ROCHESTER — Manufacturing is making a resurgence here led by new startups and corporate expansions.
Three spin-offs of the departed Smith & Wesson Thompson Center Arms, an expansion at Albany International and a new Great Bay Community College satellite are just part of the mix.
“There's a lot going on; it's just really exciting,” Mary Ellen Humphrey, economic development specialist of the city of Rochester said.
“We're seeing more manufacturing coming, more companies expanding or relocating,” she said.
About 70 foundry jobs remain at Thompson Investment Casting with smaller numbers at Coyote Creek Outfitters, a retail shop, and startup LHR Sporting Arms, which hopes to make hunting rifles.
“These are all former employees of Thompson Center,” Humphrey said. “We were hoping something like this would happen.”
At Strafford Economic Development Corp. of New Hampshire, Executive Director Dennis H. McCann said the Smith & Wesson closure had a dramatic impact on the community.
“The major impact they had was that they had a lot of long-term employees that suddenly were faced with either the loss of their job or, in some cases, the ultimatum that if they wanted to keep their job, they had to go with to the locations that Smith and Wesson is moving them toward,” McCann said.
The foundry spin-off appears to be furthest along. “They came out of Smith and Wesson with 46 people, and they are now up over 70 people, and they haven't even finished their move from the old site to their new site in Rochester,” he said.
Unemployment in the Dover-Rochester area in May was 4.8 percent, seasonally unadjusted, the state Department of Employment Security reported Thursday. That's a slight uptick from 4.5 percent in April, but still less than the 5.1 percent recorded in May 2011. It was 5.8 percent in May 2010.
Strafford County home sales have been trending upward, too. Homes sold from January through May 2012 reached 398, up 24.4 percent from the 320 sold in the first five months of 2011, the New Hampshire Association of Realtors reported Thursday. The median sale price fell just 1.5 percent to $177,250 for the first five months of 2012 from $180,000 for the same period last year compared to a 3.5 percent drop statewide from $200,000 to $193,000.
Mike Haley, vice president of Thompson Investment Casting, said, “There was no alternative rally to keeping the business going, so we had to purchase it.”
“The whole purpose really was to save our own jobs and the people who were working here,” Haley said.
Strafford Economic Development, jointly with the state Business Finance Authority, helped Thompson Investment Casting with a $400,000 loan, which was part of $2 million it raised. Profile Bank helped with an SBA-guaranteed loan.
The city of Rochester also lent Thompson Investment Casting $70,000 through a revolving loan fund that requires businesses to keep or add jobs. “It gives other lenders confidence,” Humphrey said.
Albany International, with its French partner, Snecma, is building a new plant in Rochester that will eventually employ 400 making jet engine parts, about half working for each partner. Albany currently has about 310 workers in Rochester. Snecma is part of the Safran Group.
The new plant will produce woven structures and composites for fan blades, fan cases and several smaller components for the LEAP jet engine, which is a joint product of Snecma and General Electric.
“The equipment that we use to do this weaving can't be found anywhere else in the world. It's all proprietary,” Albany International spokesman Susan Siegel said.
Great Bay Community College will open this fall an Advanced Materials Manufacturing Training Center in Rochester to train workers for Albany International, Snecma and other high-tech manufacturers. (The site will be at the Lilac Mall in Rochester.)
“We look forward to providing training solutions for Albany, Safran and other companies and ultimately influence future advanced manufacturing growth in the region,” Lin Tamulonis, associate vice president of corporate and community education at Great Bay, said.
The center will offer credit and non-credit classes in high-tech weaving, manufacturing with composites, CNC machining, LEAN manufacturing, project management, error proofing techniques, safety and quality, and will offer certification.
Meanwhile, the Thompson Investment Casting business has to move out of its old building by September because it will be demolished.
The new owners, all former Thompson Center Arms employees, took possession Jan. 2. They found a site across town at 41 Old Dover Road in Rochester.
The foundry, which uses a type of casting called investment, or lost wax, casting, is famous for gun parts. It can form metal parts for any use with steel, brass or other metals, except iron and aluminum.
The firm finished half the move earlier this month and will move the second half in August. Haley said the team is adding a 19,000-square-foot addition to the existing 16,000-square-foot building.
He said the surge in hiring, which includes temporary employees, is driven by a demand for gun parts as well as a need to gear up for producing two weeks of excess inventory to cover the gap when production is shut down for the move. Smith & Wesson is still the foundry's largest customer.
“When we shut down the business for two weeks, we still need to ship,” Haley said.
Other manufacturers in the region who are hiring include Westinghouse in Newington, Sig Sauer, which is moving from Exeter to Portsmouth, Turbocam International in Barrington, and nearby in North Berwick, Maine, Pratt and Whitney, McCann said.
Demand is also growing in retail, Humphrey said, noting the Rochester Crossing Shopping Center is now filled with tenants.
Albany International expects to pour the foundation next month for its 353,000-square-foot plant off Airport Drive in Rochester. Meanwhile, infrastructure improvements including road and bridge work are under way.
The plant will start ramping up late next year.