Hooksett is the latest New Hampshire community to take advantage of the Business Retention and Expansion program, designed to improve a town’s business climate without costing a fortune.
The program collects information about its businesses and uses it to create a handful of projects meant to help those businesses stay and thrive.
“[A town is] much more likely to see job growth from the business base that [it] already [has], versus trying to attract more businesses from outside of the state,” said Carmen Lorentz, the director of the division of economic development in the state Department of Resources and Economic Development.
Hooksett, like many towns its size, does not have a department of economic development or even a single paid employee to do that sort of work, Lorentz said, and most don’t have the funds to pay for a big consulting firm to come in to do that work either. The Business Retention and Expansion program, which has been available through the UNH Cooperative Extension since 2013, accomplishes much of the same thing for much lower rates.
So far, the BR&E program has been used in Milford, Amherst and Wolfeboro. Milford and Amherst participated in the program together and paid the bundled rate of $2,000, while Wolfeboro and Hooksett paid $1,500. The new rate going forward is $2,500.
Lorentz says a private consulting firm can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 depending on the scope of the research and the firm’s rates. In some cases it can exceed $10,000.
Tracy Hutchins, the president of the Souhegan Valley Chamber of Commerce, which commissioned the program for Milford and Amherst, says the program was effective at detecting and addressing problems with some businesses looking to relocate or downsize.
“It was, by and large, very successful on a lot of different levels,” Hutchins said.
Representatives from the towns got together at a summit in September to review the findings of the survey and walked away with plans to research public transportation and workforce development initiatives.
Paul Scarpetti has been the owner of Hooksett-based residential developer Sierra Homes Inc. and a resident of Hooksett for more than two decades. Six months ago he joined the town’s economic development committee, which consists of six volunteers and two town employees.
Scarpetti says he’s encouraged by recent improvements in the permitting process, business-friendly town boards and by the direction of the committee, but he wants to see more ways to connect the town, which is split by the Merrimack River. He said the town is looking to create a walkable town center and improve access to all parts of Hooksett.
“That’s a big thing right now. We want to make sure that it’s accessible to all the areas, because we are in a great location in New Hampshire,” Scarpetti said.
That said, he’s keeping an open mind while other business owners have their say on what’s important to them.
“What I hope to learn is what we’re doing right and what we’re doing that can actually stand some improvement,” Scarpetti said.
And even though attracting new business isn’t the goal of the project, he expects helping out existing businesses will improve the town’s reputation as a business-friendly place.
How it works
Hooksett is just starting the program, which happens in three stages. The first stage is the fact-finding stage, which takes a small army of volunteers to pound the pavement and talk to business owners.
“Right now, we’re going to go and interview a hundred different businesses in the town,” committee Chairman Muamer Durakovic said.
The roughly 100 businesses were individually selected as a sample from the town’s approximately 800 businesses in order to get a good cross-section of the various industries. About 30 volunteers are equipped with a 22-page survey with 50 questions for businesses that ask anything from employee salaries to broadband speeds. Their answers are confidential and ultimately aggregated into a report that will be compiled a few months down the line.
Andre Garron, the extension specialist with UNH CE who coordinates the program, says that final report leads to the second stage: evaluating the findings and developing three to five projects to solve problems identified in the report.
The third stage is actually implementing the projects, and that’s left up to the town.
“As more communities finish the process and put out their findings and start to come up with plans to act on those findings, I certainly can see there being more demand for [the program],” Lorentz said.
Garron said Milton and Portsmouth have already expressed interest.