By Karen Cord Taylor
What makes small cities successful?
I’ve asked that question as I’ve gotten to know Portsmouth, New Hampshire, over a couple of visits.
If you’ve not been to this lovely, vibrant place less than an hour and a half from Boston up Route 1 and I-95, put in on your list.
Its setting is divine, lying alongside the ice-free Piscataqua River across from Kittery, Maine. It boasts a moderately hilly terrain, a beautiful harbor, a deep maritime history, historic architecture and such tourist attractions as a submarine and a restored historic village museum called Strawbery Banke. For many years it benefitted from both an air force base and a shipyard that designed and built submarines.
These factors gave it a good base, said two people I spoke with—Nancy Carmer, Portsmouth’s Economic Development Program Manager, and Barbara Massar, the executive director of the non-profit arts and culture sponsor, Pro Portsmouth. John Bohenko, Portsmouth’s city manager, communicated by email.
They agreed that the city’s setting, history and military presence gave it a start. But they also said good planning, good leadership, ambitious infrastructure improvements and an engaged citizenry helped save it from becoming, like so many cities, one that looks back on a prosperous history without a solid replacement.
“You can take your assets and build upon those,” said Carmer. “But it’s also true there were champions.”
Those champions were not enough to save an old Italian section that was razed in the style of Boston’s West End. But they learned, and no more razing took place. They saved the oldest settled community, which became Strawbery Bank. And they created Pro Portsmouth, which began 40 years ago to produce such events as New Hampshire’s only First Night, celebrate Portsmouth and advocate for better streets and public gathering places—spaces for performances, street festivals, markets, and a place to begin road races.
This is where infrastructure comes into the picture. Massar said that city officials supported Pro Portsmouth’s activities and created car-free Market Square, widened sidewalks and passed zoning laws to reserve ground-floor areas for retail or restaurant uses. This cooperation has produced an environment that has thrived with local shops instead of chain stores, and hordes of people just walking the street enjoying the vitality.
“We’ve had a great relationship with the city manager,” said Massar. “We welcome everyone downtown.”
Despite saving Strawbery Banke for tourists and making downtown lively, things could have gone downhill fast when Pease Air Force Base closed in 1990 and the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard went from building submarines to only repairing them.
But savvy city managers and civic leaders transformed the base into “an international trade port” with a small airport, successful invitations to entrepreneurs and such big businesses as Liberty Mutual Insurance, Sprague Energy and Amadeus software, as well as a regional hospital.
City Manager Bohenko said the resulting diversity of Portsmouth’s business base is a strength as well as its intention to employ sustainability practices and policies. The city’s workforce is well educated, and the city makes an effort to ensure its residents are trained in the kind of skills its businesses need.
No city is perfect. Portsmouth struggles with traffic, parking and a lack of good alternatives to cars. As downtown has seen success, rents have skyrocketed, putting local shopkeepers’ businesses in jeopardy. Energy costs are high as they are in the rest of New England. Housing costs are also high, but, remarkably, about half of Portsmouth’s housing stock is multi-family and of this, approximately 50 percent is subsidized.
What advice would Bohenko give to other small cities? He provided a long list:
- Start with sound fiscal management and long range planning so your city is attractive to investors, prospective businesses and residents.
- Capitalize on your unique assets and promote them.
- Create public places for community interaction and expression that reflects the city’s unique and vibrant personality. Activate sidewalks through outdoor dining, street performances, etc.
- Create public/multimodal transportation opportunities.
- Cultivate, support and promote the local arts and cultural community.
- Invest in infrastructure through sustained capital planning and sound fiscal management. Focus on encouraging walking and biking.
- Promote a diversified business base.
- Partner with organizations like Main Street America to bring activity/festivals.
- Cultivate a tech business ecosystem and environment for businesses that seek a young workforce.
- Promote public/private partnerships.
- Attract and retain a diverse business base.
- Allow for the creation of housing for all income brackets.
- Seek grant funding to offset local revenue spending on capital and other needs.
- Partner with educational institutions to grow a workforce that meets employer needs.
- Take advantage of state and federal business attraction incentives/programs.
It sounds like a tall order. But it can work, as Portsmouth has shown.