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UNH report on Bethlehem businesses shows strong demographics but lack of coordination


September 05, 2018
BETHLEHEM — A just-released report from the University of New Hampshire Extension Service highlights the prides, problems, and potential of Bethlehem's business ecosystem.

Of Bethlehem's more than 100 businesses, 29 took part in the yearlong survey project.

Bethlehem is fortunate to have a growing population which is getting younger at an appreciable pace: the town grew by two percent since 2010, while median age decreased by 3.6 percent. By those measures, Bethlehem beat both Grafton County and New Hampshire, both of whose population is growing more slowly, and which aged by five percent over the same interval. The Extension Service believes that this movement toward youth is due to new arrivals.

On the other hand, Bethlehem's average income is significantly less than Grafton County, and a poverty level of 15.9 percent (compared to 11.7 pc countywide).

As a rule, Bethlehem businesses who participated in the study are dominated by the hospitality industry, and are deeply rooted: most have operated for a decade, and most began their business in Bethlehem. Two thirds of businesses surveyed said they planned to expand in the next two years.

However, unemployment is extremely low, like the rest of the state and country, and there is a need for additional housing and childcare opportunities to support young, working families.

When it comes to recruiting employees, businesses identified "poor work attitudes," "competition for employees," and "inadequate labor skills" and "wage rates" as top challenges. These problems are consistent with a tight labor market and humming economy.

Recreational and cultural resources are Bethlehem's great strengths, and can be given much credit for attracting young families to the area, in violation of regional trends.

While Bethlehem has no local Chamber of Commerce, it currently enjoys a great diversity of economic organizations, and many local businesses are members of the Littleton Area Chamber. However, this means there is a lack of coordination between businesses. Four in ten businesses surveyed said they did not have a written business plan.

High-quality Internet access is generally available for businesses, but lacking in residential areas. Cellular service is widely seen as inadequate by both groups.

Bethlehem's economy may benefit disproportionately from tourism and hospitality, but its labor market and advertising are locally rooted: businesses identified arts and cultural activities, community atmosphere, and festivals and events as key to their marketing efforts, and "word of mouth" was ranked the most common way to find new employees.

Of a list of 100 community factors, businesses ranked the Fire and Police Departments as #1 and #2, with recreational opportunities at #3.

"Chamber of Commerce" and "economic development authority" came in dead last, which reinforces the idea that Bethlehem's greatest economic weakness is a lack of institutional coordination.

University of New Hampshire Extension Service runs its Business Retention and Expansion Program for the purpose of promoting understanding and action on local economic strength and resilience.

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