With the imminent closure of the Balsams Grand Resort in Dixville Notch, the issue of economic development in the North Country is once again on the state’s radar screen. The pulp mill industry is all but dead, along with a proposed large-scale biofuel plant. These complications mean that when the Balsams shutters next month, the loss of 300 jobs will hurt a depressed area even more. I recently talked with New Hampshire’s Business Development Manager, Michael Bergeron. Last month, Bergeron was profiled in The Boston Globe as a business thief, sneaking across the southern border to steal Massachusetts-based firms. Now, he tells State Impact the challenges he faces bringing outside businesses to the state in general, and the North Country in particular.
The first thing that brought you to my attention was that Boston Globe piece. I’ve got to know, what was your reaction to that?
“Oh, it was great. Great press. You know, because our budget’s very tight for advertising, and we could never have paid for such great advertising…We’ve had…I think we’ve had 11 leads from that, and they range from 800 employee companies to two employee companies.”
Now…getting an idea of…the payoff of this kind of recruitment work, what does, say, an average …year look like for you in terms of how many businesses you are able to bring in?
“On average, we have about 200 prospects that we’re dealing with, and it takes about two or three years for a company to make a decision to relocate or expand. Say, for example, if we make ten cold calls, of that ten, we might speak to one company that might be interested. And then we’d have to have, probably, up to five or six companies interested, and of those five to six companies, you know, one might actually make the decision to come to New Hampshire. So we have a very large pool of companies…‘pipelined’, so to speak, and it takes a long time and a lot of effort to locate companies that might be interested.”
What does the process of recruiting a company look like, start to finish?
“Well, it depends. We get leads from everything from referrals from friends to referrals from other state agencies, [and] other people who might be in the market. We try to establish relationships with decision-makers in companies. So we will try to contact companies that have presidents, treasurers, large ones that might have real estate directors. And we then also try to develop relationships with people who represent companies, so that would be CPA’s, attorneys, psych consultants, real estate brokers…we have various tactics to do that, depending on who the audience is. But it ranges from cold calls to having private dinner presentations in various cities with potential decision-makers…We’ve done dinners up in Quebec, where we invite a small group of companies to talk about the benefits of northern New Hampshire. We do the same thing for other parts of the state, in other states. So there’s no one way to do it. It just depends on the situation and what opportunities may present…”
You mentioned northern NH… So what is…on the agenda for you guys, in terms of bringing more business into the North Country?
“We’ve spent a lot of man hours in trying to attract companies to northern New Hampshire. So, as I’ve said, we’ve done everything from these private dinners in…Drummondville, Victoriaville, Quebec City, we’ve been to Montreal, and we’ve had pretty good luck at meeting companies that are interested in expanding to the state. But again, it takes a long time for them to make a decision, particularly if they’re from another country. They’re somewhat concerned about what it’s like to do business in the United States, and where is there property available. So we have several prospects that are interested now, in Colebrook, and one for Groveton, but it takes three, four, five years, believe it or not, to get this process from the beginning call to actually making the step to occupying space in northern New Hampshire.”
What’s the biggest challenge in drawing these people to the North Country, specifically, as opposed to, say, the Seacoast or the Merrimack Valley?
“Well, in terms of Canada, it’s more the issue, I think, of their hesitancy of what’s it like to do business in the United States. Because we tend to attract smaller companies that [have] been in Quebec for a long time, and now they’re ready to take that step into the US market. And so they need extra help. They need to understand what it’s like to do business in the United States, you know, what’s the litigation process like in the United States, where will they find people to hire? Just all those things that a family-run company has to look at. And a lot of them, the first generation of the company doesn’t speak a lot of English, and so they like the fact that Northern New Hampshire has a lot of French-speaking people that really can communicate effectively, and they can be close. So it depends. Sometimes, it can just be the issue of they don’t have that US contract, and that’s what they need, in order to start. For example, [I’m] working with a company now that may be interested in coming to Colebrook and working in a new industry, and [it’s] a matter of time to understand where their customers are going to come from, and then making that step.”
And domestically, what’s the biggest challenge in bringing companies to the North Country…?
“Domestically, these are companies that are coming from northern New York, northern Maine, and to some degree, occasionally, they’ll be in southern New England. But the companies that are looking at northern New Hampshire want to know how close they are to an Interstate highway, what’s available for industrial space, telecommunications, those are the things that come up all the time, and one of the things that northern New Hampshire needs more of is existing space. There’s not a lot of available industrial space, free-standing buildings, in the ten-to-thirty-thousand square foot range, that’s close to an interstate highway.”
[On the flip side,] when you’re looking at recruiting businesses into that densely-populated southern New Hampshire area, what’s the big challenge?
“Well, one of the challenges is finding the right piece of real estate. And that means, can they find the industrial building that has the right clear-height, that has the number of loading docks, that has the right image?…There’s a tighter vacancy in southern New Hampshire…for certain industrial buildings than there are in northern Massachusetts, because it’s been a fairly high demand in southern New Hampshire…Other things that come up, sometimes, is that the decision-maker in Massachusetts lives in Massachusetts, and so has a sort of inherent bias toward being, you know, where he or she lives.”