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December 9, 2020

Gateway to the good life

Ask any resident of Nashua how far it is to the Massachusetts border. "We’re ON it," comes the quick reply.

Not only that. They’ll quickly add that the Pheasant Lane Mall - the biggest in New Hampshire, by the way - shaves the state line, and the parking lot is in Massachusetts. What the proud Nashuan is really telling you is that the mall draws Bay Staters from south of the border because there is no sales tax in New Hampshire.

In this state renowned for clinging to that old-fashioned idea of independence, the motto, "Tax-free or die" is almost as apropos as the original "Live free or die" coined by New Hampshire Revolutionary
War hero John Stark.

More than two centuries later, and in spite of high property taxes, New Hampshire still basks in the lowest individual tax burden of all 50 states and DC as well.

This could change. Legislative money rumblings seem to be getting louder, and there is clamoring for state funds to build stronger social safety nets. But for now, local and out-of-state shoppers not only get off tax-free at the cash register, but residents are also free from state income and capital gains levies.

The payoff of a low-tax policy, explains Nashua Mayor Bernard Streeter, is a business bonanza for merchants that rubs off on the rest of the local economy, too.

It took more than a penchant for independence and low taxes to attract the attention of Money magazine, though. Based on extensive reader polls, the publication cited Nashua as the best place to live in America in 1987 and again in 1997. It is the only US city to be so honored twice. The reader voters considered such criteria as the economy, crime rates, health care, housing costs/availability, quality of education, leisure opportunities, the arts, transportation, and the weather.

If there were a gold medal for economic rebounds, Nashua might win that, too. Since its at-first wildly lucrative textile mills shut down for good in 1948, the city has picked itself up from economic
disaster twice, each time moving on to greater prosperity.

Local fare

Tax-free and prosperous are two compelling attributes, but there’s a third: "You could sum up Nashua by saying ’location, location, location,’" says Anne Willey, a long-time Chamber of Commerce employee. "We are 36 miles north of Boston. We are an hour from the seacoast. And we are about an hour-and-a-half from the White Mountain Region."

With a nickname like the Gate City, it’s not surprising that everyone seems smitten with Nashua’s proximity to New England amenities, from the mayor to a merchant, an artist, a CEO, and a dozen
physicians. But some, like Willey, go on to rave about such closer-to-home delights as historic homes, white spires, pick-yourown berry farms and fruit orchards, natural wonders such as dramatic
Purgatory Falls, serene covered bridges, leafy colorlands in fall, and such downhome pleasures as soccer and softball games after work.

For Pierre Dionne, MD, a dedicated softball player himself, and Jeffrey Brown, MD the big excitement is Nashua Pride, the city’s minor league baseball team. Brown’s elation over the team’s short-lived
addition of Major League slugger José Canseco has been contagious.

Streeter reports that the 15,000-seat Holman Stadium is in the middle of a $4.4 million  renovation - with sky boxes - that should have a 20-year impact of $35 million on the city’s economy.

In the meantime, a once-lugubrious downtown has come back up in lights as a leisure heaven with art galleries, outdoor cafes, and gourmet restaurants. The streets especially fill up with people at a
number of events, such as the Victorian Christmas tree lighting and candlelight stroll, Downtown Spring Awakening, and Thursday Night Street Life. Taste of Downtown, another popular festival, is
music mixed with bites and sips from the nearby bistros.

Downtown has a music, dance, and drama scene that can catch newcomers off guard, especially if their ideas of fine performing arts boil down to that potent six-letter word: Boston. Nashua boasts a 65-member professional symphony, a 125- member choral society, a chamber orchestra, a resident ballet company, and even the Nashua Flute Choir - 16 performers who delight audiences with four kinds of flutes and piccolo. The Community Concert Association books national talent, as does the American Stage Festival, and a local group, the Actorsingers, produces Broadway musicals.

If culture is a plus, nature’s magic is a must for outdoor lovers in the 11 cities comprising Greater Nashua. One such outdoorsperson is Cynthia Rasmussen, MD, a gynecologist who, in a previous life, spent summers leading wilderness canoe trips. "There are so many natural resources at our fingertips," she says. The great outdoors is all part of an almost taken-for-granted New Hampshire lifestyle, including 6,000 miles of trails and 43 state parks where crystalclear lakes fill in gaps between thick forests and towering mountains.

A 20-year New England resident who earned her medical degree from the Medical College of Pennsylvania, Rasmussen admits New Hampshire was as far from home as she could lure her Maine-bred husband, but that’s fine with her. "I think New England has a certain character not found in other places. It’s a little rough around the edges, but I like that."

In spite of the fact that the weather received one of the lowest scores in the Money survey, most of Nashua’s residents either go with it or live with it. Rasmussen embraces the climate, no matter the season. "My outdoor activities are canoeing, kayaking, mountain climbing, hiking, outdoor paintball, camping, bicycling, crosscountry and downhill skiing, snowshoeing, ice skating, tubing," she says. "And that’s just this year so far."

Linda Sheldon, MD, says she found it "hard to get accustomed" to the winter cold after two years of medical school in the Caribbean. "I’m not particularly interested in winter sports," she adds, "but I do mind the light deprivation" of the shorter days in December, January, and February.

Points for health

Although Nashua’s proximity to outdoor glories and metropolis amenities earned big points from Money, Nashua itself scored at the genius level for its economy, low crime rate (second lowest in the US based on FBI figures), arts opportunities, and health care. That was in 1997. Last year, New Hampshire received the Healthiest State awards from two prestigious organizations: UnitedHealth Group and Morgan Quitno Press, publishers of statistical analyses on state and city rankings in such areas as crime and health care.

Two Nashua hospitals, each with about 350 affiliated doctors, have been major contributors in promoting hale and hearty state residents. One of them, St. Joseph Hospital, was the first recipient in 1995 of the New Hampshire Quality Award. Southern New Hampshire Medical Center (SNHMC) was
the first hospital in the state to be designated as a Level II trauma center.

With a strong competitive spirit to match New Hampshire’s self-reliant image, the two institutions seem ultra-tuned to 21st-century diagnostic techniques and innovative procedures, such as stereotactic breast biopsies and water birthing. SNHMC has the only neonatal ICU in southern New Hampshire.

St. Joseph has the region’s only comprehensive center for complete breast health, one of four "centers of excellence." The Childbirth Center covers the gamut from pregnancy classes to lactation consultation, and has an affiliation with a newborn intensive care facility in Manchester. Its Oncology Center and Cardiovascular Center extend their capabilities with other area partnerships.

"We provide whatever kinds of care the patients want," says family practitioner Dionne, a second-generation physician whose father opened a practice here in 1964.

Boston ties

Since they’re practically in the shadow of world-renowned Boston clinics, you might expect New Hampshire practitioners to cower before the competition. Au contraire, as the area’s many residents of French- Canadian ancestry might say. Better to join than fight.

Each hospital has a myriad of partnerships, affiliations, and co-op agreements with such renowned institutions as the Lahey Clinic, Children’s Hospital, Dana- Farber/Partners CancerCare, Spaulding
Rehabilitation Hospital Network, Massachusetts General, and Brigham and Women’s Hospitals in Boston, plus heart surgery relationships with Catholic Medical Center in nearby Manchester and
Dartmouth-Hitchcock Children’s Hospital in Lebanon, New Hampshire.

Michael J. Valuk, Nashua’s Chamber of Commerce president says, "We’ve always used Boston as complementary rather than competitive, but no matter how you cut it, it’s a pain in the neck for patients and their families to get to Boston, starting with having to get up at 4 am for morning procedures. That’s a powerful argument to do everything here but the really esoteric procedures.

"We’re flanked on two sides with what anyone would consider as world-renowned medical centers," he adds, "but that’s no argument as to why we shouldn’t have worldclass care locally, so long as the economics and outcomes are positive."

Sometimes Boston care comes to Nashua. On the flip side, according to Dionne, "We have specialists come from the Boston area to deliver care to our patients, such as pediatric cardiology and gastroenterology. And we get referrals from the Lahey Clinic and others because they want a relationship with a family practice."

Before coming to Nashua last year, Sheldon had learned "there’s a large population segment that thinks if it’s going to be done right it’s going to be done in a Boston hospital. I don’t think I was too surprised at
the quality of the hospitals here, but I was still impressed."

Her patients may have been more surprised at Sheldon’s own career twists. At age 40 she was a top financial services executive in Boston. Then, she recalls, "I began wondering, ’If I’m going to have to work hard anyway, where do I want to put my time and energy?’" She and her engineer husband sold their house, moved to Grenada, where she spent two years in medical school, followed by clinical rotations and residency in Paterson, New Jersey. Now she’s a new internist at age 51.

Several Nashua physicians are "fugitives" from the hectic Boston scene - for more than low-tax reasons. But Sheldon is actually a dissenter on the tax issue. She has chosen to live over the border in Tyngsboro, Massachusetts, partly because it’s an easier trip to Boston for her husband, who rides
the commuter rail line from Lowell. But she believes that insistence on low taxes is crippling New Hampshire’s ability to provide needed services.

"I call New Hampshire the live free AND die state," she says. "I’m more sympathetic with the politics in Massachusetts. We’re definitely more liberal, and there are more safety nets and social services. In Nashua, for instance, when I’m looking for mental health services for patients who might be severely depressed, I can’t find somewhere to go. In Massachusetts they’d have a better chance."

It’s all relative, according to Jeffrey Brown. He’s a general surgeon who came to Nashua from  Philadelphia last year with his internist wife, Lisa Scheib. "I’m seeing far fewer social issues than I saw
in Philadelphia," he says. "Whatever comes through the door we take care of. And if someone is uninsured it doesn’t affect what we do, but that’s not a majority of our cases."

"It’s a struggle every year to get state legislators to okay measures for children’s health and fund them," notes Emory Kaplan, MD, a pediatrician who first came to Nashua on a medical school rotation from Tufts University and has been in practice here since 1977. "But somehow the money does come through," he adds.

It’s no small accomplishment, he points out, that New Hampshire has one of the highest child immunization rates in the US, as well as one of the lowest infant mortality rates. He also lauds hospital staffs for energetic efforts to enroll uninsured area children in the CHIP program supported by a
cooperative federal-state funding system.

Economic roller coaster

Philosophical differences in this area go back a long way, but from Nashua’s very beginnings in the 1670s, settlers found nearness to Massachusetts more of a help than a hindrance. They may have been dissidents escaping stern Puritan rule, but without Massachusetts militiamen close enough to fight off attacking Indians, the New Hampshire breakaways would probably have died in their efforts to live free.

Even that big-brother nearness wasn’t a foolproof line of defense, as the fledgling population of Nashua learned the hard way in 1711. That year only 13 families  in the town, then known as Dunstable,
survived the ravages of Indian battles. Border disputes with Bay Staters followed but were finally settled in 1741. In 1837 the town was finally chartered with the name Nashua.

More than a decade earlier, the area’s first round of entrepreneurs had ushered in the city’s prosperity as a textile center by harnessing water power from the nearby Mine Falls of the Nashua River. Soon the whole Merrimack Valley of southern New Hampshire was the heartbeat of the state’s industry. It still is, but only after recovering from two devastating economic downturns and business restructuring. (The valley covers the area drained by the Nashua and Merrimack Rivers and includes Manchester,
the state’s largest city.)

At its productivity peak, Nashua’s mills produced millions of yards of cotton a year. Once again, nearness to Massachusetts was a plus. The Middlesex Canal, built in 1804, could be called Nashua’s original gateway to prosperity. It created direct access to the Boston markets. Although an interstate
highway carried the goods southward in the 20th Century, the proximity to Boston is still a key economic factor, according to city economic developer Roger Hawk.

In 1826, owners of the Nashua Manufacturing Company planned and built one of the first "company towns" for their textile workers complete with homes, stores, a schoolhouse, and a church. This
made Nashua, according to city planner Alan Manoian, the birthplace of American urbanism.

The downside: It was essentially a one-industry town, subject to market fluctuations and crippling onslaughts from southern competitors who could produce cheaper goods because of lower labor costs. It took more than a century for the dark clouds to pile up, but they were heavy on the horizon when mills in two nearby cities abruptly closed in 1935.

In Nashua, the rain didn’t fall until 1948. Some say that what happened then was "a great moment in New Hampshire history." It was the stuff movies are made of.

Within hours of the mill’s closing, the mayor appointed a committee to deal with the crisis. Hardly another gallon of water had rushed down the river before the city offered to buy the old mill build
ings. The owner made it easy. He agreed to hold the mortgage rather than demand cash on the line.

According to Valuk, this is how the story goes: "The Nashua Foundation (formed by Mayor Hugh Gregg, a potent name throughout the state) more than anything effectively held out the shingle.
At that time other cities didn’t understand the concept of advertising your community. This was the visionary element that Mayor Gregg captured in his actions. In development, the whole idea is projection and image building."

Soon the city was leasing space to a variety of new industries, and Nashua was on its way to Prosperity, Round Two.

P.S. The ten-year mortgage on the mill buildings was paid off in a year and a half.

You could say the 1987 Money magazine kudo was a curse of sorts. Soon afterward the city went into a coma, courtesy of national events and a local spinoff that included soaring real estate prices, which had led to overbuilding financed by bank loans that went sour when developers couldn’t rent the new office space. Major companies attracted after the 1948 debacle began cutting jobs. As one observer pointed out, ’downsizing’ became a household word.

"The good news," says Valuk, "was that it cut loose a ton of technical people who seeded the economy for the future."

A new business council, the Center for Economic Development, helped this new generation of entrepreneurs get started. Today, small companies formed by engineers and software developers are mainstays of Merrimack Valley industry, complementing several big companies like the former
Sanders Associates, Inc., started after the 1948 crunch by Royden C. Sanders, Jr., and now a business unit of BAE SYSTEMS. The company designs and manufactures electronic systems for military applications and employs about 3,700 in Nashua.

Altogether, according to Mayor Streeter, the Merrimack Valley region is speckled with more than 600 high-tech firms. "We’re being referred to as the Silicon Valley of the East," he says. In 1996, the state counted 22,000 high-tech employees in the Merrimack Valley, twice as many as any other region in New Hampshire.

Although its unemployment rate has edged up to 3.6 per cent (in 1984 it was 2.9 per cent, lowest in the country), the city of Nashua is home to some 350 businesses. In the 1990s, if not before, the city became dedicated to diversity, now boasting a solid range of companies from the massive division
of an investments management company, a huge full-service landscaping business, and a golf course enterprise to an elevator company and a manufacturer of aviation and medical diagnostic  instruments. Oracle Corporation, the world’s second largest independent software producer, has a large presence with a total of 42,900 employees.

In 1995, John Koutsos moved the shoe store opened 57 years before by his grandfather to the heart of downtown. It was an inspired entrepreneurial idea, as was Koutsos’ decision to stick with tried-andtrue
merchandising techniques. "We’re kind of old-fashioned," he says. "We don’t complicate (our business) with fluff, and we don’t try to razzle-dazzle anyone. We give good service with reasonable prices
and an extensive selection." It worked for him. Today, Alec’s Shoes is one of the largest of its kind in New England. And in 2000 Koutsos was named New Hampshire retailer of the year.

In another flash of ingenuity, Luc Charpentier, who owned a legendary restaurant, The Green Ridge Turkey Farm, which operated on a large parcel of farmland, realized it was time to change gears. Capitalizing on his large farm property, he built a retail strip that rapidly filled with stores. On the restaurant site he built a 35,000-square-foot Barnes & Noble store that he kept for himself. These days Charpentier is still pinching himself over the many-times-multiplied profits he’s generated.

William Wetzel, a founder of the state’s High Technology Council, might have been thinking of both men as well as the techies when he recently explained the reasons for today’s Merrimack Valley boom. When it comes to start-up businesses, he remarked, especially the knowledge-based ventures that are the hallmark of New Hampshire, "we have what it takes in spades - a critical mass of knowledge-generating institutions, skilled labor, a pervasive learning ethic, selfreliance, hard work, individual initiative, quality of life, and access to high-risk venture financing."

That spirit seems to have superimposed itself on Nashua’s hospitals as well. "I interviewed at practices where they were stuck in the same rut for 10 years. In Nashua there’s a real commitment by members of the hospital staff to remain on the cutting edge," says Rasmussen. "We’ll go back and get extra training and make capital budget expenditures to get the needed equipment. We are determined not to get left behind."

Eileen Lockwood is a free-lance writer based in St. Joseph, Missouri. This is her second community profile for

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