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New Hampshire town revitalizes Main Street: community development block grant among tools used.

LITTLETON, N.H. -- How can America's Main Street communities make it in fiercely competitive times that send factory jobs to Asia and white-collar work to big metro regions?

Business and civic leaders in Littleton, a town of 5,800 in New Hampshire's isolated and thinly populated North Country, have spent a quarter-century devising inventive formulas to control their own fate rather than falling victim to adverse national and global economic tides.

Today, they can claim broad success--holding and attracting manufacturing jobs, turning their Main Street into a nationally recognized model, positioning the town-owned utility to buy power at New England's lowest rates, initiating a Littleton Learning Center that's a model for 21st century work-force training.

If there's a word for this town's success, it's leadership--an open and flexible group of town leaders who are communicating constantly, plunging into one initiative after another, making connections, consulting with citizen groups, leveraging each others' projects.

"It's fitting we have a statue of Pollyanna on Main Street--the author, Eleanor Porter, was from Littleton," notes Jason Hoch, the town manager, adding: "There's an aggressive optimism here, a focus on positive achievements and retelling the story of where we're going next."

But spending some hours with the town leadership group, I also heard Yankee thrift and realism: "We're not awash in resources. We need to be resourceful. We don't waste any money. We created our Main Street success with never more than one employee."

Littleton's civic pioneering started in the late 1970s as several business leaders started casting around for new industries to generate local jobs. A state economic development official galvanized them to action by slamming his fist on a desk, warning he'd have no prospects to bring "until you folks get it together and develop an industrial park." So town leaders formed the Littleton Industrial Development Corp. and quickly began work on the industrial park which has added 1,000 jobs with a $30 million yearly payroll.

But in the recession of the early '90s, times were turning tough: banks were fleeing, Main Street was in disrepair, the tax base dwindling. So a second formula emerged: Make the town more viable by non-industrial strategies too. Two local entrepreneurs purchased a fire-destroyed site on Main Street, near a historic inn, and turned it into a top-grade bookstore and catalyst for Main Street development.

In 1997, Littleton became one of New Hampshire's first three official Main Street program towns; by 2003 over $10 million had been invested in rehabbing old stores and starting new ones. Littleton received a Great American Main Street Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. News of the town's revived charm spread and tourism flourished. A Main Street Farmers Market drew growing crowds. A new Wal-Mart in a "big box" area separated from downtown had little negative impact.

Not content with those steps, Littleton leaders launched an affordable housing organization--AHEAD (Affordable Housing, Education and Development), which built or rehabbed 250 units of housing. An ambitious effort began to secure federal funding to construct a "Riverwalk" along the Ammonoosuc River that flows through the center of town. And a senior center was connected to downtown by a picturesque covered walking bridge over the river.

The Littleton Learning Center--a one-stop training facility with multiple broadband computer labs--was conceived and achieved by town leaders with $3.5 million in a series of partnerships (including a $1 million federal Community Development Block Grant). New Hampshire's College for Lifelong Learning, the Community Technical College, the North Country Health Consortium, public safety training courses and state employment security services are all under one roof.

The Learning Center proved its mettle in 2001 when Hitchner Manufacturing announced it was leaving town. A "hit squad" of town and Learning Center leaders mobilized, helping the company resolve its problems. Workers actually increased their productivity. In four months, the firm reversed course, announcing it would stay.

Another major competitive advantage, says Brian Ward, a leader of Littleton's Economic Development Task Force, is the city's constant investment in critical water, sewer and electric facilities.

Littleton leaders now recognize they lead--and depend on--a broad North Country region. They have even formed a new "tri-town" industrial park, exchanging their water, sewer and power for available, unserviced land in neighboring Lisbon and Bethlehem--an inter-town tax base-sharing plan truly extraordinary among prickly independent New England towns.

Littleton leaders aren't cocky about their gains--they report it's still very tough, for example, to land enough high-paying jobs for their people. But they believe their town has the civic skill and patience to wait the years -often a decade or more--for projects to come to fruition.

It's tough to imagine a better marker for successful 21st century communities than that combination of realism, flexibility, idealism--and persistence.

Neal Peirce's e-mail address is nrp@citistates.com.

[c] 2005, The Washington Post Writers Group

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Author:Peirce, Neal
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 21, 2005
Words:822
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