Gulls swoop and caw while sunlight gleams on the harbor water. Shoppers bustle down brick-lined streets as diners sip cocktails al fresco. Nestled on New Hampshire’s Maine border, Portsmouth offers lively entertainment, eclectic stores and fine dining. The city’s commerce benefits from an advantageous location off Interstate 95, about halfway between Portland and Boston.
Founded in 1630 and long serving as the state’s principal seaport, economic prosperity remains a top priority for Portsmouth. That’s why the city began partnering with Extension’s business engagement and retention program in 2016. This program strengthens the local economy by identifying and addressing the needs, challenges and opportunities facing New Hampshire businesses. Portsmouth Economic Development Director Nancy Carmer, who serves as the city’s overall coordinator for the program, thinks this partnership is a good fit. “We see the future as working with existing businesses and we want to collaborate with UNH more,” she says.
Helping communities discern barriers to survival and growth through community-administered surveys is the first step toward promoting retention. To that end, Portsmouth administered surveys to 71 businesses, cultural institutions and nonprofits. Overall, the results showed that businesses are happy with their location and place a high value on the arts, historical assets and K-12 education. However, there is concern about limited parking, zoning regulations and the high cost of commercial rent, land and housing. Recruitment of labor proves challenging, particularly for manufacturing, scientific/technical and unskilled service workers.
“We had pretty good ideas about the issues facing businesses, but we wanted to empirically validate those beliefs with data,” Carmer says. After survey results were analyzed, Extension staff facilitated a review session between UNH faculty and a task force Portsmouth put together for this program to help generate action items.
One finding indicated a high lack of awareness surrounding key resources and an underutilization of state programs. In response, outreach is underway to engage businesses with the State International Trade Resource Center (ITRC) and the Office of Workforce Opportunity. Additionally, the Chamber Collaborative of Greater Portsmouth has established a series of industry-specific peer networks to share information through roundtable discussions.
In response to concerns about workforce shortage, UNH Director of Employer Relations Raina Sarvaiya presented information with her fellow Hire a Wildcat employees on how businesses can connect with UNH students and graduates who are looking for jobs.
Molly Donovan, Extension’s community and economic development state specialist, explains, “The key to business retention is fostering a relationship between local businesses and civic and community leaders to ensure that the businesses’ needs are understood and met.”