Lebanon City Officials Look to Host Next Tech Boom

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 11/21/2018 10:30:50 PM
Modified: 11/27/2018 3:41:27 PM

Lebanon — When City Manager Shaun Mulholland looks to Lebanon’s economic future, he sees a thriving high-tech hub that might someday be considered New Hampshire’s version of Silicon Valley.

Down the road from an Ivy League college and home to the state’s largest hospital system, Lebanon is perfectly situated to host the next technology boom, he said in an interview on Tuesday, but it will take a city willing to make the effort to make that vision a reality. And part of that effort would involve overcoming an obstacle that’s hampering companies that already are here: the regional housing shortage.

“This is the place for high-tech. This is where the brain trust is located,” Mulholland said. “Those are high-paying jobs that are beneficial to the city and, really, the Upper Valley.”

To attract new businesses, Mulholland is planning a multi-pronged effort that includes marketing the city to tech businesses and startups. He also is proposing the creation of a new group to help steer economic development.

When business leaders search for communities to move to, an internet search often identifies such places as Silicon Valley or Cambridge, Mass., Mulholland said. So the city is looking to promote itself in a way that draws interest to Lebanon.

Mulholland is exploring a pilot program through a three-month contract with Story Kitchen Creative, a company run by the same people who operate DailyUV, a privately owned website based in White River Junction that serves as a platform for bloggers. Story Kitchen would provide the city with four stories per month for a total of $3,300, according to emails obtained through a public records request.

Mulholland said he has discussed running the pilot by providing the money to the Lebanon Area Chamber of Commerce, but has yet to decide whether to move forward. The chamber is better situated to manage such a program because it represents the area business community, and its members know the city well, he said.

“I’m trying to tell the story of the Upper Valley in terms of what its high-tech capabilities are,” Mulholland said.

“It’s all sort of ‘selling the sizzle,’ as we say in the business,” said Rob Taylor, the chamber’s executive director. “What is it about Lebanon? What’s Lebanon got to offer (businesses)?”

Mulholland and Lebanon’s volunteer Economic Vitality Exchange Committee also are discussing the creation of a formal development commission, which would recommend where the city should make investments and guide development of private and city property. A draft charter for the potential nine-member group calls for it to develop a marketing plan and help create ways to develop the local economy.

There now are 18 businesses renting space at the Dartmouth Regional Technology Center, a nonprofit business incubator in Centerra Marketplace, a mixed-use development close to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and Dartmouth College. Many were started by Dartmouth graduates and professors, said Benoit Lamontagne, who sits on the center’s board of directors.

“There’s no doubt that high tech is certainly alive and well in the valley,” said Lamontagne, who also works as the North Country industrial agent at the New Hampshire Division of Economic Development.

Lebanon benefits from the state’s business climate, Lamontagne said, touting New Hampshire’s lack of an income or sales tax. But the tech community really grew from a cadre of Dartmouth graduates and professors who chose to stay, he said.

“I see a lot of young companies who are starting out and lots of them are a result of Dartmouth College,” Lamontagne said. “It’s wonderful seeing the flow (of new businesses) continuously growing here as time goes on.”

One of those companies is FreshAir Sensor, which makes a device that detects marijuana and tobacco smoke in non-smoking areas. The business was founded in 2013 by Tuck School of Business student Jack O’Toole and Dartmouth chemistry professor Joseph Belbruno and is headquartered in the technology center.

“From a business perspective, we love Lebanon and we love the Upper Valley,” said CEO Trip Davis, who also sits on the center’s board of directors. “It’s big enough to be able to build a certain type of business and it’s small enough from a personal and lifestyle perspective to be really enjoyable.”

FreshAir Sensor also benefits from a continuing relationship with the college, Davis said, noting that the company now is on its 41st intern from the school and has hired several of them for full-time positions.

The city also sees opportunity to build on the existing tech sector, perhaps drawing from companies in southern New Hampshire.

“The real focus is ARMI. We’re trying to attract that up here,” Mulholland said of the regenerative medicine program in the Manchester Millyard, a former textile mill district in New Hampshire’s largest city that has been revitalized.

The Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute, a nonprofit research center, was funded by an $80 million grant from the federal Department of Defense, along with an additional $200 million from other public and private partners, when it opened its doors last year.

State politicians — including Gov. Chris Sununu and Sens. Maggie Hassan and Jeanne Shaheen — have credited the initiative with bringing jobs to the Granite State and economic life back to the once-stagnant Millyard.

“I don’t want the Millyard to take all of that business,” Mulholland said, adding that Lebanon has its own biomedical and life science development in the works.

Developer David Clem is working alongside city officials to continue work on his 840,000-square-foot River Park project proposed for a 38-acre lot between Route 10 and the Connecticut River.

The developer has told the Lebanon Planning Board that he is in discussions with a “major international high-tech company” to lease 100 River Park, a 60,000-square-foot building slated to be built first. He also is proposing to move up construction of a 90,000-square-foot building that could be used similarly.

Mulholland said the city also is looking at options for unused land at the Lebanon Municipal Airport near where Novo Nordisk, a pharmaceutical company, and Hypertherm, a local manufacturer, have operations.

But big as Lebanon officials’ ambitions may be, there’s at least one economic factor that could hamper their efforts — the Upper Valley’s housing shortage. Experts estimate the region needs 5,000 additional housing units to meet the current demand alone.

“That’s the Achilles heel: Right now I don’t have enough room for people to live,” Mulholland said. “That’s a city problem that I have to address, the city government has to address.”

Davis, the FreshAir Sensor CEO, expressed similar concerns, saying that thriving businesses require a deep talent pool, housing and transportation.

While the Upper Valley has plenty of professionals in academia and health care, he said, it might not have enough people to work as senior executives, technicians and support staff to support a large company.

And while the Lebanon Municipal Airport offers flights to Boston and New York, it’s not the full-service facility that many entrepreneurs need, Davis said.

“And a lot of people know that’s a compromise,” he said. “You’re going to be on the road to those (large) airports a lot.”

Still, Assistant Mayor Tim McNamara said he sees promise in Mulholland’s high-tech push.

“I think it’s a great initiative and I think that the way these things seem to work is that a few successful businesses of a type tend to spawn more successful businesses of the same type,” he said. “There’s just so much potential here for the economy to continue to be healthy, to continue to evolve into a future that provides jobs for people who are here now.”

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.

Correction

Jack O’Toole, the co-founder of Lebanon company FreshAir Sensor,  graduated from Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business. An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified what school O’Toole attended.




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