For many years, Littleton’s economy was dependent on the shoe factories that lined the Ammonoosuc River. When two of the largest factories closed in the early 1970’s, local business leaders revived the Littleton Industrial Development Corporation and forged a new path to economic health. Here, longtime LIDC president Paul McGoldrick describes the importance of the LIDC to the area’s economy.
For years, Littleton vied with Berlin for the highest unemployment rate in the state. The shoe business is cyclical in nature, and we would experience high levels of employment and then high levels of unemployment. In the 1970’s, facing stiff foreign competition in the field, two major employers in the Littleton area, with a combined 700 jobs, closed their doors. After the initial shock, many of us went to work to attempt to replace those lost jobs in an orderly fashion, with industries with less cyclical swings and more diversification.
LIDC’s history of successful recruitment and industrial development began in the early 1950’s, as a for-profit industrial development corporation, but activity slowed during the 1960’s. After the factories closed, many of us who were active in the Chamber of Commerce’s economic development subcommittee approached the existing LIDC and persuaded them to transfer their name, purpose and resources to a restructured non-profit entity under the moniker Littleton Industrial Development Corporation. The non-profit status allowed LIDC to apply for government grants, something they could not have done before.
Paul Gilderson, former Director of the New Hampshire Department of Resources and Economic Development, would send us prospects, and we would show them a piece of land owned by a local farmer. Unfortunately, we couldn’t tell them a firm price, discuss infrastructure such as roads, water or sewer, because the LIDC didn’t yet own any land appropriate for industrial development. In 1972, Gilderson told us that until we could make some firm offers of land and support infrastructure to businesses, he wouldn’t refer any more prospects to us.
The directors of LIDC were determined to accomplish some industrial development for Littleton and began work to establish an industrial park. We conducted a study to select a site and develop realistic cost estimates for land purchase and infrastructure. Led by Arthur Folsom, executive director of the Littleton Chamber of Commerce, LIDC submitted a petition to the town warrant in 1973 asking for $15,000 for a feasibility study for an industrial park. The proposal was not greeted with a great deal of enthusiasm by the selectmen and passed by one vote in secret ballot voting at town meeting.
Working with the selectmen, the LIDC selected a former sand and gravel lot near the sewer plant with power lines from Moore Dam (a nearby hydroelectric facility formerly owned by New England Power) running right through it. The power service would provide the lowest industrial electric rates in the state of New Hampshire because of the combination of access to low cost power and Littleton’s municipal power department. Littleton had also recently built a one million-gallon water storage tank adjacent to and above the property, so adequate water and pressure was nearby. The original access road crossed a residential area, which provided early challenges. In June of 1995, the LIDC built a bridge across the Ammonoosuc River from Route 302 and a new access road to the industrial park.
The LIDC purchased the original 108-acre park property for $68,000 in 1974, using $23,000 from a community fund drive and the balance of $45,000 from a Farmers Home Administration (FmHA) grant.
We were ready to start talking seriously to prospects. The first significant prospect was the Burndy Corporation of Norwalk, CT. They built their first plant in Lincoln, NH, home of former Governor Sherman Adams. Shortly after that, the Office of Economic Development brought the company to Littleton to look over the park, because Burndy were considering building a second plant. In 1975, LIDC offered the company space in the new industrial park, and Burndy agreed to build a 120,000-square-foot building on 20 acres. LIDC agreed to make our best efforts to bring water, power and sewer to this site, as well as construct a brand new access road to their driveway.
The process of bringing all the elements together for the project was complex. We calculated that for all the infrastructure – roads, water, sewer, etc. – we would spend about $300,000. We used a combination of sources, including the sale proceeds of the property, the sale of some additional gravel off the land for nearby road construction, town bonding and Economic Development Administration (EDA) grant, as well as capital investment by the Littleton Water and Light Department spending $95,000 to bring the water from their storage tank above the property directly to the Burndy property line. Burndy opened their doors in 1976, quickly grew to 125 local employees, and for the past decade have been employing approximately 200 area citizens with an enviable record of non-existent layoffs. (Burndy is now a French owned company – Framatone Connectors-Burndy Electrical).
With the first tenant in, LIDC felt more confident about being able to attract new business to the area and the Park. In fact, though, not much else happened until about 1981. We had one business in place, but we felt we now needed to let others know we had this resource; the park and its activities were simply not very visible. We needed some type of sign or other way of showing what we had and were accomplishing.
In 1981, Ken Grout retired to Littleton from Boston and started a small business making a product called After-Bite to treat bites from black flies and other insects. The business grew, and Grout eventually moved into office space in downtown Littleton. He also became a director of LIDC and was active in the Chamber. Eventually, Grout needed more space for his business and felt that his needs and a viable demonstration of the industrial park’s success could be accomplished simultaneously.
He bought two lots in the park that were visible from the adjacent I-93 interstate. He initially put up a 15,000-square-foot building and later added 12,000 square feet. We all felt this was the best “sign” in the Park: a visible, growing business. In addition to the prominent building, LIDC also erected a large, well designed sign for the park easily viewed from the busy interstate.
Following Grout’s arrival in the Industrial Park, LIDC purchased another 70 acres to expand the park’s capacity – called Phase II. With estimates of $740,000 to fully develop the Industrial Park, LIDC successfully applied to the EDA for a grant of $481,000, the FmHA for $16,000, and the town for $82,000 in funding. The three main street banks loaned LIDC the remaining $176,000.
Shortly thereafter, a developer from Plymouth purchased a 4-acre lot to put up a commercial building on speculation. The arrangement was to accept partial payment up front with other payments to be made as the developer sold or rented other bays in the building. As it turned out, he rented the additional space in six to eight months which resulted in a total fulfillment of the purchase agreement fairly quickly.
Additional buyers soon came along during the same period, including Schwan’s Sales Enterprises, which bought an acre and a half of land and constructed a 6,000-square-foot building. In 1986, Harrison Publishing House relocated from Sugar Hill and constructed a 15,000-square-foot building in the Industrial Park. Within a few years, LIDC paid off the original bank loan by selling property in the park.
In the late 1980s, Montgomery Wire from Connecticut decided to move to New Hampshire. They were looking for space in towns from Haverhill northward on both sides of the Connecticut River. They visited Littleton and purchased 15 acres and built an 85,000-square-foot building with approvals in place to expand to 105,000 square feet. Today Montgomery Wire employs nearly 100 area people locally.
As part of developing the Park to its full potential we had been working on a project to improve access in 1980. We funded the preliminary engineering studies with $5,000 of our own money and $15,000 from EDA. The early estimates of the improvement indicated that the land purchase and road building portion would cost about $900,000 and the replacement bridge (which would have been required with or without the park in place) might cost $1.2 million, with 95% of that cost qualifying for federal and state contributions. Initial engineering studies were required by the New Hampshire Department of Transportation and $103,000 was put forth, $50,000 from LIDC and $53,000 from the Town of Littleton.
It was decided that the access road would qualify for an EDA grant and therefore the total project was centralized under a $2.5 million access road, park expansion and improvement project. This is funded primarily with a $570,000 bond issue from the town, $350,000 Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds, an LIDC contribution of $50,000 and $1.5 million in EDA facility improvement and expansion funding with an additional small grant from FmHA.
This has been a major project for us and could not have been accomplished without the longstanding, patient and effective support of our congressional delegation in Washington and several governors, as well as the superlative cooperation of the NH Department of Transportation.
LIDC’s efforts and influence have not been restricted to expansion within the park. The shoe manufacturing buildings in town had been vacant since about 1979. In 1983, LIDC, in conjunction with a subcommittee of the Littleton Area Chamber of Commerce, established Industry Weekend. The committee invited over 100 New Hampshire corporations (and about five from Canada) to visit and be exposed to an in-depth review of our assets, with particular emphasis on our very large, loyal and available labor force. We had quality buildings existing and fully serviced land in our Industrial Park.
Only five companies came to visit, but one was Hitchiner Manufacturing from Milford, New Hampshire. Their vice president, Jack Noga, who often skied at Cannon Mountain, came and saw the very real potential in our vacant shoe plants and very low industrial power rates (approximately 35% less than other comparable communities serviced by Public Service of New Hampshire).
In April of 1984 the decision was made to open a plant in Littleton and on July 1st ribbons were being cut by former Governor Sherman Adams and then current Governor John Sununu. By 1990, Hitchiner Employment had grown to approximately 300 people.
The success with Hitchiner was not limited to only one location. In 1993, Hitchiner won a contract to produce golf clubs and automobile rocker arms. They bought the other vacant shoe plant in the area and hired in excess of 400 individuals during the calendar year 1994, bringing their total number of employees to 750.
LIDC was not through with its efforts to expand business in Littleton. A recent addition was Genfoot America, a Canadian company that opened operations here in Littleton. Under the direction of the then town manager and with the fantastic support of the Office of State Planning led by Jeff Taylor, Genfoot America, the Town of Littleton, and LIDC qualified for a CDBG grant for LIDC to purchase the building and to extend a $190,000 low interest loan to Genfoot America.
The rental income (and ultimate sale proceeds) of the building as well as the monthly payments on the $190,000 loan were funneled into a revolving loan fund which in turn will be available for further loans to area businesses.
An original condition for the CDBG availability to Genfoot was for them to hire 60 new employees of low- or moderate-income status within three years. By April, 1994, Genfoot America had hired 100 people, significantly exceeding all expectations.
In 1994 the Roadway Package Systems opened an 8,000-square- foot terminal and currently are well in excess of their business plan projections. They have sufficient land to double the size of their facility and currently have 12 employed.
During late 1994, LIDC cooperated with White Mountain Stitching, which employed 80 area residents scattered in three locations. LIDC participated in a land at the south end of the Industrial Park and White Mountain Stitching broke ground in March, 1995, on a 16,000-square-foot building with an expected expansion of employment to 120 based on a significant increase in operating efficiencies. They will use the historic red brick farm house as a sales and administrative office facility.
The Town of Littleton transferred 19.5 acres to LIDC at a special town meeting on December 18, 1997, for the purpose of allowing LIDC to negotiate directly with Littleton Coin Company. The transfer allowed Littleton Coin Company to initiate construction of a new 64,000-square-foot building, which was completed March, 1999. The building can be expanded to 110,000 square feet. Littleton Coin expects to further expand its existing 300 employee group to a projected 500 within five years.
A second building was the first phase of the Rotobec plant. Rotobec is a Canadian company that has had an expanding presence in Littleton growing to 3,000 square feet and five employees in a rented space. They purchased 3.5 acres in the Park, received their building permit and broke ground in the spring of 1998 on an initial 10,000-square-foot building with a location capability of expanding to 30,000 square feet. We expect to see their employment increase to 15-20 individuals.
A small Rhode Island machine shop company, Greenville Screw, was very desirous of locating in the Littleton Industrial Park. Their initial building is 6,000 square feet and employs 4 employees. They are very excited about the prospects of operating in Littleton, New Hampshire. In total there are now fourteen buildings employing in excess of 1,200 people every day. The property owners pay approximately $350,000 per year in taxes to the community (in excess of $3,500,000 since Burndy opened in 1976). We estimate that 1,000 individuals from Vermont work in the Littleton area each day!
McGoldrick also has some advice for other communities planning to consider an industrial park: Persistence. You need a volunteer group that is totally committed to the project, without any expectation of personal gain whatsoever. There will be many, many frustrations, and those involved in this effort should be prepared for a great deal of harsh, tough, even vitriolic criticism when things don’t go well at first.
An important element of LIDC’s success has always been the stability of the “core group” of 15-20 directors. We haven’t had much turnover in the basic core group over the years. That consistency and stability has been an important element in our success to date and will continue to be so as we move forward.