New Commisioner: NH Entrepreneurship, workforce top list
Union Leader | Dave Solomon | August 27, 2017
Standing in front of a wall that separates economic development offices from travel and tourism in the newly created Department of Business and Economic Affairs, recently confirmed Commissioner Taylor Caswell channels President Ronald Reagan when he says the wall has to come down. Travel and tourism are key elements of the state’s economic development potential, and as one of his first priorities, Caswell said he plans to push for greater integration of the two divisions within his agency. Breaking up the old Department of Resources and Economic Development (DRED) into two new agencies — one concentrated on economic development and the other on the state’s natural resources — was one of Gov. Chris Sununu’s chief policy objectives in his first year in office. With former DRED Commissioner Jeffrey Rose now running the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, Caswell is free to focus exclusively on creating what he calls “a true economic development organization for the state.” He comes to the role of commissioner after working since 2014 as executive director of the Community Development Finance Authority, established by the Legislature in 1983 to address the issues of affordable housing and economic opportunity for low- and moderate-income residents through the use of tax credits and federal grants. He previously served as New England regional administrator for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and in 2013 founded the N.H. Clean Tech Council. An avid outdoors enthusiast, he worked to create a network of hiking trails in the Littleton area, where he grew up. Caswell was interviewed by the Union Leader at his very sparse office in the former DRED building on Pembroke Road, three weeks after his Aug. 1 swearing in ceremony. What do you mean by a “true economic development organization?” We’ve been given a broad mission, broader than previously. I see it as larger than finding Company X and bringing it here. There are issues around workforce development that we really need to dig into; a loss of entrepreneurship that we are going to explore very deeply. There is a lot of work to do around the regulatory environment in the state and how friendly it is to startups; being able to retain college students and graduate students and attract those kind of students to come to New Hampshire and start a business. From what I’m seeing, those numbers are not as strong as we would like them to be. We will continue to work on the issues of high-speed Internet access and broadband as a way for people to participate in our economy. Businesses in the state consistently cite inadequate workforce as holding back economic growth. What can you do about that? That is the biggest issue right now and it’s across the board. There are a lot of things we can do. One is to take advantage of the integration of Travel and Tourism with Economic Development. If you start talking about the touchstones where those two can meet, it’s substantial. We are looking at retention strategies that use the success of our Travel and Tourism Division to build a new strategy around workforce recruitment. We can make the case that this state is a great place if you are hitting a point in your career where you are looking to get out of the Boston-Cambridge area. We have a lot of growing businesses in the state who would love to hire you, and you would get to live in the beautiful state of New Hampshire.” Aren’t millennials supposed to be more urban-oriented? I don’t know that I would totally agree with that. I hail from the North Country myself, and spend a lot of time there, particularly in Littleton. You’d be shocked if you could see how many young people live up there. They are finding the lifestyle they are looking for, and we want to tap into that. How does your experience with the Clean Tech Council influence your strategy? I would say it falls into two categories, the overall high-tech sector and the sub-sector of clean tech. There are some legitimate jobs that we need to attract to the state in that sub-sector, and it’s not all about wind turbines and solar panels. It’s also about new technologies like remote control of HVAC systems. The business of energy efficiency is a significant sector that we want to try to latch onto. There are plenty of job openings in the state, but it remains difficult for many people to find good paying, full-time jobs with benefits. What can the BEA do about that? One of the things we have to do is spend more time focused on the pathways. What are the tools we have in the state that can help people move up a path, or across a path, toward a better-paying job? There are apprenticeship programs that are starting to come up that give high school students a third way — an opportunity that’s not just finding a job out of school or going to a four-year college. There have to be other opportunities for people to choose what’s best for them. We also have a really great community college system that is increasingly lining up the resources it has with the types of job openings we have in the state. Do you see the arts as having a role in economic development, even though Cultural Affairs is now a separate agency? Look at the revitalization of the Colonial Theatre in Laconia. That in and of itself has brought in three or four new businesses. Bethlehem’s Colonial Theatre is back. Lancaster is trying to become a more vibrant downtown. Every time you go downtown in New Hampshire, ask yourself what it’s going to look like without retail, because that’s where we are headed. Amazon is going to crush all the day-to-day retail in these small environments, but it’s entertainment, theaters, restaurants, more community-based activities that are going to keep these downtowns relevant and remaining the economic center. We need to rethink our vision of downtown. Look at Franklin. They have an organization there that’s been acquiring properties, not turning them into retail, but co-working spaces, restaurants, outdoor stores. They’ve applied for grants to study the construction of a new white-water rafting park, and they’ve got really good mountain bike trails. That stuff works, and I want to see us enable that type of thinking. We can’t always fund it, but we can encourage it.