Laconia forum strengthens business-city relationship
When Mike Seymour became mayor of Laconia, the city, like everyplace else, was in the throes of the Great Recession.Unemployment in the city had climbed from 3.5 percent in 2007 to 7.6 percent two years later. And the continuing decline in home values meant the loss of $48 million in assessed property value that is the lifeblood of the city's tax base.It was into this rocky reality that Seymour strode as he began his first term in January 2010.In his first mayoral campaign in the fall of 2009, Seymour said making the city a good place to do business was one of his top priorities. Now, as Laconia begins to recover from the recession, he sees it as imperative that the city take strategic action to strengthen businesses that are poised for growth, and work to help existing and new businesses thrive.For Seymour, that meant organizing a regular forum, which he calls the Business Roundtable, at which members of the business community can air ideas about what would help them going forward as well as attract new business ventures.The roundtable -- which recently marked its first anniversary -- is one of Seymour's three key objectives. The others are ensuring that the city starts a strategic planning process and to explore the concept of regionalization.When Seymour said that he wanted the Business Roundtable discussions to be open to all comers, he was warned the forum could degenerate into a gripe session taken over by people with an ax to grind. The mayor did acknowledge that frustrations and complaints dominated the first couple of meetings, but he said that helped clear the air so the group could move on to more constructive discussions."We weathered the storm and let people vent," said Seymour, who recently began serving his second two-year term.He also confessed that getting the roundtable rolling took longer than he expected. "But I'm an impatient person in general," he said.Input from businessSeymour, whose full-time job is senior vice president for marketing and retail services at Franklin Savings Bank, said his vision for the Business Roundtable is to drive public policy as it deals with issues that affect doing business in the city.He said he sees the forum as forging a new path for business-local government interaction. While such forums exist in more metropolitan areas, he noted, he said he knows of no other similar effort in New Hampshire.As a result of the input from the group, city officials are working on a resource guide that will contain all of the information a business might need in order to operate in the city, such as information on permits, regulations and municipal fees, as well as general information about points of interests and events."We want to make it so Laconia is known as the easiest city in New Hampshire to get things done," said roundtable member Warren Clement, who for 30 years owned and operated a retail store and now sells commercial real estate.There has been a concerted effort to make sure the three key business areas of the city - downtown, Lakeport and Weirs Beach - are represented. Various city councilors also attend roundtable sessions, as have City Manager Scott Myers and city department heads.With continuing economic uncertainty, very little new business activity has occurred since the Business Roundtable was launched. But Seymour said that gives the city some breathing room to get the structure in place "so that as businesses start to grow we can take advantage of it."Nevertheless, the roundtable has already had one notable impact."The most dramatic change has been the hiring of Scott Myers as city manager," said Pat Wood, an attorney and regular roundtable participant.Wood said that input from the group played a big role in the city council's unconventional choice of Myers, who had never held an administrative post in municipal government before coming to Laconia last July, but rather had run his own business, served as mayor of Dover for four terms and exhibited an enthusiasm for civic involvement."We felt the council should be looking for someone with vision," observed Clement.Wood also said the roundtable has helped to support better communication between the community and city officials.Myers, for instance, posts a weekly newsletter on the city's website every Friday, providing information about various city departments.Mayor Seymour said that the communications effort is essential if the city is to have a healthy mix of business and industry and if it hopes to attract businesses that complement those that are already in the city.For Wood, the roundtable is one way to ensure that when the city makes decisions, they are not made in a vacuum. Otherwise, those decisions can lead to unforeseen problems, he said."Communication to the community is not just a one-way street," Wood said.Clement said he sees the Business Roundtable as a step in the right direction for Laconia's economic development."It was great the mayor started this effort. His approach is positive, and so is ours."