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Seacoast Leaders And Commerce Secretary Talk Visa Workers, COVID Funding, Climate Change

Annie Ropeik

Seacoast tourism and business leaders want federal officials to approve more foreign visa workers and economic aid to support what they hope will be a busy summer on the tail end of the pandemic.

They spoke at a roundtable Monday in Hampton Beach with U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen.

Raimondo, the former governor of Rhode Island, was on her first official trip as U.S. Commerce Secretary. She asked what the Seacoast wants out of the latest round of pandemic stimulus money and President Biden’s proposed jobs and infrastructure plan.

New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association CEO Mike Somers said he’s optimistic for any small tourism businesses that made it this far through the pandemic. But he said continued federal support – for visa workers and other aid – will be crucial in the next few months.

“Any way we can support our small businesses – whether it be offsetting costs they’ve incurred or other things, but just ways to help them get through,” he said. “If we can make it to July 4th week or maybe a little further, I think anybody who makes it to there, they’ve made it.”

Raimondo said the recent American Rescue Plan should help small tourism businesses, as did past COVID aid packages like the CARES Act. Somers said he didn’t think New Hampshire officials had yet determined what of the new funding would be available to his industry.

“Far be it from me to step into the middle of any of your politics,” Raimondo told Somers. “However, I would just highlight for you that it was Congress’s intent that that’s what the money be used for. So if you were to lobby for that, I think you’d be on firm footing.”  

Somers was among several stakeholders with concerns about delays in approving new J-1 and H-2B visa workers, on whom the Seacoast and other tourism-centric regions rely heavily in the busy seasons.

Shaheen said the problem stems from COVID-related challenges in prospective seasonal workers’ home countries, and from a Trump-era moratorium on processing new visas that was only lifted a few weeks ago.

“I think there’s an interest … that if we can speed up that processing, that that would help a lot,” Shaheen told reporters after the roundtable. “Anything we can do to help with the backlog that employers have here on the Seacoast and throughout New Hampshire with trying to hire back workers is really important.”

State tourism director Lori Harnois said workforce challenges aside, she thinks New Hampshire is well positioned to have a successful summer as more people get vaccinated and begin traveling again. For one thing, she said the state isn’t overly dependent on visitors flying in.

"If we can make it to July Fourth week or maybe a little further, I think anybody who makes it to there, they've made it." --Mike Somers, N.H. Lodging & Restaurant Association

“We’re trying, in our marketing efforts, to focus in on road trips that are in our typical core markets, which would be New England and New York State, but we’re also extending beyond that into a 600-mile radius,” she said.

Harnois said the state hopes to encourage tourists to spread out more among all New Hampshire’s attractions in order to avoid the congestion and COVID risks that some popular sites, like Mount Major in the Lakes Region, saw last summer.

Rye state Sen. Tom Sherman, who’s also a doctor, said he hopes marketing and government funding will continue to emphasize public health and COVID safety even as tourism increases.

“I just wanted to put in a plug for … as we reopen the beach, the ability for businesses to be fully supported with masking, with social distancing, with all the signage,” he said. “Because without that, of course, we’re going to see all of this shut back down again.”

Raimondo and some local officials said they’re also considering the threats of climate change as they plan for future economic growth on the coast.

Former state Sen. Nancy Stiles leads the Hampton Beach Area Commission. She said she hopes Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure bill could help prepare the Route 1A corridor for rising seas and heavier precipitation, which scientists predict on the Seacoast and beyond in a warmer world.

Stiles told Raimondo that New Hampshire needs more than four times the funding it currently has to upgrade Route 1A, especially its drainage systems, in the coming years.

"So much of what you're talking about is infrastructure – parks, bikeways, trailways, roundabouts, stormwater,” Raimondo said. “We agree, and that's why we have to get this plan passed."

“I tried to tie that to the economy as best I could,” said Stiles of her Route 1A concerns.

Raimondo replied, “It is the economy – absolutely.”

To lower emissions and mitigate the warming trend, Raimondo said she's confident the nation can scale up offshore wind energy in the Gulf of Maine without hurting the region’s fisheries.

She was asked about it by David Goethel, a Seabrook-based commercial fisherman and member of the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance, a fisheries advocacy group with concerns about wind growth.

Raimondo said she was proud of how Rhode Island worked with its fishing industry to build what's currently the nation's only utility-scale wind farm, Block Island Wind.

"They were super anxious, as you are, about what would happen to fish migration patterns when you put the turbines in the middle of the ocean,” she said. “It worked out because we listened to them and we really looked hard at all the data."

The Biden administration wants to greenlight 30 gigawatts of wind in U.S. coastal waters in the next nine years. That's equal to the power from about 25 Seabrook Nuclear Power Plants.

Offshore wind permitting is overseen by the Department of the Interior, but Raimondo’s Commerce Department is in charge of fishery regulation, marine science and many climate programs.

She said other responses to climate change as part of Biden’s clean technology goals and infrastructure package could also be big job creators for regions like the Seacoast.

The infrastructure bill also includes money for affordable housing development, which Portsmouth city manager Karen Conard told Raimondo should be a priority.

Annie has covered the environment, energy, climate change and the Seacoast region for NHPR since 2017. She leads the newsroom's climate reporting project, By Degrees.
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