Economic Development Council’s new strategic plan focuses on bringing aging demographic into balance
MEREDITH — Faced with a growing demographic imbalance that poses a long-term threat to the Lakes Region’s economy, the Belknap County Economic Development Council has developed a new strategic plan designed to deal with the issues posed by an aging area population.
The plan focuses on three goals: balancing the county’s demographic make-up, strengthening the region’s “creative” economy, and enhancing workforce development programming in the Lakes Region.
“The plan is focused on making our region more attractive to younger, talented workers and creative entrepreneurs,” said outgoing BCEDC Chairman David Haley at the organization’s annual meeting held at Church Landing last night.
He said “A lot of people know that the Lakes Region is a great place to retire, but most people don’t realize that there will be a wealth of opportunities here for young people over the next decade. We need to get the word out and demonstrate all that this region has to offer to talented workers and entrepreneurs looking for opportunities.”
Carmen Lorentz, BCEDC’s executive director, said ”It’s pretty simple. Either we recruit younger people to live and work in Belknap County or our community is going to be dramatically different in 20 years, and not necessarily in a good way. If we don’t address our demographic imbalance now we will lose key industries and jobs and that will make it even harder for use to offer a sustainable economic and social environment for local residents.”
She cited a number of troubling trends for the area, including:
— The median age in the Lakes Region is 45.2 (vs. 41.1 for the state). By 2030, 36-percent of Belknap County residents will be over the age of 65. Belknap County also has the highest proportion of seniors living in poverty in the state.
— One-third of all jobs in Belknap County fall into the retail and accommodation and food service categories. Average weekly wages in those sectors are only $510 and $350, respectively, and these jobs tend to have relatively few benefits. This contributes to the fact that only 77-percent of adults in the Lakes Region have health insurance coverage vs. 89-percent statewide.
She said that if these two issues are not addressed, local health care providers will continue to shoulder the burden of low reimbursement rates for Medicaid patients, which puts the long-term viability of the local health care industry at risk. Lorentz noted that the health care sector provides 13-percent of employment in Belknap County and these are some of the best-paying jobs in the region.
Lorentz said that advanced manufacturing is another critical segment of the local economy that is at risk. Although the Lakes Region has been losing manufacturing for decades, the manufacturers that still operate here use high technology to produce precision-machined components that cannot be outsourced.
She said these companies are strong and growing, but they struggle to fill open positions. Entry level positions in advanced manufacturing require strong math, computer, and blueprint comprehension skills, but the region does not produce enough young workers with these skills to meet employer demand. Unless things change, it will become even more and more difficult for the advanced manufacturing sector to remain competitive, which puts 2,300 good paying jobs in Belknap County at risk.
In order to counter these trends, the council plans to launch a business attraction campaign designed to identify what makes the area attractive to young professionals and conduct a campaign targeting at least 20 small creative/professional businesses and reach out to them in an effort to convince them to relocate to the area.
It will also look towards attracting creative entrepreneur and arts and cultural initiatives to the area by creating a partnership which will provide technical assistance, financial management and physical space for start-up businesses.
Plans to enhance workforce development are focused on two areas, and involve growing and enhancing nursing and advanced manufacturing offerings at Lakes Region Community College.
Lorentz also discussed a project called the 200 x 2020 initiative which in addition to BCEDC involves the Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce, Lakes Region United Way, Huot Technical Center, Lakes Region Community College, NH Works and the Laconia Shared Youth Vision.
The initiative seeks to create internships for 200 students in local businesses by the year 2020 which would create meaningful opportunities for students to experience the work world to inspire them to pursue a course of study that will prepare them for life after graduation, whether they are headed to work or to college.
Three major awards were presented at the annual meeting.
— The Corporate Soul Award for commitment to the essence of community went to the WLNH Children’s Auction.
— The Norman Marsh Award which honors an individual who works daily for the benefit of the residents of the region was presented to attorney Rodney Dyer, a former Laconia mayor and school board chairman.
— The Director’s Award, which goes to a business, individual or organization for its contributions to the economic vitality of Belknap County was presented to the Laconia School District. for being in the vanguard of community collaboration through is Full-Service Community School Initiative.
Outgoing chairman Haley was presented with a token of recognition for his service by the council’s new chair, Sean Sullivan. Other officers are Henry Lipman, vice chair; John Giere, secretary and Rick Wyman, treasurer.