Where is the state headed? How will decisions about energy, education, tourism, roads and agriculture shape New Hampshire in the years to come? Maybe we just don’t know.
BY DAN MCCARTHY, ILLUSTRATIONS BY FAYE ROGERS
No armchair futurist would be faulted if the malaise of modern times conjured dire visions of the road ahead. That’s assuming anyone today would dare make such predictive evaluations. The very concept in 2017 is somewhat ludicrous; go tell 2015 about the world in 2017 and you’ll get a clear reminder why. Still, in the intrepid spirit of our Granite State forefolks, off we go — into the Future of NH.
The Future is Now
In the entire roster of 525 members constituting the Association of Professional Futurists (APF), a global brain trust of analysts and experts in the futures field, there’s not a single one listed in New Hampshire. Maybe that’s an oversight or a classification issue. Or more ominously, maybe that says something about the very topic. The Granite State has long been more focused on traditions and its wonders of nature than on the glittering prospects of tomorrow.
Will the following mosaic of voices, concerns, commentary and rhetorical whimsy on the future of New Hampshire prove prophetic? Probably not. The future is no more firmly set in stone than was the jagged Conway granite jutting from Profile Mountain in the minutes preceding our state symbol’s drop into oblivion in 2003.
But that’s the gamble in the prophet’s game. As Earl Tupper, New Hampshire’s native son and mercurial magnate of burp-top “Tupperware” plastic container glory, said, “The fruits of life fall into the hands of those who climb the tree and pick them.”
So let’s begin. We’ll give you a boost up the trunk.
A State in Flux
To create a broad glimpse into Granite Tomorrowland, there’s a lot of ground to cover: the economy, transportation, the changing and updating of key New Hampshire downtowns, education and whatever crises are facing the state.
But the baseline for it all is simply people, known in future-speak as demographics. Bryan Alexander, a futurist and analyst in Vermont who studies New Hampshire, explains, “Demographics are a slow-moving tidal wave, and they’re reliable and useful decades out.”
Out of the roughly 1.3 million people in the state, more than half the entire population is 40 or older. New Hampshire is beaten in seniority only by Vermont and Maine (Florida came in behind all the above, if you can believe it), and the current trajectory would suggest that, in another 10 or so years, it’ll be even higher.
A 2012 Carsey Institute study done in partnership with the University of New Hampshire says the percentage of population in their mid-60s and higher will “almost certainly” double in the next 20 years, adding that “policymakers must be cognizant of these demographic trends as they consider the future needs of its people, institutions and organizations.”
When more than half the population is advancing to retirement, and the other half is leaving in record numbers either for higher education, jobs or both, a real come-to-Jesus moment is needed if New Hampshire is going to maintain its regional competitiveness.
Right now, there are about 70 local breweries (with more in the planning stages) in the state. Beer tourism is starting to be a big deal in New Hampshire, and the Granite State Brewers Association predicts that craft brewing will continue to grow in the new century. This means that, whatever fresh hell appears on the national scene, we will at least have tasty locally produced beer to console us.
“We have a potential workforce crisis on our hands, and we can’t do business the way we always have in New Hampshire,” says Mike Vlacich, CEO of the NH Forum on the Future as well as the NH College and University Council. “People believe that what’s worked in the past will continue to work in the state, which is relying on that workforce to be competitive within our region of the country.” For experts like Vlacich, the key to driving progress is to focus on attracting and enticing people to stay in or return to New Hampshire.
That happens to be the mission of one future-minded organization that rallies 20- and 30-somethings to hang around or “boomerang” back to the Granite State. Stay Work Play New Hampshire is a catalyst and proponent for numerous meetups and young professional groups, and their Rising Star Awards are a bit like a convention for future Granite State leaders and influencers.
The Sununu administration, for its part, seems cognizant of all this. In September, the governor issued Executive Order 2017-07, establishing the Governor’s Millennial Advisory Council. “Attracting and retaining young New Hampshire workers is a critical component of New Hampshire’s economic and social future,” it reads, and it outlines aims of developing public policies by using direct input from young workers around the state and input from various industries that need new minds, engineers and solutions — all sooner rather than later.
Business and Economic Affairs Commissioner Taylor Caswell says the state is set to be the best location in the Northeast for a 21st-century workforce. “With our low-cost, low-tax, business-friendly environment coupled with a huge variety of community, outdoor and urban life experiences, we are unique in every way compared to our neighbors,” he says.
Agriculture is and always has been a big industry for the state. The growing national trend of young Americans breaking off from office life and becoming farmers — urban or rural — is also happening here with a 40 percent increase in young farmers ages 25 through 34 over the previous decade’s census. But that trend collides with the long-term attrition in family farms, which represents the loss of generations of traditions and knowledge when farms fold. So it’s worth figuring out what the future of farming and agriculture in New Hampshire might look like.
“Among the primary challenges [New Hampshire] will need to face is the maintenance of appropriate lands in agriculture versus competing uses, and providing access to affordable land for new and young producers as our overwhelmingly senior producers retire,” says Dean Jon Wraith of UNH’s College of Life Sciences and Agriculture.
Wraith thinks new methodologies to deal with shrinking growing seasons due to climate change, plus plans to maximize acreage and farmable land and incorporate automation tools, all offer promise. It’s already happening in fits and starts. The state currently has at least two farms with robotic milking systems and tech-assisted round-the-clock feeding systems. Department of Agriculture Commissioner Lorraine Merrill says it’s all part of taking care of today while looking out for tomorrow.
Loudon’s lēf Farms uses cleanroom-style growing environments and robotic assistance to produce greens all year long. Photo by Jenn Bakos
“It’s early, but we see more and more of those kinds of technologies being introduced on farms now, and farmers using them in different creative ways moving into the future,” she says. Protecting farmland with agricultural easements can also play a critical role to make sure the farming industry has a strong future in New Hampshire.
“New Hampshire isn’t the Midwest, and farming here won’t ever look like that,” says Annette Nielsen, a labor market analyst in the state who studies agriculture employment trends. Her view is what we lack in size and space we make up for in ingenuity. And she’s right. The USDA granted a $25 million rural development loan this year to North Country Growers to build high-tech hydroponic greenhouses in Berlin that could produce 8 million pounds of tomatoes and 15 million heads of lettuce. Already in operation is lēf Farms in Loudon, where cleanroom-style growing environments and robotic assistance speed green veggies to a health-conscious local consumer base. Current trends seem to ensure that providing such locally produced goods to the local consumer market will increase as a fundamental factor for remaining financially viable into the future.
An area of the state’s economy that will require serious ingenuity in the years to come is energy. Senate President Chuck Morse has cited energy costs hovering between 40-60 percent higher in New Hampshire than the nation at large as the “top reason major employers have moved out of state … we need to do more to cut energy costs.”
Easing New Hampshire’s energy crisis has major economic, geographic and physical challenges. Locked into the Greater New England grid for power storage and distribution (a hotly debated topic itself), our power facilities are ominously aged and dated (ah, Seabrook), with some going back a half century and many reaching or exceeding their useful lives. So the question becomes: What will replace them in the future, and what does that mean for everyone living here?
Muriel Robinette, senior consultant at the Environmental Business Council of New England, says, “We’re at a crossroads as to whether or not we’re going to continue with these large energy-generating facilities that push power onto the grid the state draws from, or focus on small power facilities that distribute all around the state.”
To move toward that, big policy changes are needed since the state imports all its coal, oil and gas. Many big employers in the state support the controversial hydroelectric power Northern Pass project, while opponents embrace recent advances in solar and wind technologies as more suitable power methods amidst our wooded and scenic landscape. One example of the alternatives on the rise is NH Electric Cooperative’s 8,000-panel, two-megawatt solar photovoltaic system in Moultonborough. It’s the largest solar array in the state and is expected to save the utility more than $280,000 in costs — a good sign that this is a technology whose time has come. But even with those advances, the battle of economies and ideologies needs bright fresh minds powering the solutions to come.
Education and the Economy
A strong economy starts with higher education, and in New Hampshire things are looking like a mixed bag. Southern New Hampshire University’s success and transformative impact on the state is certainly a high-water mark. The national reach of their online studies programs has some calling them the Amazon of higher education, and in November the school announced forthcoming plans for a massive Manchester expansion.
However, funding and native enrollments in New Hampshire at the state-school level is abysmal, and the University of New Hampshire struggles to get even 50 percent of the student body from in-state. Still, with high school dropout rates in the state below national averages, and New Hampshire one of seven states selected to push “Next Generation Learning” (dubbed NxGL) that hypes performance- or competency-based education, the Granite State is at least looking toward the future of education. The rapid rise of educational technologies and distance learning could contain answers to some problems, but if history is any guide, there will be challenges to every change in a state where “local control” is a perennial mantra of education policy.
On the Roads
According to the American Society of Civil Engineers 2017 report card, New Hampshire gets a just-below-mediocre grade of C- for both roads and bridges. Our bridges, they report, are old. A typical bridge design life is 50 years, and the average bridge in New Hampshire has exceeded its planned life span. As of December 2015, 12.8 percent of the bridges in the state were considered structurally deficient. Due to the average age of our bridges, the number of “red list” bridges is only expected to increase.
When it comes to roads, it’s the smaller, unnumbered roadways that are in the most disrepair. Close to half (45 percent) are in poor condition and 23.3 are very poor. As you travel up the highway tiers, things start to improve. At the top, almost 100 percent (96.5) of our interstate and turnpike systems are in good condition with only .2 in poor condition, but that’s probably little comfort for anyone stuck on a northbound interstate on Friday afternoon.
While the rebirth of Concord was conceived as a complement to proposed improvements to I-93 winding through the city, massive infrastructure improvements can sometimes create new problems. Expanding I-93 to deal with commuter and tourist travel is less a future dream than a modern-day calamity for those enduring the endless traffic snarls and chaos since the project began.
Mark Lennon, a Dartmouth alum and former consultant for the EPA, runs The Reuse Network out of Concord, and since 2011 has publicly been ripping how the improvement project has evolved, which he says was a “dumb idea” to begin with.
In 2011 he penned a fiery proposal for The Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy calling for the need to widen I-93 provided it was done smartly. For him, the results have been a downer, citing one casualty as the hit to the highway landscape itself. “One of the pleasures of coming home [to NH], was getting onto the highway from Logan and heading north, breathing a sigh of relief from peering at the foliage contouring the landscape,” Lennon says. “What have our engineers and traffic experts given us now? Chicago.”
The widening of I-93 is one of the most ambitious projects that the New Hampshire Department of Transportation has ever undertaken. The goal is to widen a 20-mile segment between exits 1 and 5 from the Massachusetts state line to Manchester.
The Boston Region Metropolitan Planning Organization projects volume from daily commutes to increase 20 percent on I-93 by 2030. But even with the lane expansion to handle the glut of car traffic, the topic of escalation surfaces. If we’re widening the highway now, there will just be more cars, and with more cars will eventually spell a need for MORE widening. Imagine the “Bienvenue” sign at our southern extreme serving as a greeting to a vast swath of concrete.
“We are going to have a big, ugly eight-lane road worthy of North Jersey or the Bronx,” Lennon says. “Of all the traffic flow improvements that could have been implemented, we chose the worst. It’s massively over-engineered for the problem it needed to solve, and too expensive, which has diverted resources from dozens of other priorities. Congestion on I-93 was a cockroach of a problem. We killed it with a bazooka.”
Bill Boynton, chief communications officer at the NH DOT, says that focusing less on build-build-build and more on empowering systems in place with evolving technology is already underway. Traffic management technology, better signalization, and optimizing the state’s transportation management center with a growing network of highway cameras, sensors and tech tools can modulate congestion and give motorists a better idea of what lies ahead on the road. And it’s a revolution that’s just beginning.
“Ten years ago, smartphone GPS wasn’t a standard assumption, so I don’t know how the technology will change the future with things like autonomous cars and the like,” says Boynton.
Living and Working
As the digital revolution reminds us, transformative change is always an economic possibility, even in a tradition-oriented state like New Hampshire, and hope springs eternal. It was likely just a dream that Amazon would ever select the state for their ballyhooed HQ2 location, which would bring a windfall of jobs and infrastructure money. The bid conjured and submitted by the town of Londonderry boiled down to: “Don’t go to Boston, it’s terrible and there’s no parking. Come here, it’s close to everything in Boston!”
Ironically, should Boston win this coveted prize with its estimated need for 50,000 employees, the Granite State would still benefit due to proximity, as the Boston economic sphere enlarges and continues to influence our southern tier and brings demands for more amenities to residents who don’t mind the commute south. Nevertheless, there are already observable trends demonstrating the potential for New Hampshire business. The southern part of the state is in the middle of several movements, most notably what Joe Faro of Tuscan Brands is doing in Salem with the creation of Tuscan Village. It’s the largest project of its kind in New England.
Faro’s live-work-play epicenter envisions 1.1 million square feet of retail and residential space around an anchoring Tuscan Kitchen restaurant, all based on the 170 acres of the former Rockingham Park Racetrack. It’s the most ambitious project yet for the UNH graduate, and it’s filtering through many of the issues that futurists find fascinating: demographic concentration, energy and power issues, environmental impacts and water usage. All play as factors in getting that project off the ground and the progress will be telling for other ambitious undertakings.
Experts we spoke with say New Hampshire has a bright future in advanced manufacturing, which breaks from old-style heavy manufacturing by relying on new technology and innovative processes. There’s even a program at Keene State College that’s creating advanced manufacturing “generalists” — people not focused specifically on a mechanical engineering degree. It seeks to allow students to go from college to the workplace seamlessly, and be a workplace contributor in the field from get-go.
“Getting students really good jobs in New Hampshire right out of the gate is key,” says Andru Volinsky, a Manchester Millyard-based lawyer and NH Executive Council member who is encouraged by the impact the university system could have on the future of the state’s economy and business. He cites one path to the future as the re-re-resurrection of the long-gestating and up-and-down saga of the light passenger rail system.
Passenger rail service between Massachusetts and New Hampshire hasn’t been active since the late 1960s, but the prospect has never faded for some, and in the fall it became a hot topic of discussion once again. Volinsky’s was one of those voices. He’s one of the five executive councilors looking into the matter and is a major proponent of a rail system — and not just for the southern tier of the state, although he says that alone would open new options for the state’s workforce as well as its tourism industry.
Volinsky cites the city of Nashua as a good litmus test for the future. “Nashua could be the next big New Hampshire regional hub,” he says, with “multimodal opportunities” emerging from a commuter rail connecting, say, the long-struggling Claremont area of the state down to the central part of Massachusetts and invigorating economic development along the way.
Nashua’s Mayor Jim Donchess, also a big proponent of the rail idea, is cultivating an image as a man with tomorrow on the mind. “Developing passenger rail to connect Nashua to Lowell and subsequently Boston would attract those who commute to Boston and is an incentive for those who live here to stay here,” Donchess said in an email while outlining the prospect of a private rail company that’s proposing a solution to the issue. “If Boston Surface Railroad Company is successful in getting the loan they need to make the project happen, I think the municipalities would be on board since it would come at no cost to them.”
If Nashua is going to become that next great hub, continuing to enhance its downtown area for future residents and businesses is a bankable strategy. But with decades-long lead times for such change, many cities can’t wait for the future to arrive by rail and are making their own strides.
The Nashua mayor says his city is proposing a new performing arts center for Main Street (in the former Alec’s Shoe store downtown), which voters signaled approval of in a nonbinding referendum question back in November, and that they have begun implementing the Riverfront Development Plan, just approved by local alderman in October, to take full advantage of the downtown riverfront. The Great American Downtown, a Nashua nonprofit, is working to develop music festivals and other citizens-first event in the downtown area.
Mill buildings, all artifacts of the last great heydays for Granite State economic growth, are steadily being turned into apartments and mixed-used spaces. Brady Sullivan, the big-time developer with a name seemingly on everything in Manchester, is in the finishing stages of renovating a Franklin Street mill that will offer an additional 200 units of housing. The tech sector finds these structures perfect for startups or for major speculation, such as the wild ride of Dyn, which was born in the Manchester mills and is now a major asset to the global cloud kingdom of Oracle.
But Nashua’s tech sector already has a long history, specifically in the south end, of courting the future, serving as an incubator, and hosting a variety of tech giants from Dell to Skillsoft. The John Flatley Company provides real estate services there and hosts a challenge every year for tech and science startups, with the winners getting workspace in their tech park rent-free for a year, with a cherry of $10,000 on top of it to boot.
Concentrations of technology firms diminish farther north, but the future is still in full play offering opportunities to those paying attention. Concord was attuned to this wave when executing its 20/20 Vision Plan that aimed to increase economic vitality with a vibrant, livable downtown. The results have earned lots of publicity and at least six major awards for engineering, preservation, access and transportation improvements. The fame seems to be paying off for the Capital City in terms of new energy in the retail and residential sectors downtown.
“Malls are dead or dying in the age of Amazon,” says Steve Duprey of real estate development firm Foxfire Property Management. He was deeply involved in Concord’s downtown redevelopment. “The counter is a fun, vibrant experience to go with the shopping, and our new Main Street helps create that experience.” In addition, Duprey says, the Main Street improvement “will yield more in property taxes than it consumes in services,” and help moderate property tax increases on residences.
“A lot of communities in NH were surprised by how successful the Concord Main Street project turned out and are looking at ways to follow what we did,” he says. “Every community needs to figure out how to position itself to deal with [the future], and communities that have attractive and welcoming main streets and downtowns [in NH] with strong schools and social services will prosper.” Bottom line, says Duprey, “Big and bold and audacious wins. The timid will not.”
That said, Portsmouth, always a trendsetter, got on the rebirth movement a few decades ago and not everyone is pleased with the success. Some say growth was too much too fast, with locals and newcomers decrying the parking crisis and sound issues and wilting under the hyper-attention the town gets in national “best places to visit” guides. On the upside of over-success, the cultural spillover from our Port City has been a boon to neighboring towns such as Dover and Rochester, bringing welcome culture, art and tourism.
Matt Wyatt, president and co-founder of the Rochester Museum of Fine Arts, sees his city as Portsmouth 30 years ago. “Rochester is so open-armed, it isn’t even funny,” he says, citing the “good infrastructure bones” plus historic amenities such as the unique Rochester Opera House (with a floor that tilts or levels for varying uses) as invitations to the creative community.
Our largest city, Manchester, has profited from a different kind of spillover. The visionary work of local tech-wizard Dean Kamen has not only awakened the sleeping giant of the Manchester Millyard as a real estate nexus, but offered what seemed like a glimpse into the future at the turn of the 21st century when the first Segways started scooting around the Queen City. Now due to the “Kamen Effect,” a new kid in the Millyard — the Advanced Robotics Manufacturing Institute (ARMI) — is being hailed as a game-changer in the human tissue and organ-manufacturing field (think: new spleens on demand!). So, on the site of what was once the largest manufacturing district in the country, a new contender to reclaim the state’s place in manufacturing domination has emerged, and it’s one with the potential to transform the city, the state and possibly all of health care. As care for an aging population becomes central to our well-being both medically and economically, Kamen says this industry could turn the Merrimack Valley into the next Silicon Valley. “This could be the birth of an entire new industry, and maybe New England in general, and this millyard particularly, could be the center of that universe,” Kamen told WMUR.
As the rest of the state’s touchpoints adapt to changing tides, New Hampshire’s proud (and economically vital) tourism culture will need to adapt as well, and it already displays signs of evolution.
Tourism in the Lakes Region and North Country, long a centerpiece to the economy of the surrounding towns and counties, is responding to changing habits of consumers all over, as well as the impact (and rapidly changing acceptance) of climate change is altering how they do business. No longer able to bank on the reliable onset of our four tourist-luring seasons, the state is getting clever. Rope courses and three-season attractions are making up for the losses ski country suffers with declining winter availability; one Alton homeowner and avid skier said “if we get six weeks of slopes time a season now, it’s a miracle.”
Up in Dixville, the Balsams Resort redevelopment project has been beset by financing problems, but hopes to re-emerge as a new resort destination by the 2018 powder season. Down the road, Bethlehem has announced plans for a new $20 million resort to be constructed. Add the new RiverWalk Resort on Loon Mountain and hotel plans for the base of the Mt. Washington Auto Road and it’s apparent that the hospitality industry is banking on a bright tomorrow.
Hunting, mountain biking and other outdoor sports continue to thrive in the natural wonder found in the state. Enterprising officials saw opportunity in motorized sports, and the ATV push continues in the North Country, where off-road vehicles have been welcomed onto the streets of Berlin and in the vast trailscape (1,000 miles) set out for Coös County’s Ride the Wilds ATV system.
Multiseason attractions are making up for the losses our ski country is suffering with declining winter availability.
Or just look at Weirs Beach and Laconia. For ages, the surrounding small businesses and hospitality outfits relied on the surge of traffic associated with Bike Week to make their nut. Now, not so much. With falling crowd numbers and the aging population of attendees, it’s time to reconsider why people come spend their money and time in the Granite State.
Glenn Normandeau, who directs the state’s Fish and Game department, says, “Predicting the future is always an exercise fraught with peril, never more so than now in this time of political polarization, ideology suppressing science and climate change. That being said, I think there is plenty of room for optimism about our fish and wildlife resources.” He credits the returning populations of wild turkey and raptors and the stabilization of the still-at-risk loon population to a combination of special care, public interest and education.
For cities, outside-the-box thinking is essential and profitable. From the sidewalk on Elm Street, the Shaskeen Pub in downtown Manchester seems like a place to down a few Guinnesses and hear a session band, but they have become a nexus of serious hip-hop since opening in 2005. Luminaries like Wu-Tang Clan, KRS-One, Mobb Deep and a whole host of notable acts have added Manchester to their tour roster thanks to this unlikely hip hop venue. And Manchester, named by this magazine back in the year 2000 as NH’s “City of the Future,” seems to be living up to that hype not only in terms of sleek growth but in terms of richness of culture. The new Jupiter Hall and Kelley Stelling Contemporary (an envelope-pushing art gallery) are assets usually found in “real” cities like Boston or Providence. Even fine dining has taken on a new sophistication in the downtown with hot night spot and high-concept Cabonnay on Bridge Street as one shining example.
Things are looking up where people keep open minds. There’s been a 60 percent increase in ticket sales at the Rochester Opera House, which paves the way for bigger acts, more sponsors and partners, and, of course, more ticket sales. That, compiled with the recent opening of a comedy club and a performing arts space in September suggests that Rochester and other towns-on-the-rise are beginning to embrace the axiom “If you build it (well and thoughtfully), they will come.”
Those worried the great robot uprising is around the corner, and that we will soon be at the behest of our digital overlords, can find comfort knowing that New Hampshire tends to run a bit behind on technology adoption, so we’re probably good for a few years. Still, that’s not to say things aren’t already popping in the #futureshock department around the 603.
The virtual currency marketplace, volatile and nascent in its current form, is rapidly taking hold in the state, beloved by techies and Libertarians. We have plenty of the former and an influx of the latter thanks to the somewhat controversial Free State Project. The FSP is asserting its own future focus as a new liberty-minded path in our contentious political environment, and it recently triggered the move for a nationwide exodus to the Granite State by like-minded peoples of everywhere. No telling where that will all go, but excitement was fueled this past summer when Gov. Sununu signed a bill into law exempting digital currency traders — Bitcoin, Ethereum and other Blockchain platforms — from NH’s money transmission regulations concerning “persons conducting business using transactions conducted in whole or part in virtual currency.”
A recent report by Overstock said a third of their total orders on the day they began accepting Bitcoin were payments from New Hampshire, and the blockchain revolution in the state has seen cryptocurrency management platforms like Swarm City setting up HQ in Portsmouth.
Rep. Steven Smith of Charlestown chairs the House Transportation Committee, and is the key sponsor of a bill welcoming our potentially driverless-car future. (“In a place like Manchester, maybe five years,” he has said.) Or how about pod transportation on elevated rails? Would you pay 50 cents a mile to be shuttled to one of over a thousand stops on the 460 miles of pod-track? Mike Stanley, CEO of pod transport company Transit X, said in the Union Leader that if Manchester is one of the first municipalities to provide the company with the air rights to build the needed tracks for his company’s quiet, carbon-free transport system, they promise to set up shop in the Queen City.
Still, for any seasoned Granite Stater, no matter how one lets the imagination run wild, it’s difficult to picture a self-driving car or some other kind of robotic tech with a comforting Siri-esque voice expertly navigating the wintry landscape of the state’s future, or even just trying to get citizens to and from work in snowy Errol or Berlin.
Difficult, but funny, assuming that even in a future fraught with change, our droll Yankee sense of humor survives.
About the author
Dan McCarthy is a Boston-based journalist and editor. His work has appeared in VICE, The Boston Globe, Esquire, The Daily Beast, MEL Magazine, Pacific Standard, Fast Company, The Boston Institute For Non-Profit Journalism and more. Follow him on Twitter @acutalproof.