3 N.H. cities achieve recognition as top ‘agurbs’
Lebanon, Concord and Keene are among the country’s top agricultural suburbs, according to a newly published book, “Boomtown USA: The 7-1/2 Keys to Big Success in Small Towns.”
Author Jack Schultz, chief executive of Agricel Inc., an Illinois-based rural industrial development firm, defines what he calls an “agurb” as a prospering rural community with a tie to agriculture and a location outside a metropolitan statistical area. To be an agurb, a community has to have experienced growth in population or employment from 1990 to 2000 and have a per capita income growing at more than 2 percent per year from 1989 to 1999. Of 15,800 qualifying towns, 397 are discussed in Schultz’s book.
His 7-1/2 factors include adopting a “can-do attitude,” leveraging local resources, encouraging an entrepreneurial approach and maintaining local control.
In an interview with New Hampshire Business Review, Schultz described the “half” factor as a delicate balance among all the other factors. “Like a teeter-totter, it doesn’t take much for communities at the bottom to rise up, or fall down.”
The most striking factor in Lebanon’s favor, according to Schultz is its medical facilities. Home to the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, Dartmouth College School of Medicine and Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital. Schultz likens Lebanon to Rochester, Minn., home of the Mayo Clinic. “It’s very possible Lebanon may also experience that kind of growth,” said Schultz.
He ranked Lebanon as one of the top 100 agurbs because of its strong economy.
Paul Boucher, president of the Greater Lebanon Area Chamber of Commerce, said he was pleased that Lebanon was chosen as one of the top 100 communities. “We’re sometimes forgotten, being in the northern quadrant of the state.”
Schultz was so impressed by Lebanon’s use of local resources, he uses it as an example in his book of how to leverage the best of what a community has to offer: “Six thousand of the jobs in Lebanon are connected to the Dartmouth facilities. For a town of approximately 12,000, that’s pretty impressive.”
“Among the things [Schultz] mentioned – medical, airport, strong local economy – we’ve got all that. Sometimes, you can’t see the forest for the trees, and it helps to have somebody outside point those things out to you,” said Boucher.
Lebanon currently is hoping to increase service out of Lebanon Airport. Another item at the top of the agenda is housing. “Dartmouth is finishing up a big addition that is expected to add some 300 employees, and we need to get homes for them,” he said.
Boucher said retail also is a strong sector – West Lebanon is a retail hub for the entire New Hampshire-Vermont Upper Valley region.
Concord – also ranked among the top 100 agburbs — stands out among many of the other communities in Schultz’s book because it is a state capital that’s faring well. It is one of only two state capitals on his top 100 list (the other is Carson City, Nev.)
Schultz said that Concord’s relatively high percentage of people with bachelor’s degrees and a low poverty level contributed to its high ranking. “State capitals can go both ways. Many times, because of the bureaucracy, the town may not do as well,” he said.
Tim Sink, president of the Greater Concord Chamber of Commerce, also was pleased with the study and said he agreed with its estimation of the city.
In fact, he said, he was editing the chamber’s relocation guide at the time the study came out and Concord’s ranking fit perfectly. “It’s nice to have something to brag about,” said Sink.
Like similar communities, Sink said, Concord is taking a look at its future growth. He said there are a number of significant projects slated that could affect growth, such as changes in the transportation corridor and several downtown construction projects. “The city is going through a master plan process for the next 20 years and trying to decide where we want growth and where we want open space,” said Sink.
Keene’s strong presence in the nanotechnology and ultra-high precision machine industry earned it a spot in Schultz’s book as well.
Timken Super Precision and Precitech are the only domestic manufacturers of ultraprecision machining, according to Schultz. “Nanotechnology is happening there. It’s a premier location that could be a springboard for the rest of the state,” he said.
But while Keene had a high percentage of residents with bachelor’s degrees (32 percent) and a low poverty rate, its per capita income didn’t grow as much as New Hampshire’s other two agurbs, and its housing values declined — both of which knocked the city out of the top 100 list.
Keene’s status as a college town also didn’t seem to make much difference in its ranking. But Keene is by no means alone — only 16 of the top 100 communities had a four-year college within its environs, including Lebanon, with Dartmouth College in the neighboring town of Hanover.
“When developing my research, I thought my ideal agurb would be 50 to 100 miles from a metro area, near an interstate and have a four-year college. What I actually found, had little to do with any of these,” Schultz told the Business Review.
He said that colleges and universities often cannot hold on to their graduates nor do they partner with the community to retain these graduates or entice past graduates back. “The two biggest differentiating factors were a town’s ‘can-do’ attitude and the ability to find and develop the town’s niche.”
What does it take?
Schultz’s research in job creation makes it seem that small towns may be the saviors of the struggling economy. From January 2000 to November 2003, of the 1.9 million jobs created in the United States, 225,000 were in Schultz’s top 100 agurbs.
“To put that into perspective, one of every nine jobs created were added in agurbs with a total population of Maryland,” Schultz said. He also said Concord and Lebanon were among those top 100 communities that added jobs.
And all of those jobs in the “boondocks” look like a good deal when comparing standard-of-living costs between the top three New Hampshire agurbs and New York City. To have the same lifestyle you would have in the Big Apple with a $100,000 salary, you would need to earn $42,000 in Concord, Lebanon or Keene, said Schultz.
Schultz’s research also suggests that technology has been a major factor in the success, or failure, of the nation’s agurbs, responsible for waves of population migration over the last century.
“The first wave was the exodus from agricultural areas to cities, based on the steam engine. Then to the suburbs with the advent of the automobile and the telephone. Now we’re moving back out to rural areas with computers and communication technology,” said Schultz.
“Access to the Internet is fundamental, but it’s also an Achilles heel. If you can’t stay on the cutting edge, you are quickly left in the dust,” said Schultz.
Schultz also pointed out that new models in air travel, bypassing major city hubs for smaller commuter airports, also will open up small communities to economic development.