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Could Londonderry be the Next Pease?
Published Tuesday, December 31, 2013

For generations, Londonderry’s best-known attributes have been its rolling apple orchards, its nationally recognized high school marching band, and its quiet cul-de-sacs within commuting distance to Boston. But that’s about to change.

This unassuming bedroom community of about 25,000 residents is poised to become an economic powerhouse. There are now three economic development projects underway, one of which could rival and even surpass Pease International Tradeport in Portsmouth, considered the gold standard for economic development in NH.

The three areas slated for development are the $12.5 million Pettengill Road project; several parcels along Route 28 near Exit 5 earmarked for retail, commercial, and workforce housing ventures; and Woodmont Commons, a $1 billion, 603-acre project straddling I-93 and bordered by Pillsbury and Gilcreast roads on the east side of town. Together they have the potential to bring upwards of 15,000 new jobs to the area during the next decade—about twice the employment at Pease. These developments would also bring a bevy of new businesses, housing options, and a massive commercial venture near Manchester-Boston Regional Airport.

“This will be the major growth generator in southern New Hampshire,” says Russ Thibeault, president of Applied Economic Research in Laconia, of the airport-area development known as the Pettengill Road project. Applied Economic Research was commissioned to examine the project’s potential economic impact. “Londonderry is hot right now. I can’t think of another community that has the kind of opportunities—and challenges—that Londonderry has,” he says.

Location, Location, Location

In the real estate world, Londonderry sits on a gold mine. Situated off Interstate 93 just south of Manchester, Londonderry boasts a number of business-friendly features: close proximity to Massachusetts, easy access to major highways, sizable parcels of undeveloped land, and a well-educated workforce—not to mention the airport, two-thirds of which lies within the town’s borders.

 “You might have seen these kind of development possibilities in southern New Hampshire 20 years ago, but not now,” says Michael Bergeron, a business development manager at the NH Department of Resources and Economic Development. “Londonderry has one of the few developable areas remaining along I-93,” he says. “And that makes it very attractive to potential out-of-state businesses.”

Together, the three developments will create new job opportunities, spur growth, and attract new residents, says Cynthia May, Londonderry’s town planner. “We are poised for tremendous economic growth. It’s going to be a pretty diverse community in the future.”

The Next Pease?

The Pettengill Road project is the largest of the three development areas, spanning about 800 acres of relatively flat, undeveloped land between Industrial Drive and the new access road—Raymond Wieczorek Drive—just south of the airport.

“Before, the regional access was mediocre. But that access road was a major catalyst, and now Pettengill is the prime nonresidential development opportunity in New Hampshire, if not Northern New England,” Thibeault says. “It definitely looks like it could be the next Pease. It could potentially change the town forever.”

A former Air Force base, Pease is now a thriving business park including hotels, restaurants, banks, retailers, and medical facilities—even a golf course. In Londonderry, such an operation could generate $200 million to $300 million in assessed value, and $6.5 to $7.5 million in net annual property taxes, according to Thibeault’s report.

Though town officials and developers have discussed for more than a decade the idea of developing the land, road access was an issue. Then in late 2011 the new access road opened, connecting the area to the Everett Turnpike and making I-93 easier to reach.

One more road still needs to be built to make the Pettengill parcels fully accessible. The $12.5 million project would include a four-lane road and sewer extensions. The road now ends at Industrial Drive and needs to be connected to the new access road. The town has applied for an $8.2 million federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant to help cover the cost and expects to hear back soon, May says. In the meantime, the town is considering a special tax increment financing district and other options to help pay for the road.

But the biggest piece of the puzzle—Raymond Wieczorek Drive—is finally in place. The 1.75-mile road was built to connect commuters from areas around Merrimack, Bedford, and Nashua with I-93, and to make it easier for large trucks traveling to and from the airport to avoid the congested Brown Avenue and South Willow Street. The $175 million project included two interchanges, two roundabouts, seven bridges, and a multi-use path, and finally made it possible to access the parcels near Pettengill Road.

A New Community

While the Pettengill Road project aims at attracting industry,  Woodmont Commons is focused on community—specifically, driving economic growth by creating a unique development to draw both new businesses and new residents. Woodmont Commons will include housing, boutiques, restaurants, and other businesses, allowing residents to live and work in one walkable, village-style community encompassing 603 acres.

The area, which will be developed in phases by Pillsbury Realty Development in Londonderry during the next 20 years, will include retail space, restaurants, offices and other businesses, a mix of condos, apartments and single-family homes, and plenty of open space. Phase One will include building out the commercial plaza along Route 102 near Market Basket as well as improvements and changes to the traffic infrastructure along Route 102 and Pillsbury and Gilcreast roads.

The town gave the green light to the Woodmont Commons master plan in October. May says she expects the first proposals for parcels within the development to come before the planning board early next year. She is also optimistic it will help attract more young people.

“Young people out of school are looking for more vibrant, active communities. Now there’s going to be something for those people who want to live in a more active community rather than traditional neighborhoods with streets and cul-de-sacs,” says May.

Route 28 and Exit 5

Development is slowly taking shape along Route 28 near Exit 5 in North Londonderry. Construction on a new workforce housing project called Wallace Farm is expected to take place during the next two years on Perkins Road, while several other commercially zoned parcels are for sale, including 43 acres along Rockingham Road, May says. Wallace Farm will include 240 units in an eight-building complex, with half the units priced at market rate and half at a lower workforce rate.

While traffic snarls at Exit 5 previously dissuaded potential developers, the exit overhaul in progress makes the area more attractive, said Giovanni Verani, vice president of Prudential Verani Realty in Londonderry, the marketing agent representing the 43-acre parcel. “This is an awesome location, right off the highway, right near the Park and Ride,” he says. “I think in the next five to 10 years, maybe 15 years, Route 28 is going to have a completely different complexion.”

Growing Pains

The fact that Londonderry has three areas on the verge of significant development at the same time is due more to coincidence than design—Pettengill has been in the works for a decade, Woodmont and Route 28 for more than three. The town has prioritized economic development in recent years, May says. Londonderry rezoned all three areas to allow more flexibility in how land is used and to make it more attractive to businesses. Londonderry continues to introduce more business-friendly zoning in other parts of town and adopted a master plan last year to help guide decisions and dictate how the town will grow.

Access, though, remains an issue. The full development of Woodmont Commons depended on the construction of a new exit, 4A, a project the state tabled because of the estimated $24 million to $30 million price tag. The exit would have allowed for a large development project, such as hotels, hospitals, or entertainment complexes. While developers and town officials are still hopeful that the exit will be created, developers have already scaled back the project to smaller retail centers and more residential options rather than some of the larger ventures.

Another challenge is residents, some of whom have voiced concerns about the effect of development on traffic, quality of life, and the town’s rural character. “I love the apple orchards. Those trees are who we are,” says Mary Tetreau, a resident who recently led an effort to save some of the apple trees slated to be razed as part of the Woodmont Commons development. “I support economic development, but I don’t want us to lose sight of who we are and where we came from.”

Still, if the town can successfully navigate the challenges, the payoff may be enormous, Bergeron says. “Only Londonderry has this kind of potential,” he says. “There’s a lot of interest in this town.”

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