DERRY — Plans for the development of Derry’s downtown have taken a number of hits over the past several months, from the town’s economic development budget being cut during the latest budget process to the Town Council passing on the purchase of a Sawyer Court parcel for future development.
With that in mind, former town councilor Joel Olbricht wants the council to use the limited resources the town has to hire a part-time economic development director to help pave the way for downtown revitalization.
“When it comes to economic development, you have a choice,” said Olbricht. “You can either play or you can allow the real estate developers to do what they want to do with properties. If you play, you get to fund the right kinds of activities.”
Olbricht said the town should use the $30,000 in its economic development budget for the coming fiscal year to hire a part-time economic development director. Initially, Town Administrator John Anderson budgeted $50,000 for economic development in fiscal year 2014, but the Town Council cut that amount by $20,000.
Olbricht said if the town hires an economic development director, he would volunteer his time to help form a committee to help with the development of the downtown.
However, councilor Mark Osborne, who defeated Olbricht for his at-large council seat in March, said it is more of the same old story from his former opponent.
“Mr. Olbricht has nothing new to offer,” said Osborne. “We heard him propose the same solution he’s been pushing when he worked for the now defunct Derry Economic Development Corporation and as a town councilor.”
Using taxpayer money to buy private property downtown has not produced meaningful growth in Derry, he added.
“We’ve seen this movie before, and there are no surprise endings,” said Osborne. “The taxpayers lose, the real estate speculators win, and the crickets continue to chirp along Main Street.”
Olbricht pointed to the example of Claremont, which several years ago had many empty downtown storefronts but now has a more thriving district of retail and service establishments.
A number of factors helped with that town’s revitalization, including improved infrastructure, policy changes and public/private partnerships.
“I think if we could set that direction in Derry, we would come out real well,” said Olbricht.
Olbricht pointed to the work of the Moving Derry Forward committee, which formed three years ago. He said the committee’s initial focus was creating the business tax incentive district on Route 28.
“The second area it looked at was the downtown, and I think the downtown is certainly the place we should spend some money on economic development,” Olbricht said. “If you don’t start buying property and setting goals, you’ll get what you have. I think you can do a good job if you set goals for the downtown area.”
Councilor Brad Benson said he believes Olbricht is on point with his remarks.
“We, as a community, need to continue to invest in our economic development,” he said. “I believe we do need a person in this role. I find it interesting and perplexing that all the communities around us are investing in this development, but the new council members choose not to.
Greater Derry/Londonderry Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Stacey Bruzzese said Olbricht’s idea sounds interesting and that she looks forward to future workshop meetings with the Town Council to discuss economic development.
“I look forward to their recommendations on this and other opportunities for our area,” she said.