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Manchester quits BIA after Gatsas questions its value

New Hampshire Union Leader

May 08. 2013 11:29PM

MANCHESTER - The city has dropped its membership in the Business and Industry Association, saving $263 a year and prompting further debate about the future of its economic development office.

The Board of Mayor and Aldermen voted earlier this week to end its official relationship with the BIA, the chief association and lobbyist for businesses in New Hampshire.

The matter was referred to the aldermen by Mayor Ted Gatsas, who has taken an increasingly hands-on role in economic matters since the resignation of Jay Minkarah as chief of the city's Economic Development Office in December.

Two months after Minkarah's departure, second-in-command of the office, Chris Wellington, resigned.

Gatsas said he wasn't sure what value the city was getting out of its membership in the BIA.

"I don't know of anything we used them for, whether in attracting a business or talking about issues in Concord," he said.

The aldermen voted 12-2 to end the membership.

One of the no votes came from Ward 12 Alderman and mayoral candidate Patrick Arnold, who said the decision reflected poorly on the mayor's approach to economic development.

"I view it as an opportunity lost," he said. "I think we can do more as a city when we work with others. This was another opportunity to talk with stockholders interested in economic development."

Arnold likened the move to the decision a couple years ago to drop the city's membership in the National League of Cities, which represents more than 2,000 municipalities and produces a newsletter, which was distributed to the aldermen.

"I always found it informative," Arnold said.

Ward 10 Alderman Phil Greazzo, the chair of the Administration Committee, which first recommended ending the BIA membership, said there seemed to be no point in spending the $263 for BIA dues.

"It may be an inconsequential amount of money, but why spend money if we don't need the service," he asked at Tuesday's meeting.

BIA President Jim Roche said Manchester was among several public sector members of the organization, including the city of Portsmouth, Grafton County and the state Department of Health and Human Services.

He said the group sponsors networking opportunities that allow city officials to interact directly with business leaders. "Members of the BIA keep abreast of the business community in terms of the challenges and issues facing them," he said. "We're the only statewide, broad-based business advocacy group."

Roche said that Minkarah, the city's former economic development director, seemed to view BIA membership as a priority, but that it no longer appeared to be the case.

Since Minkarah's resignation, the mayor's office has taken on many of the roles of Economic Development Office and farmed out others to the Finance Department and City Clerk's office.

Several aldermen have insisted that the city needs both an economic development director and an office, while Gatsas has questioned how effective it has been in boosting the city's economy.

Gatsas said he's been working with Ward 3 Alderman Pat Long on a future plan for the office, and he expects there to be a presentation in the coming weeks.

Still, Gatsas said, he believes he and his staff have been up to the task, pointing to its handling of the upcoming Small Business Week and several projects in the pipeline.

"If you came here and saw the day-to-day activity, the way people are treated and handled, it spurs a different look," he said, adding, "My staff, the finance office, people understand you roll up your sleeves."

One thing the aldermen likely have noticed is that the Economic Development Office is running a $150,000 surplus this year, thanks to the staff reductions and reorganization. The savings add to a nearly $1.7 million projected surplus for the current fiscal year, money that aldermen have discussed using for the schools and other priorities.

With the end of its BIA membership, the city no longer has any official lobbying representatives in Concord.

In 2010, Gatsas backed dropping the city's membership in the New Hampshire Municipal Association, partly because it didn't need its insurance pool services, and also because, as a lobbyist representing scores of towns, its positions weren't always in line with those of the city.

Gatsas noted that when it comes to the city's legislative priorities, three aldermen are also state representatives.

"I think they can represent us well in Concord," he said.

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