Welcome to Nashua, N.H.: employment capital of America

The Main Street theater marquee says it all: ''Apple Computer. Help Wanted.'' And the same theme is repeated throughout Nashua: the state employment security office has more employees than unemployed clients in its office at any given time; permanent ''help wanted'' signs are posted outside old, ivy-covered textile mills that now house electronics and manufacturing firms.

With a 4.8 percent unemployment rate, Nashua is considered (by US government standards) fully employed. In fact, there aren't enough people in this town of 72,000 to keep employers supplied.

With nationwide unemployment standing at 9.2 percent, full employment for a community is an impressive statistic even on paper, but its meaning becomes a walking, talking tangibility that clearly shapes the atmosphere of this old mill town.

It's the kind of phenomenon that crowds out the local theater - where the Apple Computer retail outlet has taken up residence - while drawing everyone from the chemical engineer to the vacuum cleaner salesman and even the untrained hopeful who packs up the car and kids and heads to Nashua for a job.

Today, Nashua's Chamber-of-Commerce brochures, fat and glossy, tout growth and prosperity in big-city fashion, but Nashua feels like a cozy throwback to small-town America.

Untouched New England woods crowd up against office complexes; railroad tracks still parenthesize Main Street; parking meters take no more than a dime; people who grew up together still honk at each other downtown.

Nashua has had a solid base of employment since the collapse of the cotton textile mills 30 years ago, when the industry moved south and town fathers, facing 20 percent unemployment, vowed to lure and keep a diversified business base. The roots of the high-technology renaissance were planted then, when defense-related electronics industry and service industries came here.

If employment is the only measure, then ''there are a dozen Nashuas around the country,'' says Tim Quinn, executive director of the Southern New Hampshire Association of Commerce and Industry. But Nashua's character - a blend of its small-town heritage, the ''Yankee work ethic,'' and its geographic location 50 miles from the cultural and transportation center of Boston - really makes the difference, he says. Also, New Hampshire has some of the nation's lowest rates of crime, per capita tax (no income or sales taxes), and housing costs.

The experiences of Fred Dehner and Beverly Michaud show the extremes of opportunity that orbit this city.

Mr. Dehner, for example, in scientific fashion pitted Nashua head-to-head against other areas in the country on a hand-drawn ''employment selection model.'' When he retired from the US Air Force this summer to pursue a career in the private-sector defense industry, his columns of pluses and minuses added up to Nashua.

''I was on the interview circuit,'' says Dehner, who has worked at Sanders Associates for two months. (Sanders, a defense electronics contractor, is one of Nashua's biggest employers, relocating more than 250 people to Nashua this year from all over the country.)

''What was at stake was my life and my family's life (a son 10 and daughter 6 ). I didn't find better quality anywhere else,'' says Dehner, who still wears a crew cut and military dress shoes. ''I've acquired more for my money in my house than in California, (where) I would have had a lean-to for the same amount.'' He's also pleased with an ''excellent'' school system and police force, and his short commute to work - 15 minutes. ''It's a very caring community,'' he adds, ''and that's the environment I want to bring my family into.''

Ms. Michaud, on the other hand, arrived from California with no specific plan of action. Settling in with a friend who had found a job just outside Nashua, she fully expected to commute to the metropolitan Boston area if she wanted to find a job where she could use her degree in arts administration.

''I was here (to apply) one day, and the next they hired me here,'' she says, from her office at the Arts and Science Center. As associate director, she runs a three-story complex, supported by increasing cultural interests in the community. The facility includes a children's museum, a computer learning center , and a theater.

Interviews with a cross section of Nashuans show a dichotomy of perspective between longtime residents and newcomers, but also a common satisfaction in the quality of life that seems to be rooted in the sense of place that productivity provides.

Don Blanchet, a real estate broker who was raised here, has watched Nashua's growth steer the focus of activity from the sawdust floors of Main Street general stores, to outlying malls, then to highway off-ramp strip malls, and now back to Main Street where he says ''for the first time in years I'm seeing people eating their lunches on the benches.''

''Traffic, though, is my sore point,'' Mr. Blanchet says. Transportation arteries have not kept pace with the population growth of more than 75 percent since 1960.

A 15-minute traffic jam for a native Nashuan may be a red flag of alarm, but for any big-city dweller, it's a pleasure. Joan Harrington, a young housewife whose husband is a Kirby vacuum cleaner salesman here, observes, ''This is what I was looking for. It's not crowded and there's no traffic.'' She says that since March at least two others in her family have moved from the Boston area to start homes in Nashua.

Interviewed at the Nashua Mall as she pushed her two toddlers in a double stroller, Mrs. Harrington notes she is also a realist: ''Without the taxes, not that much money goes to education here. You have to think about that . . . but in an area of so much growth it has to improve (because of increased revenues and interest).''

''Frankly, when I first came here there was nothing. It was just trees. We'd go back to New Jersey twice a month for my hairdresser, for the doctor, and to buy clothes. Now we have a lot we're involved with, we go to plays, the boys have athletic activities,'' says Judy Berman, a Nashua realtor and a city alderman who moved here with her husband Dick in the mid-'60s.

Mr. Berman, who claims business has increased 200 percent in the last year (he's sold 22 homes in the past three months), says that people being relocated here from cities adjust much faster now that Nashua has expanded. But still, their city fears and stereotypes are tough to crack.

''I tell people it's safe to walk on Main Street at 2 a.m.,'' he says. Also, city transplants may look for a certain racial enclave to live in. ''I have to tell them there's no Jewish section, no Italian section. Also there're very few blacks and it's very mixed.''

(The Sanders electronics firm, for example, has to make a special effort to recruit blacks and Asians to fulfill minority hiring quotas on their defense contracts.)

There is an element of concern about the city's popularity.

''The real problem is to make sure the quality of growth embraces the quality of life,'' says Mayor Moe Arel, a native Nashuan whose father worked in the old shoe factories here. ''The general complaint is that we're growing too much, but you have to remember that a stable tax rate comes with growth, and when you're faced with reductions in state and federal aid you do it with new development,'' says the mayor, who has a vivid memory of the economic collapse of the mills.

Some of the issues Nashua will have to deal with include (1) increased density, (2) commuters who work in Nashua and live in suburbs that don't contribute to the local revenue pool, (3) the oft-mentioned traffic problem, (4) water supplies, and (5) various types of pollution that come with increased growth.

Some here ask how long the balance can remain between the small-town scale and economic growth. But for now, say most, Nashua is a slice of the good life.

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