Published Date Written by Mike MortensenPLYMOUTH – Issues which bear on future economic opportunity were uppermost on the minds of those who participated in a brainstorming session on New Hampshire's — and the North Country's — future.
About 30 people, most from the Pemi-Baker and Newfound areas, participated in the 2 1/2-hour session at the Plymouth Regional Senior Center Thursday evening to discuss, in small groups, the challenges which they believe the region needs to face in the coming years in order for the area to remain economically vibrant and be an attractive place for people to work, live and enjoy recreational opportunities.
Addressing the implications of the state's aging population, the need for better job opportunities, the lack of public transportation, the scarcity of high-speed Internet access in many rural communities, the need to protect the state's natural beauty were are all matters which participants said need to be explored and addressed.
Many saw the issues as interconnected and acknowledged the possible solutions as complex.
Thursday's event was one of 12 listening sessions taking place across the state to gather public comment which will be used to prepare both regional and statewide plans which address transportation, land use, economic development, housing, cultural and historic resources, health care and environmental protection. The effort is organized under the name Granite State Future.
The other such gathering in central New Hampshire is scheduled for Tuesday, May 7, at the Laconia Middle School. The listening sessions are being conducted as part of a three-year project to address regional planning issues. The endeavor is being underwritten by a $3.37 million federal grant with all nine of the state's nine regional planning commissions participating.
John Krebs, principal planner with the North Country Council, told participants to share "what is most important to you — how you want to see the future of where you live."
Addressing one economic piece is not enough, participants said. It's hard to attract new businesses to an area if there is insufficient affordable housing in the area to accommodate the workers which those businesses need to employ. And the lack of public transportation often frequently poses additional difficulties for lowest-income families which spend in excess of 30 percent of their income on transportation, according to a 2008 survey conducted by the Southwest Regional Planning Commission.
The only alternative to private vehicles for those living in the 19 communities which comprise the Pemi-Baker region is one part-time taxi, according to Patsy Kendall, executive director of Transport Central, a non-profit created to develop and deliver transportation service for people who live in the communities around Plymouth.
"We need to think of moving people around in these small communities," said Kendall.
Other issues which were raised during the session included the need to protect private property rights, and protecting the state's natural beauty which some believed will be irreparably damaged by current and proposed wind farms on mountain ridges, as well as the Northern Pass electrical transmission line that would run from Canadian border to Franklin.
Differences between challenges facing communities in the state's southern tier and the rest of the state were noted. One participant noted that although the population of the Plymouth area was nowhere as diverse in the more urban communities the demographics of the more rural areas could well also change and those communities needed to plan for that contingency.
Scott Stephens, a Campton resident who runs the Colonel Spencer Inn bed and breakfast, said that in Manchester, students attending the city's public schools speak 71 different languages and he said that area communities should to be proactive in preparing for a more diverse population. "If we're thinking 15 to 20 years out that's going to be more of an issue," he said.
A stronger economic base was also seen as critical to giving young people and incentive to stay in the area once they finish their education.
Joyce Palmer, an official of Granite United Way who is also on the staff of the Whole Village Family Resource Center in Plymouth Center, said as communities plan for the future they need to see how the issues can be integrated into an overall plan rather than being viewed as competing interests. "Being concerned about older citizens should not be seen as a threat to initiative to improve early childhood education," she said.
Participants said the listening session was one step in an ongoing process.
"It would be said if this planning process ended with this conversation," said Palmer.