Economic Development Proposal Raises Same Old Issues for Town

A proposal from a former Town Councilor and economic development advocate has received mixed reactions from the current Derry Town Council, and will be revisited in the fall. Joel Olbricht, who lost his Council seat this past March, spoke in the Public Comment portion of the June 18 Council meeting. His proposal is to use the $30,000 in the Town’s Economic Development budget line to hire a part-time economic development staff person.

Olbricht emphasized the importance of being proactive. “You have a choice,” he said. “You can play the game, or you can allow real estate developers to do what they want.”
Olbricht said having a strategic plan, and a dedicated staff member, would help the town get direction and control of the downtown.

“If you don’t set goals, you’ll get The Fairways,” he said, referring to the sprawling apartment complex in town. Olbricht pointed to Claremont, the recent subject of an article in the New Hampshire Business Review. “Two years ago, going to Claremont was a sad experience,” he said. “The architecture was stunning, but there were so many empty storefronts.” With focused economic development, the town has “done a 180,” Olbricht said.

Olbricht said Claremont’s revival is due, in part, to investment in the infrastructure, policy changes and public/private partnerships. “They were able to sell the idea of what Claremont could be,” he said.

Olbricht’s vision for Derry includes a committee with representation from the Downtown Committee, Greater Derry Londonderry Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Merchants’ Association, and other stakeholders. He said he was willing to form the committee.

The town’s economic development initiatives were stalled recently, first when the Council cut the Economic Development budget by $20,000, and then when a majority voted against the purchase of property on Sawyer Court.

Councilor Tom Cardon, who ran on a platform of fiscal restraint, said in a phone interview that he didn’t think spending the $30,000 on a staff person would help. “We’ve been down that road before,” he said of efforts to fix the downtown.

Cardon said of Olbricht, “Joel’s heart is in the right place. But we’ve been doing this so long, with the same group of people, over and over, decade after decade.”
The two main thrusts have been parking and town-acquired property, neither of which have solved the problem, Cardon said.

Cardon isn’t sure how the remaining $30,000 should be spent, or how to fix the problem. “As a Council we should sit down and talk about it,” he said.
And Cardon pointed to a silver lining. “One good thing came out of all of this – we know what doesn’t work,” he said.

Fellow Councilor Mark Osborne, who, like Cardon, is serving in his first term, also ran on a fiscally conservative platform. Of Olbricht’s proposal, Osborne, who defeated Olbricht for the Council seat in March, said, “It’s always good to see people involved.”

But Osborne said in a phone interview that it’s the same thing people have been saying for 20 years. “It’s the same old proposals, the same old problems,” he said. If the economic strategy were working, Osborne said, “some of us might be persuaded.”

Osborne compared the scenario to a movie, saying, “I’ve seen this one before. The developers win, the taxpayers lose, and Main Street remains silent.”

For Osborne, the issue is a larger one – should government subsidize business? He doesn’t think so. “Rather, we should be creating a climate where businesses want to move here,” he said, giving the example of the TIF (Tax Increment Finance) district, which he said is working.
“We need to put in policies that encourage economic growth,” he said. “I’m not in favor of the government inserting itself. You either believe in the free market or you don’t.”

But for Councilor Brad Benson, who owns a downtown business, the two are not mutually exclusive. “As a community, we need to invest in our economic development,” he said. “We need a person in this role.”

Benson said he found it “perplexing” that communities surrounding Derry are investing in economic growth, but that the freshman Council members, including Cardon, Osborne and Albert Dimmock, chose not to. Cardon, Dimmock, Osborne and Chairman Michael Fairbanks voted against the purchase of the Sawyer Court building in the May 21 Council meeting.

In the April 30 meeting, Cardon and Osborne advocated for cuts to the Economic Development funding. Osborne had made a motion to cut the Farmers Market director’s salary to $5,000, which was defeated. Cardon made a motion to cut the department’s funding completely, from $50,000 to zero, which was defeated, though the Council did vote in that meeting to cut funding to $20,000.
In the May 14 meeting, the Farmers Market issue came up again. Cardon, Osborne, Dimmock and Fairbanks voted to reduce Farmers Market funding to $5,000, and that motion passed.

Osborne said in a phone interview that he had done research on other towns. “The ones that are thriving,” he said, “are spending millions, which Derry doesn’t have, and they have half the tax rate Derry has.”

No decision was made on the proposal at the June 18 meeting. Town Administrator John Anderson said the proposal will be part of the Council’s Economic Development workshop to be held this fall.

Olbricht said in a phone interview, “When I was on the Town Council, we formed the Move Derry Forward committee.” The committee, a coalition, involved groups with a stake in improving the downtown. It formulated three goals: to establish a Tax Increment Financing District (TIF), which has been accomplished; to revive and revitalize downtown; and eventually to bring new life to the Ryan’s Hill area, south on Route 28.

The second goal is still being worked on, Olbricht said.
“I don’t want the Council to drop the ball on this,” he said. “If they do nothing, what happens will be nothing.”

Olbricht said a dedicated staff person could help the town come up with goals and strategies, and be focused on the downtown question. Olbricht referred again to Claremont, noting that what happened there was a public-private partnership, a concept he thinks could work for Derry.