Greater Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce

Greater Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce

Portsmouth, NH

Brian Groth

Contributing Writer

Halfway between Boston, MA and Portland, ME, where the Piscataqua River meets the Atlantic Ocean, sits the City of Portsmouth, NH. Having the makings of a natural harbor, Portsmouth was settled in the 1600’s and flourished as an ideal location for trade, fishing, and shipbuilding in the colonial and post-revolutionary eras. As the Industrial Revolution ushered in the expansion of mill towns further inland, Portsmouth’s growth slowed, but remained an important fixture for the military.

Beginning in the 1950’s, Portsmouth was home to Pease Air Force Base, but was slated for closure in the late 1980’s. Since it’s closure, the city and other visionaries have worked tirelessly to redevelop the site as a major employment center, Pease Tradeport. As a result, industry is once again capitalizing on the advantageous location and quality-of-life found in Portsmouth, breathing new life into this historic city.

Today, its evolution has reached new heights. Portsmouth is a popular destination for business and culture, and continues to strengthen its position as an idyllic place to live, work, and play.

In 2016, National Geographic dubbed Portsmouth “the best small town in the USA”. Imagine a quintessential coastal New England town: brick and tree-lined sidewalks, tugboats bobbing in the harbor, architectural craftsmanship that harks back to a different era, the smell of the salty sea air, and the hubbub of singing voices echoing from a corner pub—that is downtown Portsmouth.

It boasts an impressive swath of culinary options and world-renowned chefs. It is an international hotspot of craft-brewing. The arts are alive and well, fostered by theaters, galleries, performance venues, film festivals, and craft co-ops. Summer concerts and seafood festivals highlight a long list of public events held at Prescott Park, a historic, seaside park downtown. A system of parks provide recreation throughout its neighborhoods. To put it plainly, Portsmouth embodies the new American dream of a balanced, high-quality lifestyle, flush with economic, social, cultural, and recreational opportunity.

But it wasn’t always this way.

“Growing up in North Andover, MA, we were never allowed to go to Portsmouth. It was not a place where young ladies went, period. You didn't go there,” reflects Valerie Rochon, President of the Greater Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce.

“When [Pease AFB] closed and they were looking for new development, Portsmouth could have died, but I credit the city, [City Manager] John Bohenko, his predecessor, Dave Mullen of Pease Tradeport, Renee and Dan Plummer of Two International Group, the folks who had vision; the vision to develop Pease Tradeport and turn it into the bustling, vibrant area that it is [today].” Still, with greater geographical mobility than before, today’s workforce wants not only a job, but also a desirable place to live and raise a family.

“Now part of that [success with Pease Tradeport] is because [we] also had a city attached to it, that is beautiful and has quality of life; a vibrant city of restaurants and things to do. You could think about moving your family here because you have good schools, you have a vibrant community.”

And so the quality of life in Portsmouth is the yin to the yang of its job opportunities. Rochon explains, “The synergy between the community, the tourism and hospitality industry, and the ability to bring in employers of other industries—that synergy is beautiful. It took a lot of really high level planning. It would never have grown the way it did without leadership and vision, and they continue to do that.”

It begs the question, then, with so many things going right, what challenges face GPCC? In short, adapting to the digital landscape.

“We need to communicate better, electronically,” says Rochon. And not only communication, but content and programs also need an update. In the 80’s, seminars such as The State of the State, which is attended by the governor, would attract well over 100 people. These days, even with membership over 750, the same event draws around 75 people. Educational seminars, breakfast forums, and other programs have also seen a decline in attendance. Rochon and her team believe this is due, in part, to the nature of the digital age.

“People are getting their information in so many different ways. It used to be the only way you could find out, speak to the governor, or learn what the governor was doing was to go to The State of the State (a chamber event). Well, now you can find out what the governor is doing anytime of the day or night by going online. People are getting information and news in so many ways, they don't need to go to a meeting.”

This phenomenon is analogous to that of the plight of brick-and-mortar retail locations in the face of e-commerce. The difference here, though, is that businesses aren't necessarily getting the information and resources they would’ve otherwise gained at a meeting. So how do you get people to actually attend meetings?

“Well, first of all, you decide whether they should be. Should they be attending meetings, or should they be having webinars so people can, on their lunch hour, dial in and listen to the governor on a webinar? What should we be doing to get the people information they need and want in a way that they can ‘claim’ it?”

Rochon points out that the travel time associated with attending a meeting can leave information “unclaimed”. “If I have a busy day I don't want to waste twenty minutes. So if you can service a webinar to me when I eat my salad at my desk, which I'm going to do anyhow at lunch—cool!” says Rochon.

“But is it a webinar that I want to attend? I don't know. So, that’s the thing. How do we learn what people want to know, what they need help with, what’s of interest to them, and how do we deliver it in a way that makes them happy? And that’s got to include a lot more digital than what we’re doing.”

GPCC’s approach to answering these questions is in a community-driven comprehensive strategic planning process, Mission Forward. The goal is to “revolutionize the organization, creating new opportunities for engagement by a broader group of community businesses with present and future business leaders.” The project, managed by GPCC’s VP of Membership and Development, Ben VanCamp, is currently underway, but feedback is already shedding light on the subject.

“The thing we’re learning is that the shotgun approach doesn't work anymore. When you Google something and you’re searching for brown socks, you know that for the next month you're going to get ads for brown socks. To that point, marketers know that you need to specifically target, laser target, not shotgun blast, what people are looking for. So how do we laser target what people want?”

“Overall, with a broad brush, everyone wants networking opportunities,” says Rochon. Yet, the traditional after-hour gatherings don’t meet the networking needs for the entire community, and tends to represent the ‘shotgun’ approach. By example, Rochon points to Sig Sauer, a firearm manufacturer headquartered in Pease Tradeport. An after-hour would not likely meet the networking goals of upper management. They want to meet with other manufacturers, learn about their challenges. Workforce education is another major need for large business leaders. But what is desired in terms of content and format in such cases?

“That’s the search for the brown sock. How do we get the information to them, or whatever event that they want to attend that helps their business?” Rochon asks. Where business after-hours are the shotgun approach, small group lunches of manufacturers might be the laser. Rochon concludes, “So that’s what we’re looking for, how do we parse out networking opportunities for the different industry segments, and also by tiered career tracks.”

An example of a successful ‘laser’ shot by GPCC is Restaurant Week. After meeting in small groups with representatives of the restaurant community, the chamber learned that the community wanted to increase business during the ‘shoulder’ seasons of Spring and Fall. By developing very targeted marketing plans and working closely with the restaurants, the chamber has helped to grow the two annual RWs into much-anticipated events that draw over 70,000 people to the 44-51 participating restaurants over a ten day period. Attendance may jump anywhere from 50% to 150% higher than the ten day equivalent periods pre- and post-RW.

As GPCC prepares for its 100th anniversary in June, Mission Forward positions the chamber to become more nimble in adapting to the changing needs of a community looking to sustain the economic momentum present when everything is going right. Specifically, an issue that has reared its head after years of economic windfall is the need for a renewed focus on the workforce.

“I think its going to become more and more important for us to be focusing on workforce. I think we are still on the upward side of the bell curve, but Portsmouth still has the opportunity to grow,” Rochon elaborates, “I think its always a question of the quality of life balance. If you’ve got a beautiful place then you want to plan very, very carefully how you're going to grow it when it starts to be successful. The staff at city hall, the planning and zoning department, have done a herculean job in converting the city from what it was.

“But at some point you have residents starting to push back, and that’s when you have to re-look at it. Previous planning efforts were right for when the city was at the bottom of the curve, but now we’re reaching the top of the curve and you have to rethink that—and I think the city is doing that. Because of our success, you can’t buy a house in Portsmouth, you can’t rent an apartment in Portsmouth, and that speaks to workforce. If you can’t find workforce, or you have to pay them ridiculous amounts of money, beyond competitive salaries in our region, you start to lose the workforce. And then you start to lose businesses.”

For example, Rochon looks again at Sig Sauer. Because of high energy costs and workforce costs, they are building their new facility in Arkansas rather than New Hampshire. “That’s the canary in the coal mine. We need to be really her aware of that. The chamber’s responsibility is to figure that out.”

At a recent planning board hearing, Ms. Rochon testified in support of affordable housing, but there were many more there against it. Still, she says, “[The] chamber has to be realistic. There’s going to be some that can’t afford Portsmouth. So for those, we need to provide public transportation.”

There are three pillars, as Rochon explains, “You have workforce, housing, and the third pillar, that’s transportation. If we don't have those three things working together, we don't have it. And that’s where the chamber comes in.”

For more information on events and programs offered by GPCC, including Mission Forward, please visit