This story was produced by The Granite State News Collaborative and is being shared with its community partners at Nashua Digital.
By Sheryl Rich-Kern-Granite State News Collaborative
As the year comes to a close, the city of Nashua marks a turning point in its efforts to drive economic activity, especially to its downtown.
A new 750-seat performance arts center on Main Street is luring visitors from out of state while the downtown is reemerging from a pandemic slump. The city is also drawing energy from its new economic development director, Liz Hannum. Originally from Worcester, Mass., Hannum previously ran the Downtown Oregon City Association, an organization in a historic Oregon community that, like Nashua, sits along the banks of a river.
For her new job, she said, “like every economic developer I have a 20-year plan.” She has been at the helm of the Office of Economic Development since May.
A city branding campaign, a vibrant arts scene, infrastructure improvements, support for businesses of all sizes and more affordable housing top her list of priorities.
“Some of it will come to fruition, and some of it won't. And some of it will change based on what the community wants.”
To better understand what residents desire and how they perceive the city’s potential, the city signed an initial $15,500 contract with Texas-based CivicBrand.
In early October, the company conducted workshops with internal Nashua staff and local nonprofits and businesses to define how different neighborhoods impact residents and visitors, said Ryan Short, president of CivicBrand. Short will then help the city develop a branding campaign.
“We're not talking about a logo design project for the city,” said Short. “But rather the bigger-picture version – you know, the essence of what is Nashua, who we are and what is our story.”
Hannum expects part of that story will emphasize the arts. Concrete data backs up the value of a city’s cultural investments, she said. A recent Arts & Economic Prosperity 6 study (AEP6) found that Nashua’s nonprofit arts and culture industry generated $11.3 million in economic activity in the 2022 fiscal year and supported 482 jobs. Local and out-of-area visitors doled out $3.9 million in event-related activities, averaging between $33 and $45 a person.
The Nashua Arts Commission was one of 300 communities participating in the survey. Nationally, the study revealed a gradual resurgence in audience attendance within the arts and culture industry, despite the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Pete Lally heads Spectacle Live, the company that books artists and manages the staff and other operations at the Nashua Center for the Arts, which opened in early April. Lally said the center is drawing from a wider geography than he would expect after only six months. About two-thirds of ticket purchases are from people who live outside Nashua, he said.
“That tells us that word is getting out further and broader about the center quicker than it normally does,” he said. Typically, he would see that data 18 months out from an opening. Spectacle Live manages nine other theaters in the region, including the Colonial Theater in Laconia and The Flying Monkey in Plymouth.
The newly-constructed arts center cost millions to build, with $21 million secured through bonds. Federal tax credits and private donations made up the difference. Bank of America contributed $500,000 and enjoys the naming rights to the main theater.
Ticket sales and related economic activity did not contribute to the AEP6 study since the center was not yet open.
Downtown restaurants are packed before the performances, said Hannum. That’s great for the eateries, but independently-owned retail shops are not capturing the same benefits. She hopes to convince them to extend their hours once a week or even once a month.
A ‘road diet’ for downtown?
Nashua’s main and side streets host an eclectic mix of hair and barber salons, tattoo parlors, cigar, vape and smoke shops, antique markets, restaurants, clothing and gift shops. Most occupy the lower levels of 19th century brick buildings that harken back to the city’s past as a textile manufacturing hub along the Nashua River.
The iconic League of NH Craftsmen store is one of those shops. Other than the holiday season, manager Ruth Boland does not expect to change the shop’s hours because of the performing arts center. She said the way to encourage more retail traffic is simple: have more retail.
“I would love competition in downtown Nashua,” she said. “Please bring me another gallery.”
Marylou Blaisdell, chair of the Downtown Improvement Committee and owner of DesignWares, a clothing and boutique shop, pointed out that while the stores may be closed during arts center performances, out-of-town visitors glimpse the city’s appeal through its storefront windows. “And they come back,” she said.
Boland said some of the other League stores around the state benefit from tourists, but not Nashua.
“We don’t get leaf peepers and we don’t get people passing by,” she said. “Nashua is not right off the highway. You have to work to get to downtown Nashua, and it's confusing.”
Hannum can’t bring downtown closer to the highway, but she wants to take a page from Concord’s redesign for what she calls a “road diet.”
In 2015, Concord embarked on a two-year project to shrink its Main Street from four lanes to two and extend and widen its sidewalks. Hannum said Concord’s ambitious $13.2 million project initially drew public outcries, but in the end increased sales for area businesses and attracted more younger people to the area.
One of the first things Hannum noticed coming into Nashua’s downtown were the multiple lanes on Main Street. “Downtown is a destination,” she points out. “It is not a throughway.”
Hannum said she realizes that convincing taxpayers to narrow downtown’s main corridor is a tough sell and unlikely to happen anytime soon. In the meantime, she is focused on valuing pedestrians over car traffic, especially as the downtown shifts away from an office hub environment to more arts, entertainment, residential and, hopefully, retail.
A downtown circulation study is underway to improve traffic flow and alleviate backups on the side streets.. Some of the ideas being discussed include squaring off the Walnut Street Oval, making Water Street one-way from Main Street to Factory Street with on-street parking, and reversing the one way direction of West Pearl Street. The public will have the chance to give feedback on the recommendations once the study is complete.
The city is also extending its pathway along the river. Once a source of power for the commercial textile industry, the Nashua River endures as a scenic backdrop for walking, biking, dining and listening to music. In December, the city will bring an existing footbridge into compliance with ADA regulations. Next spring, the city will install boardwalks, create more recreational and green space and construct an outdoor amphitheater.
As described in the original plan developed in 2018, the renovation project will cost between $13.6 million and $19 million when completed. The city is using Tax Increment Financing (TIF) funds to offset the cost of public infrastructure, such as for roads, sewers and sidewalks. Proposed development would generate property tax revenue, thereby leveraging the cost of the public improvements.
BAE’s $50m investment
While Main Street helps define Nashua’s culture and character, its neighborhoods to the north and even more significant contributors to its economy. The 30-square-mile city, which spans eight exits off the Everett Turnpike and Route 3, is home to the facilities of tech giants like Oracle, Skillsoft and Dell Technologies. Southern NH Medical Center, St. Joseph’s Hospital and Dartmouth Medical Center employ thousands, and one the region’s largest employer, defense contractor BAE Systems, employs thousands more.
BAE has 6,000 employees in the southern NH area, and more than half are in Nashua.
In collaboration with BAE Systems, the city is providing up to $200,000 towards a workforce-training program at Nashua Community College in microelectronics. The training program and related funding are required by the federal CHIPS Act, which aims to encourage domestic research and the manufacture of semiconductors in the United States.
The company plans to invest roughly $50 million over the next five years to modernize the microelectronics foundry at Spit Brook Road, according to BAE spokesperson Paul Roberts. If the grant is awarded, the Nashua site may increase its workforce by up to 12% and its semiconductor manufacturing capacity by 300%.
On the small business side, Hannum is working with Tennessee-based Co.Starters, an accelerator program for traditionally under-served entrepreneurs. Co.Starters will provide a 10-week class to give entrepreneurs insights on how to run a business and more specifically to build a network, for example, how to work with banks and receive technical assistance from the U.S. Small Business Administration.
The project was made possible with funds from the National League of Cities’ Advancing Economic Mobility Rapid Grant program. Nashua was one of only eight municipalities in the country to receive the grant.
In the weeks ahead, the city will release information on its website on a weekend bootcamp in January and how to apply for up to $50,000 from the Greater Nashua Revolving Loan Fund.
Hannum explained that as new businesses create jobs or expand, the main challenge is not so much finding people to fill the positions, but rather providing them with a place to live. The city is short about 6,000 units, she said.
Some progress has been made to fill that gap. The city received $150,000 from the InvestNH Municipal Planning & Zoning Grant Program, funded by the NH Department of Business and Economic Affairs as part of the $100 million InvestNH Initiative with ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) State Fiscal Recovery Funds.
A portion of those funds will supplement the project budget to update the land use code, according to Planning Manager Sam Durfee. The goal of this process is to “ensure that projects are building as many affordable units as possible at the right AMI [area median income], with the project still being viable from a budget standpoint,” he said.
The city also enforces inclusionary zoning, mandating 10% to 20% of new market-rate housing units to be affordable to lower income families.
Durfee reported that 1,578 new downtown apartments were completed, under construction or recently approved in the past year. Another 1,000 units are in the pipeline.
Progress is underfoot, Hannum said, but change will not come in big sweeps.
“I personally like incremental versus exponential growth because it's a lot less dollars to invest in smaller projects.”
Small manageable steps and investments lead to sustainable progress without high risk, she added.
“I do see a huge potential in this community.”
This article was produced by The Granite State News Collaborative and it's community partners at Nashua Digital. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.
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