Rochester, New Hampshire is bridging an industrial past with a high tech future. “A lot of people say they are prepared for the future, but what they are really prepared for is for things to go back to the way they used to be,” says Economic Development Manager Karen Pollard, CEcD, EDP. “People have to let the past go because the future is going to be completely different.”
The real question for today is, “if you are going to own a business in the next ten years, what would you need to do right now?”
Rochester is working hard on getting that answer right. “The city of Rochester has really put a lot of effort and thought into what the future of our community will be,” Ms. Pollard says. Rochester is modernizing its centuries-old manufacturing tradition by shifting to space age production, focusing on leading edge sectors such as composite materials, medical devices, and aerospace equipment. “These are concepts that wouldn’t [have been considered] even 20 years ago,” Ms. Pollard points out. “I think that we have been really forward thinking.”
The city of 30,000 was inspired to forge a new path after its major employer, Cabletron, announced that it was leaving town in 2002. With no formal economic development program, strategy, or staff, the community scrambled to find a way to overcome the loss. “You can’t let the largest business leave town and do nothing. There was a real push to come up with a strategy – not to just throw money at the problem, but to come up with a strategy that could be effective.” The city hired Ms. Pollard to head up the efforts and developed a bold, award winning economic development program to secure Rochester’s place in the 21st century.
Armed with the new, comprehensive economic development plan, Rochester more than overcame the loss of Cabletron. Every building that the computer equipment manufacturer occupied has already been sold and reoccupied, with most facilities enjoying 100 percent occupancy rates. An innovative occupancy plan helped ensure that the space remained in full use. Most buildings were repackaged as multi-tenant sites and a wide variety of businesses were welcomed in, from schools to recreational facilities. For example, the former Cabletron service center, which once housed approximately 1,200 Cabletron employees, is now the site of Granite State College, the Strafford County YMCA, and office space for several companies in the computer sector. Another former Cabletron building is now home to a retail outlet store, a national distribution center, a manufacturing business and an Irving Oil office. “We’ve been really creative in allowing other uses to come in and take advantage of the space,” Ms. Pollard points out. “That has led to some interesting juxtapositions of some different types of companies, but also a certain energy.”
The city has also been emphasizing the development of new industrial parks to ensure that incoming businesses have the facilities that they need. “They really thought about preparing themselves for the future when it comes to industrial parks,” says Ms. Pollard. “We have eight, and for a community of 30,000, that is a lot of business space dedicated to industrial work. We have everything from historic mill buildings to brand new spaces and our vacancy rate is quite low in industrial space.”
In keeping with the city’s futuristic vision, a state of the art aerospace composites facility has also just finished construction. The 343,000 square foot, eight acre facility will be used to create composite engine components in the LEAP engine, a disruptive, next generation product. The project is the result of a unique partnership between Albany Engineered Composites, a division of U.S. Albany International Corporation, and Safran Engineered Composites, an international leader in jet engine and aerospace components.
Education is key to Rochester’s successful future, and the community has managed to secure several programs that will prepare residents for advanced manufacturing work. “We’ve invested a lot in education,” Ms. Pollard says. Great Bay Community College recently opened an award winning Advanced Technology & Academic Center (ATAC) to focus on technical composites manufacturing and academic courses for job seekers and business owners throughout the region. The center’s Advanced Manufacturing courses fulfill training needs for Albany Engineered Composites (AEC) and Safran Aerospace Composites (SAC), as well as other area manufacturers.
The ATAC is funded by a $19.97 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor, Employment & Training Administration. “The community college received a grant to create this center for composite materials because one didn’t exist anywhere else in the Northeastern United States,” Ms. Pollard reports. “We wanted to create this because medical device and aerospace manufacturing both require composite materials to be used in their equipment.” The ATAC also houses one of the state’s eight WorkReadyNH sites, where job seekers receive free training in job-related “soft skills” and a National Career Readiness Certificate to help them land a job.
Due to high demand, the ATAC quickly outgrew its 17,000 square feet of classroom, computer, academic support, and technology laboratories. In response, an additional 10,000 square feet of classroom and lab space just opened in February.
Rochester’s economic development plan also includes more traditional sectors, including retail, healthcare, back office, hospitality, and warehouse / distribution. The community is already a regional hub for healthcare, a number of new retail stores have recently moved to town, and a major new shopping center with a movie theater and other entertainment venues is under construction. The city is also making major investment in infrastructure to support development. A recent $3.89 million infrastructure project, partially funded by a federal Public Works Program EDA Grant, will expand the city’s water and sewer system, making Rochester even more attractive to incoming industrial businesses, and nearly $5 million in the commercial development district will support two million square feet of additional development projects.
The city has also adopted a number of specialized incentives to encourage growth within the plan’s targeted sectors, from high tech manufacturing to traditional retail. Three NH Economic Revitalization Zones offer corporate tax credits to qualifying businesses, while two Tax Increment Financing Districts (a third is in progress) will expand industrial and commercial zones. A Special Downtown Business District enjoys an expedited approval process to encourage adaptive reuse, and the city also has two HUB Zones through SBA and is a New Market Tax Credits eligible community. A revolving loan fund from the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program has created more than 300 jobs over the last decade in manufacturing, service industries, and hospitality. In addition, the city will walk potential businesses through the startup or relocation process, providing support through the planning, application, and follow-up phases.
Rochester’s location is also a selling point. The city enjoys excellent air, rail, water, and highway transport, including easy access to Interstate 95, the Pease International Tradeport, Boston’s Logan Airport, Manchester International Airport, the Portland International Jetport and the Port of Portsmouth. Rochester is also located near New Hampshire’s popular Lakes Region, the White Mountains, and the beach, providing a wealth of recreational opportunities, from downhill skiing, hiking, and mountain biking to sea kayaking, swimming, surfing, and sailing.
Residents do not need to leave town for recreation and entertainment, however. Rochester boasts plenty of ball fields, hiking and walking paths, rivers, and ponds, as well as an eighteen hole golf course, while the newly restored Rochester Opera House hosts a range of cultural and civic activities. In addition, the community-oriented city hosts a festival every season, including the Blues & BBQ Festival in the summer, a summer concert series at the Rochester Commons, a Fourth of July celebration with activities and fireworks in the summer, an old fashioned agricultural fair in the fall, and a Christmas parade in the winter.
In addition, diverse reasonably priced housing options ensure that residents can find a home that fits their needs. “The cost of housing is affordable,” Ms. Pollard says, “so we still have a very high level of home ownership compared with a lot of other communities. You can buy a home with a barn and have a horse, or you can live in a downtown that is quaint and historic and has funky eateries. There are so many diverse types of housing. I have yet to find someone who, once they started looking, couldn’t find something they liked.”
Wherever residents live, they enjoy the city’s classic New England charm. Rochester is spread across miles of rolling hills dotted with quaint red barns and white picket fences reminiscent of a Norman Rockwell painting. New developments enjoy highway proximity and cluster around the historic downtown. Fortunately, the city is well prepared to transition its industrial past into a high tech future, while still retaining this old fashioned New England charm. “We have to have a balance between history, industry, and the future,” says Ms. Pollard. With a solid economic development plan in place, it seems Rochester is more than ready to maintain this balance and enjoy a successful 21st century.