"Things just keep getting better and better."

 by Jason Grucel

That pretty much sums up the business climate of the Seacoast nowadays. As businesses of different types in the area prosper as never before, business owners and area leaders have plenty to be happy about. "It's very dynamic here right now," said David Holden, planning director for the city of Portsmouth, the epicenter of the Seacoast's development activity.

Dynamic might be an understatement. Floundering in the early 1990s as part of a nationwide recession, the Seacoast has taken off and is now receiving glances from a wide variety of companies throughout the country from neighboring towns, to California, Europe and the Pacific Rim.

Once obstructed and obscured by the high-technology metropolis of the Route 128 area of Massachusetts, the Seacoast, or rather the eCoast, as we'll get to later, is bursting with high-tech start-ups and companies whose employees are finding the area to be a "best-kept secret" in terms of quality of life.

In addition to the high-tech buzz, different types of businesses continue to pop up and thrive throughout the region, while unemployment sinks even farther with each passing month. The Seacoast has witnessed unprecedented growth in many areas throughout the last several years and appears in good position to continue that trend well into the 21st century.

Nestled among Manchester, New Hampshire, Portland, Maine, and Boston (all within one hour via automobile), the Seacoast is taking advantage of its accessibility---spinning what used to be considered its inaccessibility into an ideal place to work and a great place to live. No traffic, no mobs, and best of all, cheap parking and no sales tax. (PanAm provides regular service from Pease International Airport, which is right on the Seacoast and an attractive option for private aircraft and charters, to Orlando and Chicago.)

The Big Boom
Jim O'Donnell, principal of Jaquar Consulting, has certainly noticed the boom. Conversations he is having now are in stark contrast to conversations he was having with business owners and budding entrepreneurs in the not-so-distant past.

"Five years ago," O'Donnell noted, "most of the business counseling I did was about reducing costs and restructuring debt---mostly damage control. Now people are far more optimistic about starting a business. We're talking about business development expansion, including lines of credit to help fund growth."

O'Donnell attributes the region's success to a number of different things. "People want to be involved with a winner," he said, noting the Seacoast's rise in popularity. "They like the quality of life, they like the downtown area, and really, the high-tech presence here is so much stronger than it used to be. It's just a great place to do business."

Seacoast unemployment is hovering around an astonishingly low 2 percent, and with the Durham-based University of New Hampshire graduating more than 3,000 students per year, employers have a lot to choose from.

"One of the biggest attractions of new people to the state is jobs," State Economist Peter Bartlett told the Portsmouth Herald earlier this year. "And [New Hampshire is] certainly leading the country in job creation. The economic recovery is emanating out of Boston and spreading up to us. Boston is pushing outward."

"Unemployment is low, and everybody seems to want to be here," said Cindy Hayden, of the Portsmouth City Planning Department. "Things are changing. Portsmouth seems to be on the map. People want to be here for different reasons. We have the arts, the natural environment, and those things have become very important."

Holden summed up his reason for the growth of the Seacoast by relying on an oft-repeated but at times accurate phrase. "A CEO of a company is looking at Portsmouth because of location, location, location," he said. "It's the quality of life that the region offers."

High-tech Expansion
It would be hard to overestimate the influence of high-tech businesses that have made the Seacoast officially the eCoast. In April 2000, the Greater Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce's Technology Roundtable sponsored a contest in which people voted for a moniker that would best describe the growing role being played by the local high-tech industry in the region. The winner was eCoast, which has stuck after being used by former New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen in a proclamation.

The term eCoast originally referred to the area from Cape Ann in Massachusetts to Casco Bay in Maine---with Portsmouth as its capital.  But the scope of that initial focus is now centered squarely in the Seacoast area of New Hampshire and Southern Maine.  "Portsmouth is at the center of technology development in the region," former Gov. Shaheen. That awareness was brought to the forefront by the Chamber's Technology Roundtable which was formed January 1999 by member high-tech businesses eager to represent their interests within and outside of the Chamber of Commerce. The state has more than 1,000 software companies and stakes its claim to the highest percentage of high-tech workers per capita in the nation, according to an American Electronics Association study.  The group recently celebrated its 4th birthday in January 2003.

"The high-tech industry on the Seacoast is certainly evolving," said O'Donnell. "It was a small part [of the area's industry] before; it wasn't as well known. But now it has taken off."

"[The high-tech industry is] one leg of a multi-leg stool," said Holden, Portsmouth's planning director.  But a solid leg it is. In addition to the eCoast moniker, the region has gained notoriety for attracting high-tech start-ups and serving as a springboard for many high-tech companies that were already here.

In addition, Pease International Tradeport has grown in stature right along with the Seacoast area as a whole and is an invaluable leader of high-tech industry. The tradeport, a world-class business and aviation industrial park encompassing 3,000 acres right off of interstate 95, has attracted a wide array of businesses---especially high-tech businesses.

The tradeport has overnight accommodations, restaurants and banquet facilities, credit union and commercial banking, copy and printing services, job training, continuing education and the state's International Trade Resource Center.

"We've managed to identify [Pease] as a desirable site without overkill marketing, and clients are coming in," said George Meyer, director of the Pease Development Authority. "New Hampshire is a very desirable place, and we sell that. People who are moving in are really excited about being here, about all the attributes that make the Seacoast a good place to live---raising children, the kinds of homes in the areas, the quality of life."

The Seacoast's Future
O'Donnell is among those area leaders who have looked into the future with optimism--- and skepticism. Nevertheless, the fact people are trying to judge tomorrow's needs today holds promise for the region. "There are a number of organizations looking at [the future] right now," he said. "We're conducting studies, surveys, and focus groups. We're looking at managed growth."

Sue MacDonald, manager of administration and public relations for the Pease Development Authority, said, "There is a definite intent within development circles to maintain the Seacoast's quality of life. We need to focus on ways to develop and expand, but at the same time preserve the area's uniqueness by reducing the adverse effects [expansion has] on those special qualities. I think the Seacoast---at least I want to hope the Seacoast---will maintain its character. That's a strong element---it's a lot of our draw."

Meyer, the director of the Pease Development Authority, isn't afraid to talk about the challenges facing the area. "A problem we're ultimately going to have to face is transportation infrastructure," he said. "The roads from here going north . . .well, you can only go so far with two-lane roads. . . We're going to have to give some serious thought to the transportation system. It needs to be effective and get people, quickly, to where they want to go."

But Meyer echoes others with his focus on growing the Seacoast but, at the same time, ensuring it remains attractive. "There will be more congestion and a lot more money pouring into this area, and we need to
make sure it still has the charm it has now."

Jason Grucel is a Communications Associate with The Taylor Research & Consulting Group, an evidence-based consulting firm that provides qualitative and quantitative research to clients in domestic and foreign markets.

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