What can NH do to emulate Denver?

A tech hub based on quality of life that attracts young people


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Having recently returned from the spring meeting of the Counselors of Real Estate in Denver, I am energized and excited about the spring push here in New Hampshire.

I had not been to Denver in over 30 years, back when it rose and fell on the U.S. energy cycle. Not anymore – Denver is going high-tech and office services such as health care administration. They have light rail and the third-busiest airport in the United States. The downtown is flat and very walkable.

Denver is the hub for the eastern slope of the Rockies. It used to be the second most polluted city in the U.S. for air quality (next to L.A.). Today it is clean and green. They completed over 19,000 new housing units last year, 20,000 are scheduled for 2015 and 16,000 for 2016. In comparison, New England looks anemic.

The median age is about five to seven years younger than New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine. That doesn't sound like much, but it is significant. That does not mean they do not attract retirees. The quality of life and cost of living are strong draws, but young people are coming to Denver in droves for good jobs, the urban lifestyle, and the mountains are only 30 minutes away.

A number of the smaller cities in New England have those attributes, but not the cache, and rising costs of living, especially energy costs, make us less competitive/attractive.

What we learned in Denver is that tech begets tech. There is a definite agglomeration (like retail stores) – the more you have, the more that want to come. Boston, New York, Chicago and San Francisco have it and Raleigh-Durham, Austin and Portland, Ore., do too. So is it possible to emulate these cities and build a tech-driven sub-economy here in New Hampshire?

It is not possible to replicate Denver (population of about 3 million in the region) and its geographic location “in the middle,” which helps them.

Infrastructure challenge

New England needs to look at its industrial, engineering and entrepreneurial legacy. We have done it before, in fact several times, over more than 200 years, and we can do it again.

Downtown Portsmouth is one example. While the master plan has been evolving, we are now seeing the potential. Portland, Maine, is similar. Dover, N.H., can be next.

In fact Dover, Somersworth and Rochester are currently exploring ways to share costs and services, a much-needed step to becoming more efficient/less expensive.

The challenge is to provide safe, clean, fun neighborhoods that are affordable with wages, which are proportional to the area’s cost of living. Keene is slowly building out its downtown core. Again, it has made great progress over 30 years. Concord is rebuilding its Main Street. Durham has several key projects inching forward.

All of these focus on quality of life, walkability, affordability and intergenerational neighborhoods. The more often New Englanders visit Charlotte, Austin, Portland and Denver, the more they ask, “Why can't we do that here?”

One key challenge is our aging infrastructure. Concord is spending $10 million to rebuild its Main Street, most of that cost is underground in pipes, wires, utilities and re-grading the street to make more buildings accessible.

In Denver, we had several sessions on our crumbling infrastructures, including rail and bridges. These all compete for limited dollars and exciting projects like light rail, and commuter train service to Boston and beyond. How do we pay for needed systems?

One idea is to form an infrastructure bank that would issue tax-exempt bonds to fund regional projects. Given the ongoing flat, low-interest-rate environment, baby boomers would love to get 3 percent on such bonds as we head into retirement.

In a perfect world, we would hear more ideas of this type, magnitude and potential impact, as the presidential wannabes descend on us. Alas, I am afraid we are destined to be disappointed. So the onus is on us to press them to face these issues and put them on the agenda.

Our built environment is often taken for granted. We need to rethink that soon.

Bill Norton, president of Norton Asset Management, is a Counselor of Real Estate (CRE) and a Fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (FRICS). He can be reached at wbn@nortonnewengland.com.

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