Is Dover the next Portsmouth?

'It's transitioned really quite nicely from just another New Hampshire mill town to a pretty thriving community'

If the city of Dover, N.H., were updating its resume, there are a few new accolades it would probably include.

For one, there's its recent ranking on CNN Money's 100 Best Places to Live in America. The listing placed the "classic New England town" with a "family-friendly atmosphere" in 90th place.

It's likely some of that family-friendliness that landed the city a spot on the list of 100 Best Communities for Young People, presented by America's Promise Alliance and ING, which recognizes communities that offer youth programs and work to lower their dropout rates.

There's one more accomplishment that would almost definitely be guaranteed a mention, and that's Dover's newly minted title as the fastest-growing city in the state.

That's according to the latest U.S. Census figures, which found that Dover's population grew 11 percent from 2000 to 2010 — from 26,884 residents at the turn of the decade to just shy of 30,000 last year. Comparatively speaking, the statewide population grew 6.5 percent.

"It's really experienced a perfect storm of growth," said Molly Hodgson Smith, executive director of the Greater Dover Chamber of Commerce.

The census results didn't come as a surprise to Dan Barufaldi, Dover's economic development director. Rather, they confirmed what he's been seeing firsthand since coming on board three years ago: Dover is growing, and growing fast.

Over the past decade, Dover has grown from the seventh-largest city in the state to fifth largest. Over the same period it's also experienced a more than 14 percent job growth and added more than 1,700 housing units.

It's important to note that Strafford County in general is experiencing a population boom; Census figures revealed that the county is New Hampshire's fastest-growing, increasing 9.7 percent over the decade.

Still, Dover's population swell has far eclipsed that of its neighboring cities: Rochester was a distant second, at 4.5 percent, Somersworth at 2.5 percent, while Portsmouth trailed the pack, its population remaining virtually flat over the period.

Many factors are driving the city's rapid redevelopment — some a result of community efforts and others based on the luck of geography, said economist Brian Gottlob, principal at PolEcon Research in Dover and a 20-year resident of the city.

And contradictory though it may seem, the process to transform the old mill city into the state's fastest-growing has been, well, slow.

"It's been ongoing, maybe on a more subtle scale, for many, many years," said the chamber's Hodgson Smith, who recalls the countless design charrettes held throughout the years to determine the best ways for the city to grow sustainably. "This is a dozen years or work, and really I think it's remarkable — it shows what careful, mindful, strategic, long-term vision can do."

Driven by manufacturing

For a long while, Dover's downtown just wasn't vibrant, said Barufaldi, which didn't bode well for the city, since people looked at it as the bellwether for the health of the entire community.

But now, he said, "Our downtown is beginning to really bubble."

Pam Simpson, owner of Harvey's Bakery, a staple of the downtown since 1932, said she's seen its rebirth really take shape the past five years or so. But it hasn't happened organically; rather it's been the result of efforts like Dover Main Street and redevelopment projects that have seen offices and apartments moving downtown.

"Dover is just up and coming," said Simpson. "I think Dover has been developing over the years with a lot of good guidance from city councilors and city managers and we've worked at keeping our downtown active."

Dover is New Hampshire's oldest continuous settlement, and ever since its mills were erected in the early 19th century, manufacturing had historically been its driving industry — a natural progression, given its prime location along the Cochecho, Salmon Falls, Piscataqua and Bellamy rivers.

Over the centuries — from the Dover Cotton Factory right on up to Clarostat and Davidson Rubber — the city has built industries around everything from ships and cotton goods to bricks, shoes and auto parts.

But as the manufacturers began closing down operations, the city "was seeing its traditional industries go by the wayside," said Gottlob.

Left in its wake was a city whose labor force was tailored to an industry that it no longer had.

Around the early 1990s, Gottlob said, he remembers delivering a presentation to the chamber of commerce with news that nobody wanted to hear: The industry on which the city had been built was gone, and it wasn't coming back.

"When it's your own hometown, there's nothing worse than saying that, but it was in fact the case," said Gottlob. "It was the point at which it was clear we needed to make that transition" into new industries.

For many old-line industrial New England towns, adapting to the changing tides of industry can be a near-crippling challenge; and while there was certainly resistance, Dover has not only adapted, but prospered, said Gottlob.

"It's transitioned really quite nicely from just another New Hampshire mill town to a pretty thriving community that's really changed its industrial base, its economic base and its demographic base," said Gottlob.

A lot of it has to do with Dover's fortuitousness of location. For one, there's its ability to draw from the educated workforce at the University of New Hampshire, just six miles away in Durham.

There's also the long-discussed Portsmouth overflow effect.

As Portsmouth's economy boomed, and its high-tech sector flourished, well-educated and well-off people were drawn to the region, and as real estate prices there rose, Dover promoted itself as a more affordable seacoast alternative.

'Unique product'

As much as the Garrison City naturally benefits from its neighbors, much of the transformation has been the result of careful city planning.

The old mill buildings have been restored into office space and apartments. Three new city parking lots are in the works for downtown, and next spring a massive waterfront rehabilitation project is slated to get under way, which in multiple phases will include the addition of high-end apartments and condos, a conference center, restaurants and more retail space.

Nowadays, Dover's largest employers are in health care and professional services. Liberty Mutual Insurance, its anchor employer, employs more than 3,100 people, while Wentworth-Douglass Hospital has 2,000 employees and Measured Progress has more than 400.

Barufaldi said the city's economic development efforts now lie in making the city a center for advanced manufacturing and high-tech clusters.

But it was the draw of surfing that lured NEMO Equipment Inc. away from its Nashua headquarters this fall.

"We liked the younger atmosphere of the Seacoast as well as the location (close) to all the outdoor activities," said Kate Ketschek, marketing director for NEMO, which specializes in making high-end tents.

When the company first started talking about moving to the Seacoast, Portsmouth was always at the top of the list, she said.

But when they began searching, they couldn't find a building with the character they wanted that was within their budget, she said. They didn't want to move into an already built-out office space, and were hoping for something similar to the restored mill building they'd inhabited in Nashua.

They found what they were looking for in the Cochecho Falls Millworks, the anchor property of downtown Dover that was built in 1870 and turned into office space.

"It had a lot of character and history, and the landlord was willing to work with us on rent."

Plus, she said, they liked the character and community in Dover.

"The downtown of Dover really seems to be progressing, and it's got a lot of great shops and restaurants — and believe me, we've been trying them all out."

On paper, it all sounds a bit familiar — a seacoast city with a diverse, walkable downtown; scores of restaurants with all types of cuisine; a redeveloping waterfront with new downtown living options; and an economic development team that's actively recruiting high-tech companies.

Is Dover the next Portsmouth?

Not according to Barufaldi or Hodgson Smith or Gottlob or Simpson. It's not that they resent the comparison to Portsmouth, the cultural hub of the New Hampshire Seacoast that has also long been the driver of the region's economic engine.

The characterization is just inaccurate, said Barufaldi."I don't think Dover is ever going to be a Portsmouth look-alike," said Barufaldi.

While Dover does get some tourists — due largely to the Children's Museum of New Hampshire, which relocated there from Portsmouth in 2008 — it'll never be the city's driving industry, he said.

"I don't think that tourism is ever going to be Dover's main suit," said Barufaldi.

Hodgson Smith said Dover has its own character and charm. "I think Dover is very careful to make sure that it has its own identity, that it has a very unique product in and of itself."

Portsmouth has a certain cachet — that unquantifiable "coolness" factor — that Dover will probably never attain, said Gottlob. As he sees it, Portsmouth is a destination, a place people wander around and spend a day, while Dover, on the other hand, is a place people visit for something — the Cochecho Arts Festival, or the Woodman Institute Museum, or the ice arena, for example.

Still, he said, Dover's cachet is growing — "And that's a good thing."

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