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N.H. Economic Chief: Education, Energy, Housing Are Key to A Thriving Economy

Christina Phillips / The Exchange

Taylor Caswell, commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Business and Economic Affairs, joined The Exchange to discuss the state's economy -- what's going well, including efforts to attract businesses and more young professionals to the state -- as well as areas for improvement, including affordable housing and attracting a more diverse workforce. 

Caswell also said a 10-year economic development strategy for the state is in the works. Here are key takeaways from the interview. 

(Listen to the full conversation here.) 

(Edited lightly for clarity)

Governor Sununu during his inaugural address described a new community college program that would allow students to take advantage of an optional fifth year of high school, enabling them to receive a high school diploma and a certificate and a college associate's degree free of cost to the student.

Why does N.H. need such a program?

It's absolutely critical. I mean the delineating component of our economy right now is our ability to deliver a highly qualified workforce to employers for the state, to create that level of opportunity for people to take advantage and participate in this economy right now and the way that we do that is that we create these pathways.

Is this kind of program -- this fifth year of high school -- to be expanded to all corners of the state?

Ideally, yes. We want to be able to take that model  to the north country, into the upper valley, into the Monadnock region and central New Hampshire and start finding ways to retain a lot of these students that we have in New Hampshire in New Hampshire jobs. There's nothing wrong with going away and coming back. I did that. But I think for the most part we want to be able to demonstrate -- not just to employers, but to parents and students and to schools -- that there is a pathway for a really good job here in New Hampshire. And all the benefits that come from living here.

Is this sustainable, consistently, year after year, promising these graduates at least a job interview with a company that realistically might hire them.

Absolutely. I think companies are always going to need to be able to find that workforce that's already here. And it's a lot easier to create that pathway for someone who's here than it is to recruit someone to up and move from somewhere else.

What’s the price tag?

I don't have that specific information right now. I know they've been working with Commissioner Edelblut on designing the numbers on that and how the budget will work. The governor's budget is going to be released mid-February. So I think at that point we'll start to see how those numbers come together.

When will it be implemented?

I think we're going to need to have legislative support for this. Assuming that gets accomplished in some fashion at the end of all the sausage making that we're about to begin in the legislature, that would probably be completed in the June-July time frame and probably will be operational not long after that.

"I think it's important as a state to be able to say that we are inclusive, that we have open arms, we welcome anybody to come here and take advantage of our economy."

In general you’re talking about links between government, business, and institutions of education. How about the arts? Is there a corresponding program with the liberal arts?

Yes. There absolutely needs to be that, and we talk all the time about the creative economy in New Hampshire and how that adds to the human experience and the community experience that we want to build as part of that message to get people to come to New Hampshire -- that it's not just a sterile set of strip malls all over the place, that we actually have interaction and an appreciation for the arts and the creativity that comes from that in the human experience.

You’ve emphasized the importance of collaboration among businesses, educational institutions and small organizations? How can that be enhanced?

One of the things that we haven't had for a long time in the state is a very long-term vision, a long-term plan or strategy, and we're actually in the midst of that right now at the department, putting together a new 10-year economic development strategy for the state. And we've been spending all of last summer and fall having conversations all over the state with different entities about what that needs to be.

To what extent is ethnic diversity in the workforce a priority in the state?

It's a big priority for our departments, a big priority for me personally. We have done a lot of work in this realm and we did get some attention a couple of months ago in The New York Times for bringing together the business community to talk about ways that we can create a more diverse and inclusive work experience for everybody in the state – or people that aren't even here yet. I think it's important as a state to be able to say that we are inclusive, that we have open arms, we welcome anybody to come here and take advantage of our economy. I'm a big believer in the saying that we all do well when we all do well and we apply that every day.

How would you define affordable housing? Some say the threshold is that you shouldn’t be spending more than a third of your income.

What I talk a lot about is appropriate housing because from where I sit the type of housing that we need in order to grow the workforce that is going to fill tech jobs in Manchester is different than the type of housing we need to see for Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon for instance. There are very different scenarios; there are different costs involved.

But this is a critical issue for the state, and it's something that I'm hoping the legislature takes some action on this year because one of the big threats to the economic growth of the state is the ability to provide housing, to provide affordable housing, appropriate housing, workforce housing.

What regulations do you think stand in the way of creating affordable housing?

Well this is a situation where New Hampshire’s wonderful long history of local control becomes our best aspect and our worst enemy. I think we need to be able to look at these issues from a regional standpoint and be able to say -- not every community can have a great industrial park or a really cool downtown…We need to have honest conversations around how we're going to get to the point of creating the housing to house the workforce that we need for the state. … I cannot emphasize enough the need for us to look at housing as part of our overall economic development strategy.

On raising the minimum wage.         

I can't tell you sitting here today exactly what the impact will be on the New Hampshire economy generally to raise the minimum wage. It may be nothing at all. I don't have the data to be able to tell you that right now, but it is an issue that we're going to have to work through somehow. But I hope that we're going to be able to do that in a way that recognizes the impact it has on business and the impact that it has on the overall economy and not just make it an issue because it's an issue.

Have President Trump’s tariffs affected N.H.’s business climate? How?

Yes. The effects have been increasing costs, and it's increasingly across the board, and it's the kind of thing that is going to start showing up -- and has started showing up -- on the customer side of the equation, particularly in the construction business.

Is offshore wind a good thing for New Hampshire?

Yes -- in many different ways. We're working with a group that recently went over to Denmark to talk about different aspects of the wind-turbine manufacturing business. We obviously have an issue as it relates to the energy itself but also there are opportunities in the clean tech sector -- to do the manufacturing, to create jobs around not just generating electricity but building wind turbines and building different components…So the clean tech sector broadly is one that I want to see a lot more investment in and a lot more companies here.

Is the administration going to put forward a different fix this session to address the Wayfair decision, which requires local businesses to collect sales tax on behalf of other states?

I have seen a number of bills floating around in the legislature with regard to this issue from many different angles. I think for me the bottom line is that we have a business community that is not in any way tooled to be able to collect other states’ sales taxes -- and to the extent that we can reduce the impact that that's going to have on them, that's something that we're going to need to do.

Is New Hampshire missing out on the revenues associated with legalization of recreational marijuana? We’re the only state in the region now that has not legalized it.

I think you know anytime that we're generating revenue that's not a bad thing. But I think there's a lot of other issues that go with that particular industry development that are going to go beyond my pay grade to decide whether or not that's a good idea or not.

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