Claremont finds itself on the cusp of revival

Three empty mill buildings sit in downtown Claremont like historical memorials to manufacturing eras long past, with links of community identity and economic vitality stretching back to the 1830s.

Forget Lawrence and Lowell, says Mark Aldrich, Claremont’s economic development director — these are the oldest multiple-use mill areas in America, once vital contributors for the paper, textile and machine industries. Today, these three complexes — totaling about 150,000 square feet and named Peterson, Wainshal and Sawtooth — are at the center of an ambitious $15 million municipal revitalization project that could shape Claremont’s economic identity once again.

“This is a very significant project because it has the long-range potential to be a sustaining economic engine for the area,” says Aldrich of the city’s effort at long-term rehabilitation. “Though the scale is different, we believe this could do for Claremont what the rehabilitation of the mill district did for Manchester — and especially how it revitalized its entire downtown district.”

The upper Connecticut River valley city of Claremont is community in transition. Like many small cities dependent on large manufacturing firms, Claremont has taken one hit after another while watching companies such as American Brush, Procter & Gamble and Joy Forge depart, due to declining markets or in the global search for lower labor costs.

Not surprisingly, the city’s population dropped in the 1990s by more than 5 percent to slightly more than 13,000 in 2000.

Aldrich says the city’s 2.6 percent unemployment rate is healthy, but deceptive. “Because we do so much cross-border retail business with Vermont, that sector has remained strong. But what we have is a large under-employment factor that makes it difficult for our economy and population to grow. You can’t have economic growth without population growth.”

Success stories

The first phase of the mill rehabilitation effort is under way.

A $500,000 federal grant has been secured for the 50,000-square-foot Wainshal building, which is scheduled for reopening in early 2005. The showcase for this building will be a culinary arts/hospitality school run by New Hampshire Community Technical College and will include a dormitory section for the students. Aldrich envisions the building with a mix of commercial and retail companies, along with low-to-middle-income housing.

Aldrich also is optimistic about others areas outside of the vital downtown district. Two of six lots have been sold at the partially completed 100-acre Syd Clarke Industrial Park. The city has added road, water and sewer infrastructure routes to the new 36-acre Ashley’s Landing Park, where one lot has been sold and which includes a 1774 Colonial House as a potential corporate office.

Aldrich points to two locally grown and economically vibrant companies that are expanding their operations in Claremont.

One, Custom Structure Inc., is a fast-growing modular home company that’s moving into a 250,000-square-foot facility once occupied by a Proctor & Gamble-owned company.

Crown Point Cabinetry, which designs and makes custom cabinets for clients throughout the Northeast, is moving next summer two miles away from its cramped quarters into the 85,000-square-foot facility formerly owned by Claremont Flock.

Brian Stowell, Crown Point’s president, says it was time for his company (more than $11 million in annual sales) to expand after almost two decades in its current location.

“With as many employees as we have (more than 90) and the team approach we take to our projects, we needed the space,” Stowell says. The new space came in the form of a relatively new (1995) building, 15 acres of land and a likely $4 million in expansion and new equipment investment costs.

“Ideally in this business, you’d like to have between 1,000 and 1,500 square feet per employee. We have 33,000 square feet now, and when you do the math you can see how we’ve gotten the most out of the space we have.”

As one of the highest-paying manufacturers in the region (average base salary is $15 an hour, but work quality and profit-sharing bonuses are frequent), Crown Point’s success has drawn attention – Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business recently highlighted the company’s unique project approach to production in a case study, and President Bush cited Crown Point in a speech during a visit to the state in October.

Feeling of optimism

Stowell admits that when it came time for expansion, he didn’t think about deserting Claremont or even playing one city off another to his advantage.

“Some people suggested I take my time to get the best deal, but that wasn’t a factor at all. I believe in this city, and the cooperative environment here is fantastic. I’ve raised my children in this city, and to move away, well, it would be beyond me.”

Aldrich says that changing public perception after so many years of economic turmoil is an important ingredient of sustained economic development.

“My gut feeling is very optimistic. This community has come together to deal with some significant issues, but we’ve succeeded in a lot of areas,” including finally seeing light at the end of the tunnel from one the state’s highest electricity rates.

Among the many signs of change in Claremont, Aldrich believes, is that U.S. Sen. John Sununu chose the city to host one of his state offices, which will have two full-time staff people.

“One of the perceptions we’ve had to deal with is that Claremont didn’t have political connections,” says Aldrich, who himself served in the state offices of former U.S. Sens. Gordon Humphrey and Bob Smith before taking the Claremont job 18 months ago.

“We think the opening of this office is a sign that the city is a great place about to happen economically.”

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