LACONIA — Jeff Rose, commissioner of the N.H. Department of Resources and Economic Development (DRED) lead off a series of speakers at the fifth annual Lakes Region Business Resource Fair, sponsored by the Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce and Belknap Economic Development Council, at the Margate Resort yesterday.
Karmen Gifford, executive director of the chamber, said that the first fair, held during the great recession, took for its theme the opportunities to start a business and generate employment. Today, with the economy recovering, she said the emphasis falls on the challenges of expanding a business, by reaching to overseas markets, creating synergistic relationships and developing a strong workforce.
Describing his department, which is responsible for economic development, state parks, forests and lands and travel and tourism, Rose quipped "they put all the best things about the state under one roof and gave it the worst name — DRED." He said that combining economic development and natural resources in one agency is unique to New Hampshire and represents an inherent yet fruitful and constructive tension.
Rose began by taking stock of the tourist industry — a mainstay of the economy of the Lakes Region — which he said enjoyed an exceptional summer season. Traffic counts, especially on weekends, on I-93 and I-95 rose to record levels, he said. Receipts from the rooms and meals tax closed the fiscal year ending in June 7 percent above the year before posted increases of more than 8 percent in July and August. "Revenue exceeded our aggressive forecasts," he noted..
Attendance at state parks increased 11 percent this summer, Rose reported. And on Labor Day weekend all 1,426 campsites at the 21 state parks offering them were occupied for the first time ever. He explained that since the operating expenses of the park system are funded solely by entrance fees, the record attendance was especially important.
"It always starts with the weather," Rose said, adding that the summer was marked by unusually fair weather. Falling gas prices also contributed to the large number of visitors.
Rose expects an equally strong fall season as the weeks of turning leaves and autumn hues represent a quarter of annual visits to the state. The department is projecting 8.5-million visitors, an increase of 7 percent, who in the aggregate will spend $1.3-billion.
DRED, with 225 full-time employees, operates on an annual budget of approximately $67 million, of which only about $15 million is drawn from the general fund with the balance represented by $16 million in federal funds and $35 million in miscellaneous revenue sources, including fees, rents and grants. Rose indicated that funding is among the challenges facing the department, which finds itself unable to provide matching funds for federal programs and grants and "leaving dollars on the table."
The Division of Economic Development, led by Carmen Lorentz of Belmont, the former executive director of the Belknap Economic Development Council, numbers 19 employees, five of whom administer a federal job training program. Acknowledging the challenge an aging population and low employment pose to developing a strong workforce, Rose said his agency should be "at the tip of the spear" of efforts to attract and retain young people.
Rose was echoed by Dave Juvet of the Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire (BIA), who said that workforce development and energy costs were the highest priorities of the organization's legislative agenda. He said that apart from improving the educational system, creating more opportunities for construction of affordable housing was an important element in drawing young families to the state. Despite the prospect of lower energy costs this winter, Juvet said that without increasing capacity for natural gas and hydroelectric power, New Hampshire will continue bear relatively high energy costs in the long term.