BIA forum urges push for workforce housing

The Business & Industry Association has finished five of 15 scheduled listening forums this month, a series designed to muster ideas and support for the organization’s legislative agenda for the 2007 session.

Some 50 corporate leaders turned out June 15 for a Concord brainstorming session, led by Jim Roche, president of the BIA.

The Concord group met at Lincoln Financial and identified top goals, all interconnected: Keep young people in the state and reverse the graying of the state’s population, currently the sixth oldest in the country; expand the supply of workforce housing, a snag to hiring and keeping a capable labor pool; and hold down tuition rates at state universities and community technical colleges so state residents can afford to attend them.

The group came up with a score of definitions of the so-called “New Hampshire advantage” for the business sector, including low taxes, a well-educated workforce, a good regulatory climate, low crime and poverty rates, clean environment and a good health-care system. Participants said they that the state’s strong communities, high proportion of insured workers, accessible legislature, high per capita income, effective public schools, good roads and nearness to Boston were its greatest assets.

But they pointed to various threats to the economy, unless state policymakers develop a coherent long-range vision that helps businesses stay competitive.

For instance, they said, if young people keep leaving New Hampshire, and older keep moving in, the labor pool will shrink. Another major threat is the cost of housing for the average worker, who continues to have trouble buying a home.

Tim Sink, director of the Greater Concord Chamber of Commerce, said addressing the first problem would help with the second. Some participants said towns are zoning out families with kids because they think that will cut school costs. In the same vein, they welcome subdivisions for people 55 and older because they see the impact on school taxes is zero.

Shannon Reid, a spokesperson for the technical colleges, said the state should spend more on higher education, or high school graduates will enroll in out-of-state institutions.

That talent drain, in turn, raises the average age.

Roger Hawk, planning director for Concord, said he might get in trouble for saying so, but every community should encourage workforce housing.

BIA Vice President David Juvet said the association earned several State House victories last term, especially the reduction in the insurance premium tax from 2 percent to 1 percent over four years.

“It will be one of the lowest in the country,” he said. “That should stimulate job growth.”

He was sorry a bill to boost affordable housing was sent to a study committee.

“That was our signature issue,” he said. “We’ll continue to work on it.”

In an interview, Roche said the Legislature remains fiscally conservative and unlikely to pass a sales or income tax that would change the business environment dramatically.

“The needle points to the business side of the dial,” he said. “We hope reducing the premiums tax will bring a lot of insurance firms to the state. Our biggest disappointment was the failure of the $1 million research and development tax credit.”

He said the incentive would have boosted the high-tech industrial sector, with its high-paying jobs.

“If we lose that core of the economy, the per capita income will suffer. We can’t let the state morph into a service economy. We should focus on creating product prototypes. We can compete very well for those jobs, even if the manufacturing plants go to other countries with lower wages.”

Juvet said BIA roundtables held recently in Berlin, North Conway, Plymouth and Littleton generated many of the same ideas. – CHRIS DORNIN/GOLDEN DOME NEWS

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