Economic development requires a team effort

Expanding our tax base and attracting new good jobs should not be left solely to municipal and state entities


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The onset of winter brings attention to the high energy costs we have in New England. My last electric bill at home computed to 19.2 cents per kilowatt-hour. Visiting a friend in Raleigh, N.C., in October, I confirmed their rate was 9.2 cents per kilowatt-hour, and, of course, their heating costs are less than half (2,600 heating degree days v. 6,000-plus in New Hampshire). The offset is they use more air conditioning, albeit with their cheaper electricity.

This is the residential perspective, but for businesses, especially those that use a lot of electrical power, energy costs can be an important driver of where to do business, which impacts decisions of where to locate and/or relocate.

There is no short-term answer or “fix” for New England's high energy costs. Five or six years would be warp speed. So, to compete with other regions in the United States, we have to do better in areas that impact decisions of firms to stay and grow.

Chief among these must be a competitive, educated and reasonably plentiful workforce. There is a lot of room for improvement on this score, whether it is retaining our new college grads or retraining experienced workers for new careers, trades or employment skills.

Over several recent columns, I have ruminated on northern New England's competitiveness at a global level. Even the three northern states with a population of just over 3 million – one-third of whom are working – is not a very big number. But nationally, we have a higher profile. We have a legacy of old-line manufacturing, the cotton and woolen mills, shoes, electronics, computers, etc. We also should benefit from the large number of non-New England students who attend our colleges and universities (although we undoubtedly should exploit this resource more).

We hear and read that we are aging and graying, but there may be a silver lining in that cloud.

I was sitting around the table the other day with an economic advisory committee, and it dawned on me that, at age 65, I was one of the youngest at the table! There was a lot of talent and experience there, many of whom were older and more gray than me!

The point is, we need to encourage flexible transitions and phased retirements that allow those with years of experience to mentor, train and leverage younger workers.

Another day I was in a meeting with several bankers. Looking around the room, it dawned on me that a majority of them would hit retirement age, all within a short time frame. Who is going to take their place?

Leveraging the in-place knowledge and experience to ensure a smooth transition is a worthwhile endeavor that will yield dividends, making our region more competitive on the knowledge and skills side.

About a decade and a half ago we changed centuries, and we now have technologies never dreamed of before.

Rich Karlgaard, in a recent Forbes column, talks about the “Disruptive Dozen” technologies: genomics; new materials; energy storage; advanced recovery of oil and gas; renewable energy; robotics; autonomous vehicles; 3-D printing; mobile Internet; Internet of things; cloud computing; and automation of knowledge work.

These are the sectors and industries we here in the Northeast should be focusing on – high knowledge and high value-add.

Alas, some of us are “long in the tooth” and will struggle to grasp these technologies and applications. That is why we need the millennials and Gen Xers to stay and prosper here. It is a team effort. These are high-intensity sectors, and that is why our high standard of living and quality of life will attract these intense and intelligent workers.

So we need to play to our strengths. Key among them are the young people who go to school in the region (prep school, college or graduate school). Some of them develop an affinity for the area, and in some number of cases they might start or choose to grow companies here. That is a strong economic development strategy that should be pursued aggressively and consistently (in good times and in bad).

Dartmouth College has a strong cohort of graduates who choose to live in the Upper Valley – could that be expanded? St Paul's and Phillips Exeter are two other sources of talent and resources. And there are many smaller schools, such as New England College and Colby-Sawyer. If I were charged with recruiting successful business owners and entrepreneurs, this is where I would start – culling those alumni lists.

Concord has several parallel “economic development” conversations going on right now. The greater community is beginning to acknowledge that economic development (defined as expanding tax base and new good jobs) should not be left solely to municipal and state entities. It is a community-wide priority, and thus private citizens (young and old) should jump in.

The good Lord helps those who help themselves.

Bill Norton, president of Norton Asset Management, is a Counselor of Real Estate (CRE) and a Facilities Management Administrator (FMA). He can be reached at wbn@nortonnewengland.com.

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