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State ignored economic development law, so BIA stepped in

CONCORD — The state Office of Energy and Planning is required by law to create an economic development plan for the state every four years, but hasn't done so in more than a decade.

That's one reason the Business and Industry Association, the statewide chamber of commerce, felt compelled to step up and fill the void with a plan for New Hampshire that contains more than 100 recommendations.

A coalition of nearly 200 stakeholders from industry, education, the public sector and nonprofits has been at work since the spring, producing a plan unveiled Monday morning at BIA headquarters in Concord.

Key recommendations include more generous tax credits for research and development; more state support for education; leaner and less costly state government; and reduced barriers to workforce housing through revised building codes and more favorable zoning.

"Business leaders across the state have for several years expressed concern that, economically, many of the good things we enjoy in New Hampshire seem to happen by chance rather than through thoughtful, intentional decision-making," said BIA President Jim Roche. "They feel that, absent a well-thought-out, strategic economic plan, New Hampshire's economic assets are threatened and its vulnerabilities are further exposed."

9 committees, 3 months

The plan was developed by nine committees working in April, May and June, each focused on a specific topic. The topic areas were business growth; education; energy; fiscal policy; health care; infrastructure; natural and cultural resources; regulations; and workforce housing.Each group worked to create a vision of positive outcomes in each area, then developed goals toward that vision and tactics to support those goals.

The New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies created a snapshot of the current economic landscape against which to benchmark future progress. Two other consulting groups were hired to facilitate the stakeholder meetings and draft the initial report.

The 50-page final report that was presented Monday is a road-map that is going to require more than one driver, according to Roche. "There are more than 100 recommendations in there," he said. "There's no way we (the BIA) can pursue all of them equally at the same time. We will identify areas we can focus on in the short term, but given the scope of this plan, we hope others will jump in."

In addition to state government, the BIA is counting on the involvement of trade associations in the key areas such as energy and health care.

According to the BIA, "the plan pays particular attention to the advanced manufacturing and high technology sector because of its demonstrated economic impact to the state."

It emphasizes the importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education and the need for educational programs to match business needs in these areas.

Law ignored for years

There is a provision in state law under RSA 9-A that calls for a comprehensive development plan to be renewed or revised every four years, beginning on Oct. 1, 2003, and transmitted to the General Court.

When the statute was initially drafted, the job fell to the Office of Planning, which was merged with another state office to become the Governor's Office of Energy and Planning in 2003 under Gov. Craig Benson.

The incumbent director, Meredith Hatfield, just took office in January. In a telephone interview, she said the office is working on a statewide energy plan, and will then turn its efforts to the development plan required by law. "Obviously, we want to comply with the requirement," she said. The last statewide development plan approved by the Office of Planning was in 2000, according to Hatfield.

She couldn't say for sure why the statute has been ignored for so many years, but speculated that a lack of manpower was part of the problem. "Part of it had to do with funding cuts on the planning side," she said. "We've lost about 40 percent of our funding over the years since the energy and planning offices were merged." Hatfield could not comment on the BIA plan, having not seen it as of Monday morning, but said it could help her office meet a 2015 deadline for its development plan. "There's a difference between a strategic economic plan coming from a business perspective and a strategic economic plan coming from the public sector," said Roche.

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