’s hard to attract businesses when people are feeling negative,” Donovan said.
An Economic Development segment is required for a Master Plan, Donovan said, noting, “What’s often missing? The strategic planning piece.” Windham’s School Board joined with the town in strategic planning, she said.
Housing options are also important, according to Donovan.
If Derry wants to attract people in high-tech fields, it needs to know that these bright younger people “gravitate to city life,” she said. They like the transportation options, housing options “and especially the night life,” she said with a smile.
A town focused on economic development should also work with the schools in an effort to keep young people in the community, Donovan said.
And a town needs to have strategies in place to deal with “blighted property,” she concluded.
“It’s a back-to-basics approach,” Donovan said. “There won’t be a ‘silver bullet.’”