You know the drill – you get a pretty invitation in the mail with a link to Amazon.com or Bed Bath and Beyond. You sit down on the couch, point, click, type in your credit card digits and wave goodbye to your hard-earned money.
But if a couple wants their friends to shop locally, well – they’ve got to travel back in time.
When I arrived at Things Are Cooking, a kitchen appliance store in Concord, I asked owner Mike Beauregard to show me how his store handles wedding registries. He handed me a pen, a clipboard and a photocopied piece of paper.
“They walk around the store and fill in the items that they see that they want,” Beauregard says. But, he adds, no more than six people use his paper registries each year. For the most part, independently owned stores like his are locked out of the gift registry industry altogether.
Beauregard is hopeful that may change. He and 84 other local business owners have paid a $150 fee to set up an online storefront on NearbyRegistry.com, a New Hampshire startup that launches this month. NearbyRegistry.com allows couples and expecting parents to create an online registry of items and services from local businesses, from which family and friends can make online purchases.<--more-->
Beauregard has already sold a couple items through the website.
NearbyRegistry is the brainchild of owner and CEO, Allison Grappone. Grappone says it all started four years ago, when she got engaged. “My husband and I didn’t really want a gift registry but people asked us to create one, so we did one doing Google Docs. We asked for cross country ski passes, a used bookstore gift certificate, a CSA. It worked really great, but it was hard to use.”
Two years after that, Grappone’s idea won a $25,000 cash grant through the Manchester Young Professionals Network (MYPN) NH Startup Challenge. Now, she’s soliciting outside investors. She won’t say how much money she needs to raise, but will proudly disclose she’s one-third of the way there.
In the meantime, the ticker counter on Nearby Registry’s homepage says more than $1,300 have been “[kept] in local economies” over the last few weeks. So far, new users on the site are mostly Grappone’s friends and family.
Lindsey Jones of Seattle went to grade-school with Grappone and is getting married on the New Hampshire/Vermont border this November. “I really appreciate and value of purchasing items from local shops, and in a sustainable manner,” Jones says.
But there’s another twist to Nearby Registry, which may make it appealing even to those comfortable shopping at big box stores. As Grappone puts it, “people may not want as many consumer goods for their weddings and for their gifts.” They may want a couples yoga class, or guitar lessons: what Grappone calls “adventure and experience gifts.”
Those are services big box stores can’t sell. They are fundamentally local.
Grappone has a lot at stake as she launches NearbyRegistry this month. Her family and friends have invested their own money, there are two employees on payroll, and she’s spent the last four years – one and a half of which full-time – dedicated to her venture.
But to be profitable, Grappone will need to scale up. Her business model relies on an initial $150 joining cost and then a fee of 10 percent on every purchase, paid by the vendors.
“Several markets are interested in seeing this,” Grappone says, “Boston, also Seattle, and the state of New Jersey.”
But first, Grappone is starting with New Hampshire.
Disclaimer: NHPR employee Anna Moskov is an initial investor in NearbyRegistry.
Correction: The NH Startup Challenge is held by the Manchester Young Professionals Network, not the ABI Hub, a sponsor of the Challenge.
When New Hampshire residents discuss the revival of commuter rail, they are usually referring to the controversial “Capitol Corridor,” an estimated $300 million project which seeks to extend tracks northward from the MBTA station in Lowell to Nashua, and then on to Manchester and Concord.
Earlier this year, the Executive Council approved moving forward with a $3.9 million feasibility study that will explore the proposed rail’s financial and environmental impacts.
Meanwhile, a smaller-scale push for locomotives is provoking a quieter debate in another pocket of the state: in Plaistow, a southeastern town bordering Haverhill, Massachusetts, with a population under 8,000.
Sean Fitzgerald, Plaistow’s town manager, has long advocated for a commuter rail station, which would extend the Haverhill MBTA line by four or five miles. He trumpets it as an incubator for transit-oriented residential and commercial development, as well as a means of alleviating congestion from the highway.
In the last 15 years, the number of vehicles clogging the commercial Route 125 corridor has increased dramatically, according to Sheldon Wolff, owner of Wolff Realty Group in Plaistow since 1991. Because of the town’s proximity to Route 495, I-93 and I-95, Plaistow is a magnet for large chain stores and businesses. “There’s a bottleneck coming off 495 [from Haverhill] into 125. The town has been doing numerous things to alleviate traffic.”
Fitzgerald says that depending on the time of day, “it can take 20 to 40 minutes to travel from Route 125 in Plaistow to the Haverhill MBTA station,” with up to 26,000 trips a day.
In February, Transportation Commissioner Christopher Clement told a legislative committee that his agency was neither for nor against a House bill that would raise the state’s gas tax by 12 cents to pay for much-needed repairs to New Hampshire’s roads and bridges.
At the time, Clement could remain, as he put it, “revenue agnostic,” as long as income earmarked for his department from a proposed casino was still a possibility.
But the House swept the casino option off the table two weeks ago, leaving the gas tax increase as the only proposed alternative to address the state’s crumbling infrastructure.
Accordingly, at a gathering of business leaders in Concord on Monday, Clement assumed a less guarded position on the House proposal.
A gas tax hike, he said, would put the department on a “path to greatness.” The increase, which would bring in an estimated $817 million over the next 10 years, would allow for completion of I-93, double state aid for municipal bridge and highway repairs and fully fund the state’s 10-year transportation plan.
“If we do not get a long-term, sustainable funding source in the next biennium, we are in really big trouble,” said Clement, speaking at a panel sponsored by the Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire.
Clement said the department has relied on a series of “one-time fixes” to plug a $124 million hole in the state’s highway fund, including issuing bonds to pay for operations, raising vehicle registration fees and selling a portion of I-95 in order to divert turnpike revenue to the highway fund.
The latter scheme brought in $120 million, which was supposed to be disbursed over 20 years. But four years later, Clement said, the money is just about gone. “We’re done – we have about $24 million left,” he said.
Meanwhile, state aid to municipalities for bridge repair and maintenance has not increased since 1994, he said. As a result, the state shut down 11 bridges last year, including two in Francestown on the same day. All told, nearly 500 state and municipal bridges have been red-listed, meaning they have structural deficiencies.
Some of those red-listed bridges, including Memorial Bridge in Portsmouth and the Sewalls Fall Road bridge over the Merrimack in Concord, now have to be replaced, at much greater cost.
“The Memorial Bridge was our number one red-listed bridge,” he said. “Less than 20 years ago, it was $20 million to do a complete rehab that would have given us a brand new bridge. We didn’t have the money. Now we’re spending $90 million to replace it because we didn’t maintain it.”
According to TRIP, a nonprofit transportation safety group, New Hampshire’s roads are in similarly dire condition. More than a third of state-maintained roads and highways — some 4,559 miles of pavement — are in need of repair, according to the group, while the state DOT has a current roads and bridge maintenance backlog of $1.3 billion.
Reversing the trend won’t be easy.
The Republican-led Senate rejected the House’s plan to raise the gas tax, which hasn’t been raised since 1991, one day after the Democratic-led House killed the Senate’s casino bill. Because it’s in the House’s version of the budget, the gas tax will likely be part of the negotiations by the bipartisan committee of conference when it begins to assemble the final budget later this month.
Whether it survives those negotiations is another matter.
Rep. Candace Bouchard, a Democrat from Concord who chairs the House Transportation Committee, told the BIA group that the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Intermodal Transportation, or GACIT, will begin public hearings on the 10-year transportation plan in July.
Bouchard said that if the commission doesn’t have more revenue to work with, New Hampshire’s cities and towns will have to continue deferring much-needed maintenance on their roads and bridges.
That would not only present a potential public-safety problem, but an economic one, as well.
“We’ve become a state that is not completing on an economic level with the surrounding New England states,” Bouchard said. “And if we’re going to go forward and to grow our economy, invest in jobs, we’re really going to have to look at the deficit we have in this plan.”
New Hampshire’s campaign-finance regulations are a jumble of contradictions, a fact that people who study the issue never fail to point out.
A year ago, a consortium of good-government types awarded the Granite State a “D” for political financing, citing how easy it is for donors to get around the dollar limits on contributions.
Last week, a campaign-finance watchdog group weighed in, and once again New Hampshire found itself at the bottom of the class.
In an analysis of disclosure requirements for PACs, non-profits and outside spending groups, the National Institute on Money on State Politics gave New Hampshire an “F.”
Why? It seems we’re one of 25 states that don’t require independent political groups to report “electioneering communications” — advertising that refers to a candidate or ballot measure, but does not urge voters to cast their ballots one way or the other.
Such ads are distinct from so-called independent expenditures, which tell voters which candidate or ballot issue they should support on Election Day.
But in most cases it’s a distinction without a difference: electioneering communications are typically issue ads that give voters a not-so-subtle nudge in the direction of supporting or opposing a candidate. For instance, a group will bankroll ads in the heat of a campaign asking voters to call and thank (or spank) a candidate for supporting (or ignoring) the “hardworking taxpayers” of New Hampshire.
In the Granite State, candidates and political parties have to register with the Secretary of State’s office and file spending reports. So do political committees, which state election law defines as two or more persons organized to influence an election.
That definition has made the state’s guidelines difficult to enforce.
In 2010, for example, the Attorney General’s office investigated complaints that several tax-exempt “social welfare” organizations had funded attack ads without reporting the expenditures. The attorney general cleared the groups, ruling they were not considered political committees under state law because their “stated purposes” didn’t include telling people how to vote.
Since then, legislative attempts to close this loophole have gone nowhere. But pressured by advocates for greater transparency, lawmakers are trying again.
Bills in both the House and Senate would change the definition of a political committee to mean any group that spends $5,000 or more on independent expenditures or electioneering communications.
Both bills would stiffen the penalties for failing to comply: political committees that do not register or report their spending would be fined 25 percent of their expenditures, on top of the current penalty of $25 for each day the report is late.
What neither bill will do is require tax-exempt groups, such as 501(c) 4s, to report their donors — a concession that was necessary to gain broader support for the new rules, said Gordon Allen of the Coalition for Open Democracy, a Concord-based group that is lobbying in support of the bills.
Even so, requiring all political groups to at least report their expenditures would make New Hampshire’s rules on outside political spending as robust as federal guidelines, a standard met by only 15 states.
Both bills have been put on hold until next year. But if lawmakers can agree on the changes, New Hampshire might one day earn a gold star for transparency.
“We could go from an “F,” says Allen, “to an “A.”
As competition in the auto industry heats up, car makers are tightening their image and branding campaigns. But car dealers — who feel financially vulnerable despite soaring profits — say manufacturers are expecting them to pay too much of the price.
In New Hampshire, dealer organizations are behind a bill that would protect them from what they see as exploitation by manufacturers, which won near-unanimous support in the Senate and is now being considered by the House. Manufacturers argue that government shouldn’t interfere with their private business contracts.
But behind all the he-said she-said, there are changing forces in the automobile industry.
Scott Holloway has been selling cars for as long as he can remember. His father Paul Holloway bought a dealership in the 1960s, they’ve been expanding across the state ever since. While there have long been tensions between dealers and manufacturers, the Holloways say they have never seen anything like what’s happening now.
“This is the thing that really made my skin crawl almost,” says Scott Holloway, pointing to some light fixtures at his Buick and GMC dealership in Portsmouth. “We went to PSNH and did their green energy program, less than three years ago.” Holloway says he pulled out all the lights, and got energy saving lights put in. Then, a couple years later, Holloway says, General Motors told him he had to replace the energy efficient lights with GM’s standard issue lights. If Holloway didn’t comply, GM would increase the cost he pays on every car.
Maryann Keller, an auto industry consultant and former Wall St. analyst, says that most manufacturers have “image programs.” But, she says, in the last few years, these programs have gotten increasingly specific, “down to the brand and color of tile used on the floor, or the paint color on the walls.”
Now, lawmakers in NH are considering a bill that would update existing franchise laws on a number of fronts. One of the hotly contested sections would limit dealer facility upgrades to every 15 years, unless manufacturers pay for the upgrades in full.
New Hampshire Auto Dealers Association president Peter McNamara says as it goes now, dealers end up paying 96 percent of the costs for upgrades. While manufacturers say they subsidize the costs by offering vehicle discounts, dealers see the arrangement as “two-tier pricing,” which would be against the law.
Dealers and manufacturers also disagree about whether or not the “image programs” actually increase sales. “The key to a successful franchise model is conformity, uniformity, and brand identification,” says Dan Gage, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.
But industry consultant Maryann Keller says while shabby showrooms are bad for business, there’s no evidence that car makers’ fastidious image programs improve sales. She says car makers obsess over cookie-cutter showrooms out of a kind of competitive desperation:
It’s harder and harder to gain competitive advantage in this business. Cars today are almost uniformly high quality. There’s pretty good design across all manufacturers.
Some women sleep in very small cells. Others share a room with 21 other inmates.