The redevelopment of the Old Hitchner (now Chapman) site in Littleton to become a NH Community College expansion facility needs to happen. It is a lifeline and tethered to the future of keeping manufacturing in the North Country. Why is that?
Well, according to the National Association of Manufacturers there is a strong potential that between now and 2028 that 2.4 million manufacturing nationwide jobs will go unfilled. The North Country is not immune from this statistic and in fact is more threatened given the energy and transportation costs and skill gaps.
Three solutions are: increase pay, create job training programs and create a perception that thinking on your feet and working with your hands is a great thing to do. The reality is that we need less bachelor degrees (or perhaps a hybrid of both bachelor/vocational degrees) and more industrial trade programs.
The purpose of the Community College expansion project in Littleton is to meet the educational and training demands for tradespeople such as machinist, diesel mechanics, computer operators etc. for local companies. No need to look further than to ask companies like New England Wire, Burndy, New England Trucking about the necessity for local job training programs and the importance of them to their workforce survival.
It is no mistake the inter USA Industrial Group, a Canadian company of Magog, Quebec now in Littleton, identified the need to provide services to a variety of industries such as pulp and paper; wood processing; rubber and plastics; steel and metal; food processing, and more. But much like local industry, its training and recruitment will benefit from the local Community College expansion project.
In the early spring of 2016 I coordinated and facilitated a roundtable discussion at the NH Statehouse with the Governor, Community College and State leaders about the proposal to expand the Hitchner site and it became clear the $30 million three phase project was too expensive for the Community College who lacked the resources and capacity to take it on. But the Governor was enthusiastic about the vision and ask us to move in the direction of a public and private partnership project.
At the time, there was a sense of urgency to find a private developer who would be willing to take on such a project. It was clear from outset that workforce shortage issues were becoming a major problem not only for the State, but for the North Country.
With great fortunate some of us were able to convince Bob Chapman of Berlin, a well-known North Country business leader, to purchase the Hitchner property and take on the initial overhead. At the time, excitement was high, Mr. Chapman and his team worked immediately with local municipal and business leaders to gain their support, and ultimately received a commitment letter from the NH Community College System leadership.
The ask from State government was based on scope of work and design estimates worked on with the developer and the Community College System. The original request was higher than expected and finally the request was whittled down to $5.3 million with 28, 200 square feet in the redevelopment of the first phase. The ownership and lease options would be worked out.
With a looming $13 billion State Operating Budget and a $125 million Capital Budget, the ask was in. Meetings with State officials were made and it was a matter if State government (who has identified workforce shortage as a crisis in the State) would agree to come to terms on this project.
State Senator David Starr of Franconia attempted to get the funding on the floor of the Senate and it was rejected. The Governor has vetoed the State Operating Budget and it is time to act and to put the expansion project money in the State Operating Budget over the summer, vote on it in the fall and to keep this project moving forward to meet the priorities of the State and our local workforce shortage and training needs.
The window is closing and Mr. Chapman can no longer carry the uncertainty of this project without senior State leadership’s full cooperation and support. Mr. Chapman has been a great asset to this project and he has only the best interest of the North Country at heart. It’s time for Concord to look North. The North Country needs this project, it’s a game changer!
Joseph D. Kenney, of Wakefield, N.H., is former state senator and executive councilor.