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Littleton Chamber hosts virtual economic summit



LRCCBIZLEADER
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Coffee Pot owner Jean McKenna became the 2020 Raymond S. Burton Business Leader of the Year at last week's Economic Summit, hosted by the Littleton Regional Chamber of Commerce. (Courtesy Photo) (click for larger version)
December 02, 2020
LITTLETON — In stark contrast to previous economic summits, this year's Littleton Regional Chamber gathering was a virtual affair. Nevertheless, it was full of positivity and Coffee Pot owner Jean McKenna was named Business Leader of the Year.

While last year's event showcased educational advancements through the region, the common theme at last week's online summit was one of resilience through the pandemic. During his opening statement, LRCC President Bill Jolly said, "2020 has been a rough year for all of us. The economic climate continues to be fluid and dynamic. Just as we've done in the past, we are adapting and while our mettle is being tested, we continue to demonstrate incredible strength."

Several industry leaders reported a strong year, despite the fluctuating climate. Littleton Industrial Development President Greg Eastman said that LIDC businesses maintained adaptability and flexibility to remain operational.

The Littleton Coin Company maintained employment levels and the Appalachian Stitching Company produced more than 750,000 medical masks throughout the year. Both companies were able to hire new employees as well.

Similarly, Gen Foot seeks additional employees and Burndy invested in automation equipment to meet demands amid labor shortages. Construction on a 42-acre industrial park expansion began over the summer.

Littleton River District Commission Chair John Hennessey reported a successful investment of 60 percent towards the multi-million dollar River District development project, with only 20 percent of the funds coming from Littleton taxpayers. A new pedestrian and bicycle bridge was completed, as well as traffic and parking improvements on Saranac Street.

Hennessey also noted that the River District development project added 120 new jobs to the town. Three million dollars of private investment in the district decreased taxpayer burden, he said. Future projects include completing the rail trail and the Riverfront Commons area on Riverglen Lane and a significant sidewalk project on Cottage Street.

Though difficult, 2020 brought a strong but thin real estate market with few houses but strong land sales, noted Peabody and Smith broker Andy Smith.

"It isn't on the demand side. It's inventory. Many people have not felt safe putting their houses on the market, so we don't have a lot of new homes. When they do come on, they don't stay on the market for very long," he said.

Woodsville Guaranty Saving Bank Vice-President Dan Stannard said bank deposits had increased by $69.5 million nationwide due in part to the various stimulus programs offered through the pandemic.

"There will be a lot of power in the economy when it starts being used. It's a lot of fuel sitting in deposit accounts in our local banks that can provide safety for businesses and individuals," he stated.

Town Manager Andrew Dorsett said consumer data analytics and behaviors on Main Street showed that Littleton was a far stronger regional hub than realized. He noted that stabilizing the tax rate and keeping up with the infrastructure demands needed for growth were top priorities.

Dorsett said, "Five years ago, we didn't have any capital reserves. We didn't set aside money. We just lived on deck, which didn't create spikes or drops in the tax rate."

The town official continued, "To plan well and spend the money right, we've planned out all of our purchases at least ten years out. We've started to coordinate with the schools and other entities to make sure that we're not all asking the taxpayers for the same thing at the same time."

LRCC Board President Bill Jolly provided an organizational update for Chamber members. Financial difficulties earlier this year led the LRCC Board to make drastic cuts, including the termination of Executive Director Nathan Karol.

"The COVID situation affected us in a way that we could never have imagined. When it came to the table, there was already some financial distress, but it was manageable and we were developing a plan for emerging from that distress. We've put ourselves in a position where we can now operate with confidence," said Jolly.

According to Jolly, the Chamber's mission statement was dismantled and revised to hold deeper relevance for the community. He said, "We want to make sure that the North Country thrives, even for people that don't work for our member organizations. We want a good, vibrant community."

Jolly said the Chamber planned to focus on increased membership and event expansion.

He said, "We're going to focus on bringing back the live events and adding new events to make working and playing in the Littleton area more enjoyable."

Coffee Pot owner Jean McKenna was awarded the Raymond S. Burton Business Leader of the Year Award for 2020. Earlier this year, her cafe celebrated its 40th anniversary.

Over the years, there have been numerous awards and programs named after Burton. A timeless and iconic figure in the North Country for several decades, Burton first served as the District One representative on the Executive Council from 1977 to 1979. After a two-year break, he returned to the position in 1981. He remained there until shortly before his passing in 2013, marking him the longest-serving Executive Councilor in the state's history.

The Littleton Area Chamber of Commerce's Business Leader of the Year award extends further back in time before being named in Burton's honor. He was a recipient of the award himself in 2006.

McKenna said, "I was totally taken aback and did not expect it. Surprises come in all shapes and sizes, and you can wait 40 years for it."

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