Although New Hampshire is not quite out of the woods yet regarding the pandemic, the state and local economies look solid and are poised for post-COVID growth.
That’s the conclusion of New Hampshire Business and Economic Affairs Department Commissioner Taylor Caswell, who detailed the underlying reasons behind an economy nearing recovery, if not already there, and how the state’s strategies, some put in place before the pandemic, are now paying off.
“We’re seeing real positive numbers right now, on all sorts of fronts,” BEA Commissioner Taylor Caswell told The Caledonian-Record on Thursday. “Vaccination rates are going up and we’ve got 17 to 18 percent of the population that has had at least one vaccination. From an economic standpoint, that’s critical to consumer confidence, getting people back to work, getting restaurants open.”
The state unemployment rate currently stands at 3.6 percent, down from a high of 16 percent in April 2020 and just a few notches above the pre-pandemic level of 2.7 to 2.8 percent.
“We’re seeing continued investment in all sorts of industries, some growing quicker than others,” he said. “Companies are moving here, companies are expanding here, small businesses are opening and reopening.”
Helping to fuel that trend was the more than $500 million in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding that went toward supporting the state’s businesses through the Governor’s Office for Economic Relief and Recovery (GOFERR), he said.
“The speed of the investments that we’ve made at GOFERR with BEA support over the last couple of months has been critical,” said Caswell. “We’ve put in $500 million so businesses could stay afloat, so employees could keep their jobs.”
That impact benefited a host of other programs, too, like the Main Street lending program through CARES, housing assistance, social welfare, and the nonprofits that employ people, and set the state up for recovery and future expansion, he said.
More than $50 million was also put into the state’s unemployment insurance trust fund.
“The reason why that’s important is because under state law, if the unemployment trust fund goes below a certain amount, we’re required to make that up through employers,” said Caswell. “By making an investment in the unemployment insurance trust fund it also makes it easier for businesses to bring those employees back without incurring that extra cost.”
Meeting A Challenge Head-On
New Hampshire, though, is not without its challenges, chief among them attracting a younger workforce to keep the economy strong for the long run.
Caswell said that pro-growth effort has continued through the pandemic and is bearing fruit and spoke on why the North Country is in a unique position to capitalize on it.
“We see great opportunity on that front as we start to come out of this,” he said. “People who live in more urban or suburban areas really start to reconsider where they want to live, the life that they want to live. New Hampshire certainly presents a very strong case for a lifestyle that can often be remote. You can work from anywhere as we’re going to see over the coming months. You can participate in a small community, an urban community, a seacoast community, can raise your family.
That will be a real draw to a large number of people for the next couple of years and there is a large opportunity there, said Caswell.
“It was bearing fruit to begin with,” he said. “Now, coming out of COVID, the type of individual that we were marketing to originally, that group just got a lot bigger.”
By the end of March, the BEA hopes to fill a new position, an outdoor recreation industry development director, who will report to Caswell and advance the effort to connect the dots between the state’s outdoor assets, many of them in the North Country, and workforce recruitment and tourism.
Features like the new PRKR MTN trails network in Littleton, for instance, can help attract and retain that younger demographic to live and work in New Hampshire, he said.
“It’s a good example of what we’re trying to do statewide with this outdoor rec component,” he said. “I don’t think we should underestimate the power of that message and those assets in a post-COVID environment.”
Helping to also fuel recovery are other collaborations, including a state-funded program involving chambers of commerce to develop regionally based plans for COVID recovery.
“A lot of chambers worked on marketing materials for workforce, some worked on specific business PPE [personal protective equipment] support program,” said Caswell. “A lot of our northern chambers in Coos County focused on helping businesses with free or low-cost PPE during the height of all of this.”
The BEA has also reached out to various stakeholders, interviewing more than 100 of them to study how the state and its partners deliver services to the business community, be it technical or venture capital assistance or workforce recruitment and development.
“Over the next couple of months, we are going to be really aggressive with a new recovery strategy that is going to encompass a lot of that,” said Caswell. “Having an adequate workforce for employers is certainly an issue for a lot of employers in the North Country.”
Veronica Francis, founder of Notch Net, golittleton.com, and the Pollyanna Glad Shop on Main Street and co-founder of Discover Littleton, which launched last year to market Littleton to visitors, said the view from the Littleton Main Street level looks good.
“We are cautiously optimistic,” she said. “People are a little more relaxed and coming out more.”
Stopping by her shop have been more people than last year, some who recently moved to the area or are second homeowners or visitors who are enthusiastic about visiting the town, said Francis.
“Our tourism is up more and the feeling on the street is we are going to be busy,” she said.
A number of Main Street businesses are also gearing up for expansions, among them White Mountains Canning, she said.
A few new shops are opening.
Discover Littleton is launching a new website in April and has been busy creating videos to give people a bird’s eye view of each neighborhood in Littleton.
Two young college graduates, in that demographic the state is working to attract, are doing Discover Littleton media production and sales.
The ongoing vaccinations, too, are making a difference, said Francis.
“I know more and more people who have it and people feel relieved,” she said.
Northern New Hampshire in 2020 benefited from a very strong summer tourism season and the snow that at last fell in early 2021 has brought more outdoor enthusiasts to the North Country, said Caswell.
“That put a lot of towns and employers in a good spot,” he said. “Other areas that maybe don’t have that access to the tourism piece, whether it’s the North Country or elsewhere, I think they probably suffered more than others. Those are going to be a big part of our focus going forward.”
Employers will begin to see a state that has made a strong point of supporting its business community and caring about its economy and its employers through the COVID experience, said Caswell.
“It’s going to be a state that these companies are going to want to invest in or expand in,” he said. “We’re going to see that happening in the next couple of months. What will follow a combination of resources and workforce and people interested in living in the area will be the resurgence of these companies in the North Country.”
Some include American Performance Polymers, in Colebrook, a manufacturer of dipped rubber products that include gloves and products for medical, industrial and research clients, which set up shop a few years ago and now has more than 100 employees.
“You’ll see more American Polymers, you’ll see more investments like in Gorham and Groveton,” he said. “It will come and we have a huge opportunity in this coming year, when companies and consumers have trillions of dollars that they didn’t spend in 2020. They’re coming and they’re looking and they’re feeling like they want to start something new. New Hampshire is here and ready for it. I’m confident about where we’re heading in the next year.”