Open For Business

In the western New Hampshire city of Claremont, where City Hall sits inside the local opera house, the course of local politics has not always been harmonious. In one recent year, 2001, the city council had fired four city managers by the time August rolled around. The last of them left after a mere 18 days on the job, beating it out the door before his office furniture arrived.

“The mean spirit of politics caused a revolving door,” said Guy Santagate, the fifth and final city manager to be hired that tumultuous year.

Still on the job after nearly four years, Santagate sees a new attitude both at City Hall and throughout the population of 13,300 in a city best known as the economically depressed community that was the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit that forced a change in the way education is funded in New Hampshire.

“I think people were a little down in the mouth,” Santagate said, describing the popular mood after years of high unemployment and taxes rising as the result of a shrinking tax base. “Claremont missed the biggest economic boom in the history of the country,” he said. “All through the ‘90s, when the whole country was enjoying record economic growth, Claremont missed all of it.”

Today the city appears to be making up for lost time as old, long-abandoned mill buildings have drawn new interest and substantial investments. The Goodfellows block has been rehabilitated and the Claremont Main Street organization has raised over $2 million in public and private grants for the renovation of the Brown block, across the street from City Hall. The former mill site and later retail and residential complex has already been gutted and will be renovated and restored to commercial and residential use.

Alex Ray, owner of the Common Man restaurants, and Rusty McLear, owner of The Inns at Mill Falls in Meredith, are renovating the old Woven Label building to house a new Common Man alongside the Sugar River.

Sugar River Development Corp. has taken on the long-abandoned Peterson building to create 45 condominiums that are expected to sell in the $175,000-to-$245,000 range. The same company also is rehabbing the former Wailshall building for commercial and industrial use.

Meanwhile, a number of local businesses are building and expanding on a somewhat smaller scale.

Customized Structures Inc., a manufacturer of prefabricated homes, and Crown Point Cabinetry have both doubled their numbers of employees to about 100 each in the past several years, said Scott Pope, a Claremont schoolteacher and mayor of the city since January 2004.

“One of the big issues we’ve had is people believing in themselves,” Pope said. The loss of major employers like Joy Manufacturing and Tambrand Corp. in earlier decades devastated the city’s economic base, while the publicity surrounding the Claremont lawsuit branded the community as one lacking the resources to support adequate schools. The low point came when the high school lost its accreditation from the state Department of Education, he said.

“That really brought city awareness up on the need to improve the schools,” said Pope. The revolving door at City Hall was evident at the school district offices as well, but in current Superintendent of Schools Jacqueline Guillette the city has found a school administrator who has stayed and made a difference, the mayor said.

“We’ve had a superintendent who has stayed with us five or six years and had long-term goals that looked to not just facilities improvements, but the teaching program and our external image as well.”

The high school has won back its accreditation, the city has built a new elementary school and parents and businesspeople have become more involved in education and vocational training at the schools. Pope, who teaches machine tool technology at the high school, notes that the school has won certification from the National Institute of Metal Standards.

“We’ve all been very creative,” he said. “We realize our resources are limited and we try to work our way around our problems to maximize what we have.”

Plenty of opportunities

What City Hall had a few short years ago, said Santagate, was a maximum of problems and a minimum of people to solve them.

“There was no city manager, no city attorney, finance director, city assessor, city planners, city engineers, no permanent employees,” he said, recalling the conditions at the time he arrived. “We had $4,300 in reserve. I couldn’t even take someone to lunch.”

The exodus of city employees was brought on, he said, by cost-conscious city council members “looking over the shoulder” of the city manager and other administrators.

“I think they were really involved in the day-to-day operations of the city, and that’s deadly,” he said.

There was little opportunity to welcome and encourage new business development. And political instability made the city somewhat less than attractive to potential investors, he said.

“You live and die by your reputation,” said Santagate. “When your reputation is more about you know than what you know, or it’s ‘If I don’t get my way, I’ll drive you out of here,’ that spreads around the region.”

What now appears to be spreading around the region is word that there are plenty of opportunities for people looking to open up a business in Claremont. And a growing number of inquiries along those lines has been coming into both the chamber of commerce and the city’s business development coordinator, said Ruth Preston, the chamber’s executive director.

Preston sees the city benefiting from the relative scarcity of development opportunities in other cities in the region.

“Lebanon is overdeveloped. Keene is now pretty well overdeveloped,” she said. “People are looking for relatively low-priced, reasonably accessible properties.” said Preston.

Much of the still-undeveloped land in Claremont is city-owned, Santagate said, including hundreds of acres already zoned for commercial and industrial use. “We won’t even have to match buyer and seller,” said Santagate, “because we’re the seller.”

Construction is now under way on a 100-acre industrial park that will bring city water, sewers and roads and to the future occupants of all 13 sites.

Meanwhile, the city’s regulatory procedures and site plan reviews have been streamlined. “If someone submits an application now, they can be reasonably sure of getting a decision in about four to six weeks,” said Santagate.

And on the ground floor of the Claremont Opera House, city government is fully staffed and operating again.

“We’ve hung out a sign,” said Santagate. “‘We’re open for business.’”

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