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Benoit Lamontagne – North Country Representative for the NH Division of Economic Development

Benoit Lamontagne is the North Country Representative for the N.H. Division of Economic Development. He is a wealth of knowledge from his many years of experience and wide network. Benoit works to bring new business to N.H. and helping existing companies and communities grow. We cover many topics in this conversation including:

  • The tools available to communities to undertake economic development projects.
  • Where to look for funding.
  • How to make your community most attractive to prospecting companies.
  • How he and a group of determined citizens were able to attract a new company to come to his hometown after a major manufacturer closed its doors.
  • How the economic climate in the northern part of the state differs from the southern part and how that impacts economic development.
  • Why Canada is such an important commercial partner for N.H. and why Canadian companies looking to have a U.S. presence find N.H. so attractive.
  • And much more.

Audio of this interview can be found on the Podcast here. You can reach out to Benoit with any questions here and learn more about the Divison of Economic Development here.

Other resources mentioned in this conversation:

Here is the transcript of the audio, with minimal editing for clarity and grammar.


 

Tell us a little about yourself and what you do.

Sure. I am Beno Lamontagne I am with the Department of Business and Economic Affairs. I work specifically for the Division of Economic Development. My area of responsibility for the division is the northern half of the state, the northern three counties Coos, Carroll and Grafton counties. We focus on business retention and business expansion. We work with startups and established companies. I do business recruitment. I spend a lot of time, especially up in Canada trying to bring Canadian companies to the state of New Hampshire.

What kinds of partners and resources does your department work with and have to offer?

First and foremost, our partners are any of the more localized economic development agencies. The State has ten Regional Development Corporation. Each corporation covers most of their county. Some of the larger counties have more than one. Grafton County has the Grafton Regional Development Corporation, Coos County has their own, and Carroll County has two.

We also work with city and town governments. We work with other State agencies that have similar interests or resources. For example, the Community Development Finance Authority, CDFA for short. The CDFA manages about $8 million dollars of federal funds every year as part of a program called the Community Development Block Grant or program. So that program, for example, will help businesses buy property, equipment and those kinds of things.

Businesses can apply for a Community Development Block Grant loan from – if we were doing it in Grafton County – from Grafton Regional Development Corporation. They can apply up to half a million dollars. As a rule they can borrow up to $20,000 per job. So, for example, if they’re going to create five jobs, they have access through that program to borrow $100,000 which can be matched by either their own funding or a bank loan.

The New Hampshire Business Finance Authority is another. They will do things like guarantee bank loans in the name of jobs. So, if there’s a $200,000 loan and they’re going to create  X number of jobs, the New Hampshire BFA will come in and say, “Well, because this company is creating jobs and we see that this project is feasible and sustainable, we will guarantee the loan for the bank.” The bank then is more at ease loaning money to the business.

The most classic example of what the BFA does is coming right up. Our department is working very closely with them and others for a $160 million project in the North Country called the Balsams Grand Resort. In that $160 million, $28 million in loans is actually going to be guaranteed by the New Hampshire Business Finance Authority.

We have Federal partners as well. We work very closely with the USDA Department of Rural Development, who also has a loan guarantee program for businesses, for example. So, by partners we mean all of the folks that we work with in order to find a solution for businesses.

Communities can also list their available commercial property on choosenh.com for prospective companies looking to move to the state to see.

Would it be accurate to say that people come to you with a set goals, a problem or an issue that they’re trying to figure out and you help them work through it and connect them with the people that can make it happen?

Yes. We play the role of convener, if you will, problem solver, connecting folks with the right resources and knowledge. Business people have a lot on their plate. They have to consistently work to make sure that their businesses are going to be sustainable are going to grow. They don’t need to start spending a whole lot of time searching and wondering “Who could help us with this?” and “Who do we go to in state government to find this kind of solution?” We act as a partner with the business and guide them.

I like to remind business owners, because I hear this quite a bit, they’ll call and they say “Well, I really hate to bother you but I have this particular problem and I…” My immediate answer to that usually is, “Oh, wait a minute here, do you go to an employee and say I really hate to bother you, but I need this?” I remind them that you should look at me the same way as you do an employee. Your business profits taxes that you pay every year, go towards paying my salary, so I’m on your payroll.

You’re a well known advocate for the North Country. It seems like a lot of the development work that happens in the state happens south of Concord. There is emphasis on big technology, aerospace, and other things that don’t seem to have context or applicability to the north. What would you say to smaller rural towns that don’t have existing aerospace defense companies employing hundreds, if not a thousand people in their town or don’t have a tech hub? What are some solutions for them?

I recommend very strongly to consider partnering with our community college system. We just had a session last week up in Colebrook about this very subject. They’re a little town ten miles from the Canadian border and how do they grow? How do they expect to keep their youth in the area and well employed?

I reminded them that not everybody is a Boeing or Bombardier. These companies have a lot of small suppliers, smaller niche suppliers. They don’t necessarily need to be located in Manchester or in Rochester or in Portsmouth or Salem in the southern part of our state, they can be almost anywhere actually.

I gave them the example of one of the largest FedEx and UPS shippers in the northern part of the state is a company that came here from Canada and they chose Colebrook to build their warehouse and their facilities. They are one of the largest shippers in the state. I was encouraging them when we spoke last week to consider going to their community college system and speaking with them about particular niches that companies have who might want to locate in a small community.
One of the first drawbacks to overcome for towns looking to attract these companies is if they locate in a little town XYZ which has 800 people or 1200 people, will they find anyone to work for them?

I also encourage small towns to work with our folks at our sister agency, the New Hampshire Employment Security to get a reading of who’s out there? Who’s available? What kind of skills do we have in our own backyard? Then you can boast these kinds of things when companies are looking around.

What are your thoughts on the different tax incentive laws that have either been in effect for some time or recently passed in terms of attracting new businesses or promoting existing businesses to expand?

There is one law has been in effect for about twelve years up in Coos County. The originator of that law was a state senator named Fred King who wrote something called Senate Bill 76 that at the time was designed to help the counties of Coos and Sullivan to try to bring new businesses to these counties. There were and are so many small towns that are in need of creating jobs. The way I see it, anything that communities can have in their tool belt in order to attract businesses – by all means, do so. Take advantage of these kinds of programs, take advantage of the of the community college system,  work with your chambers of commerce who helped market your communities and what is so special about them. Those are all great tools that you can use in order to grow our communities and keep people employed with good jobs. I strongly recommend any action step that can be made in order to promote yourself and make sure that folks outside of your immediate communities know about you and know why this is be a wonderful place to bring a new business to the area.

What do you think the best ways are to market your town? What are some of the things you can do?

Well, we spoke earlier about choosenh.com. That is a site that can be used to help businesses find commercial buildings that might be available. Obviously, they won’t come if they can’t find  a building or properties to build on. Making sure your town’s commercial property inventory is listed on choosenh.com is a good first step.

Our sister agency at the Department of Business and Economic Affairs called the Division of Travel and Tourism basically exist to market the state. I remind people to knock on their door to let them know that you would like some help marketing your community. So again, access to all of those resources are there; it’s a matter of reaching out and making things happen.

What is your perspective on the economic situation of many towns in the North Country? How did we get here and how do we bring many of these small towns that have been depressed for decades back?

Well, I think  the overseas market obviously hurt many communities in the United States, and so New Hampshire isn’t immune to that.  I think some of it has to do with the face of businesses constantly changing and you have to adapt to change and you have to be willing to think outside the box. You have to think about what your strengths are, your weaknesses and take advantage of those kinds of things and move forward to reinvent yourself.

There’s no doubt that tourism has become a major factor for the north country which is great, but also there are a lot of technology companies that have come up in the last decade or so. Most of those kinds of companies, there are a lot of young people involved with them and because of the Internet they don’t need to be in downtown Boston,  they can be in Ossipee, they can be in Colebrook, they can be most anywhere. So I think it’s a matter of just understanding that nothing stays the same.

We’re in a constantly evolving world, especially with technology and I think you just have to try to do your best to ride that wave and again take advantage of all of the tools that are available to help market yourselves. You have to help people be ready, if you will, for what the next wave of  technology will be.

I think that working with the community college systems, the high schools is really important. I mean, the other day when we were up in Colebrook and we were talking about all of this kind of stuff I mentioned  that you need to start working with communities very early in the educational part of life. The School to Work Programs that are out there are great. There’s a saying that it takes a whole village to raise one child, well it also takes a village and a county and a community to pave the way for our youth’s future.

Similarly, how do you feel about focusing efforts on ‘revitalization’ of specific neighborhoods vs. going with the ‘flow’ of current economic trends? How do you suggest towns think about wieghing the benefits of spending money on revitalizing a downtown vs developing a cluster near an exit off of a highway, for example?

Well , I usually encourage folks to do a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis of their communities. I tell people to get to know exactly where you are, what it is you have, what it is that you need, what it is that you need to change?  And again, it’s never the responsibility of one entity or one person. But to sit down as a community and look at what your strengths are.

First of all figure out:

“Who we are?”

“Why we are who we are?”

“What are all the good things about our community?”

And then you can look at some of the weaknesses and see how you can maybe turn those around.

I look at the community of Keene, which had an area in their downtown that was all run down brick buildings that were mills that had been shut down forever. There’s a wonderful gentleman named Jack Dugan who pretty much took the bull by the horns partnered with local officials, state officials, federal officials and brought some financial resources to that part of town that needed to be rebuilt. For example, I believe there’s one old factory building that has been converted to Marriott. No one ever dreamed that Marriott would come to, that town, but they did and Keene is still growing.

So communities need to really work together. It’s not just the town manager’s job or the selectman’s job or the mayor’s job or the Chamber of Commerce, it’s everyone. Everyone needs to take pride in their backyards and their communities. We need to be willing to do these things in order to attract new jobs, new investment,  have a home for our youth to come back to so they can make their lives successful ones in the communities that they know and love.

There’s a gentleman right now that I’m working with, just as an example, he lives in Utah, he’s the CEO of a billion dollar a year company, a worldwide company. We connected not that long ago and he said, “I’d like to have some kind of a presence in my home state. New Hampshire will always be my home and I would love to have a part of our company operate in the state of New Hampshire.” So you never know what will drive someone to do these kinds of things if you don’t ask, if you don’t put yourself out there, if you don’t reach out to folks.

How do you best, as a selectman, or you’re on the Economic Development Committee of a town, how do you start and facilitate those kinds of conversations. How do you get that community buy-in?

I think that what happens a lot is you have a small group of people come up with an idea on their own. Then they come out of their bubble with a fully formed idea and present it. Because there wasn’t previous engagement and community visioning, then there is resistance. There’s more disagreement further down the process than there should have been, etc. These are things that could have been avoided by a more inclusive community engagement. How do you get that going? How do you start that?

 

Well, I tell you what we did when I was in business up in the Colebrook in Littleton. We had lost a company called Bose, that makes speakers. We lost 150 jobs in a little town of 2,500 people and it just seemed as the months went on that nobody was focusing on that problem. We needed to address how are we going to replace those 150 jobs? So a group of friends and fellow business people formed an Economic Development Committee as part of our chamber. We then connected with our partners in the state to come and work with us and guide us. We asked “How do we go  go about attracting and replacing a company that had 150 people employed?”

I’ll tell you between our partners at the Division of Economic Development, who I now work for, and our partners with the federal government we got a lot of help. We contacted our congressman to reach out and say “How do we how do we do this?”

 

Even with all that help it still took a good two years to even get someone with a half an interest in coming to Colebrook. But, we were ultimately successful with all these partners in bringing one of Canada’s largest window manufacturers. They were heading to New York, and we intervened, and said,” Just come and check us out, see what you think.” It happened that the owners of the company liked boating an awful lot and we have a lot of lakes. So I organized a little meeting with them along with my colleagues and they came, they looked, they fell in love. Then they made the announcement that they were not going to New York after all and that they were coming to New Hampshire to employ a 160 people, and they did.

And did the town do anything specifically to try to attract them, any of those like ER Zones or any special taxing or whether anything from that tool belt that you talked about?

Oh, absolutely, we used all of those tools, and most of all, we made sure that everyone in the community welcomed them.

How did you do that?

Well, the first day that they came, we alerted a lot of people in town – it’s a very small town. So when they came, they got to town and the first thing we did is had the fire department drive a couple of their trucks out to the border to be waiting for them to put on a show and escort them into town. When they got into the industrial park that we wanted them to move into, kids from the local grade school and a local high school had signs. These kids were really brave. It was raining just buckets that day, but the kids were out in the rain with welcome signs in French saying ‘You’re going to love it here’, ‘We welcome you here’, ‘We want you to come here’ and “Our parents need jobs.” I mean, it was just full court! The owner of the company said “My God!” He said, “I’ve never seen anything like it,” and he said, “How could we not come to this little town in New Hampshire?”

So how do you think about balancing the need of economic development, conservation and preserving the environment. Those two things right now seem to be opposed for some reason. If the Conservation Commission is on one team and the business folks are on the other team it becomes all about one side winning over the other. It seems pretty clear to me that since tourism has become incredibly important for the North Country, and not to mention the general overall welfare of the state with keeping water and air clean, that these things go hand in hand. How do you work through those hard conversations?

Well, it’s really again about working together, communicating with folks reaching a mid-point, with everyone. Most companies out there are not looking to ruin communities and ruin the environment. We deal we deal with a lot of eco-friendly companies. I say before you judge anyone, get to know them, find out what it is that, that they do and how can these companies take advantage of some of the resources out there that help companies remain eco-friendly. For example, I work very closely with the Department of Environmental Services. This afternoon I have a meeting with a company who wants to locate near here and they want to do the right thing. My recommendation to them was: “Let’s sit down with the DES and let’s find out what the do’s and don’ts are so that you can adjust your process to be sure that you are going to be adhering to all of the environmental regulations that we have.”

As of this day, I’ve been in this kind of work with the state for over ten years now and I have never met a company who said, “Oh no, no we’re not going to…We don’t want to be eco-friendly, we want to go out there and  ruin everything,” I’ve never seen anybody like that. Maybe it was more prevalent years ago. Sadly, I’m sure there are companies out there who didn’t care a bit about the environmental footprint that they left. It was all about growing. But I think the world has changed a lot and I personally think that the US is really leading the way and especially our state. I think our state works very hard to marry the two together. We need jobs, we need good paying jobs, we need for our youth to have good jobs to come back to, so I think most companies understand that. They want to do what’s right and we work closely with them to be sure that these are the kinds of guidelines that you need to follow.

You work a lot with bringing in companies from Canada as the North Country representative. You speak French fluently. You’re clearly engaged with our neighbors to the north. But Canadian trade not something that like a lot of people think of when they think of trade in New Hampshire. What’s a brief overview of the trade and commerce situation between New Hampshire and Canada and what can folks look at in terms of trying to get more involved in that relationship?

Well, first and foremost, Canada is our largest trading partner. So there’s a there’s an attention getter immediately that the trade that goes between Canada and New Hampshire is just above anything else. They are our neighbor and I for one believe very strongly that the economy — one of the solutions to the economies in the North Country is going to come from our Canadian neighbors. About 83% of companies moving into the state come from Massachusetts. Out of those 83%; most of them want to remain in the southern part of the state, and I understand that obviously, it’s close. Similarly, with our Canadian friends it’s the other way around. When our Canadian friends ask about wanting to be in the US, wanting to be in New Hampshire, they want to be within an hour to ninety minutes from the border, because they want to be able to go back home, go back to their headquarters, etc. For the North Country it is important to keep that in mind when looking for companies to attract to their communities.

I want to emphasize that Canadian companies do want to be in the US and they want to do so and be within an hour to an hour and a half from the US-Canadian border. So I think that’s a good advantage that the North Country can focus on.  Communities should focus on being welcoming to our Canadian friends. They want to be in the US and what a perfect place to be than to come to a neighboring state that doesn’t have a sales tax, doesn’t have an income tax, has no inventory taxes or equipment taxes.

I always chuckle at the reaction when my colleague, Michael Bergeron and I go up to Quebec to speak at Chambers of Commerce meetings and manufacturers associations meetings. We will do a presentation all in French. I usually just like to start by reminding folks that New Hampshire is different, there’s a real advantage in coming to our state and one of those examples is our tax structure that’s relatively low.

So when I go down the list of taxes we don’t have: sales tax, personal income tax those kinds of things, the look on their faces is just so funny to see. They look at you almost in disbelief like “What kind of a come on is this? No sales tax, no income tax, no inventory tax? That doesn’t make sense.”

At the end of the presentation several people always raise their hands and say, “So this sales tax thing, is that something that you do  for a couple of years and then after that we pay sales tax?” And they when I tell them no, we simply don’t have a sale tax and we don’t have a personal income tax, they shake their heads and they said, “My God, you’re the best kept secret in the US.”

So anyway, I think we have a lot to gain by letting them know who we are and how we do business and because of the similar geography and culture, it’s a natural fit for them to come to our state.

Are there any particular sectors or industries of Canadian companies that are looking to move to New Hampshire more than others?

At the moment we are dealing with a lot of transportation manufacturers. We have a great aerospace sector in the southern part of the state on the Seacoast and in Manchester/Nashua. There’s also a ground transportation sector that right now this is actually really growing here because of companies like Nippon in Japan, Bombardier up in Quebec. These companies have landed contracts to provide cities like New York, San Francisco, Chicago with products like subway trains. These are the types of contracts that because they involve federal money, in this case Federal D.O.T. money, these companies, these contractors and subcontractors have to abide by the Buy America Act which means that they have to have a presence in the US in order to take advantage of these contracts.

So just to wrap up, there are a few key takeaways for communities trying to get an economic development program rolling. Can you talk about the various tax incentives advantages? Also what you can do within the zone what you do with deferring property taxes for a period time. Are there any other kind of things that you would sort of have somebody want to take away from as sort of quick bits?

Who should folks contact if they are looking for your counterpart on the tourism side? How can communities learn to better market themselves to the travelling public?

The director of travel and tourism, her name Vicky Simoneau, wonderful lady, very, very dedicated to helping New Hampshire market itself. So I would consider giving Director Simoneau a call at the Division of Travel and Tourism to see how they can be helpful.

Thanks a lot, and how can people reach you if they questions?

Well I’m always glad to make sure that folks have my cell phone number which is 603-419-9713, or they can go to our website nheconomy.com, where all of our contact information is.

Well Benoit, thanks a lot for sitting down with me, really appreciate it. It’s been great.

Well, thank you. Glad to be here

 

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