The I-93 Tech Corridor: A Vision for the Future

New Hampshire Business and Economic Development Commissioner Taylor Caswell, on a recent visit to the University, observed that an “I-93 Tech Corridor” already exists in the southern part of the state. “We just have to bring it further north,” he said.

The commercial juggernaut to Plymouth’s south is a result of firms moving up from Massachusetts, foreign investment, and homegrown entrepreneurs. The vision now being formulated by Plymouth State and other regional entities imagines extending the corridor to the White Mountains and beyond, with the state’s North Country beginning a new chapter as a dynamic, high-tech node.

“It might not be too great a dream to think we could, over time, build something akin to the next Silicon Valley,” says President Donald Birx.

Lining up our ducks

Plymouth State University is convening discussions with regional stakeholders to begin the process of fleshing out a unified proposal that aims to transform the North Country’s economic prospects. The vision represents a confluence of natural assets, technological advances, and timing.

The goal is to proactively assess the region’s assets and growth priorities, putting its proverbial ducks in a row for future grant applications. The beauty of the region and its highly desirable way of life, its proximity to technology-rich regions to the south, and a high-speed transportation corridor (I-93) right through the state are solid building blocks already in place. Missing elements have included a pathway to create the workforce and educational programs that draw technology companies and enable them to thrive in the state, an interface between education and business that could be further enhanced, and high-speed internet in some areas. These barriers to growth, however, are beginning to fall.

Meeting the demands of industry

New Hampshire currently has one of the nation’s highest percentages of elderly residents, but many more young professionals would consider making the Granite State their home if they could find suitable employment. Bill Dowey, an economic development consultant based in Bristol, NH, maintains that the region’s many selling points, together with the anticipated technological advancements, will induce skilled workers. “We want to bring young people in and tell them, ‘You can recreate here, and you can work here.’”

 “The improved infrastructure can merge the North Country’s fantastic way of life with high-tech opportunities and, in turn, create an exciting future for many,” observes Jon Freeman, president of Northern Community Investment Corporation. “The collaborative efforts of the state, PSU, and our partners to support this development is moving the potential ever closer.”

There is already great demand in New Hampshire for high-tech industry workers. Plymouth State can help meet that demand by equipping young people with tools sought by employers.

The University has a clear role to play in educating the workforce needed to handle the new technologies. The tech corridor vision has already been part of the rationale for developing Plymouth State programs like Electromechanical Technology and Robotics (see p. 10) and the new bachelor’s and certificate programs in Transformative Innovation and Design Entrepreneurship (TIDE). “We’ve developed Clusters that do everything from Exploration and Discovery to Innovation and Entrepreneurship,” says Birx. “We’ve set our educational process in place to support an approach that is regionally transformative.”

“Another approach being actively pursued is to provide certificate programs that lead to industry-recognized credentials,” says Joe Boyer, director of PSU’s Center for Research & Innovation. “Much like lawyers need to pass a bar exam, employees in the high-tech areas of cybersecurity, advanced manufacturing, health information systems, etc. must pass industry-recognized exams to further their careers. PSU has begun matching those business needs with academic curricula in order to provide new pathways to success, and both business employees and PSU students will benefit from this model, while the University will realize new funding sources.”

Making the high-speed connection

The drive to extend broadband access to rural communities has strong momentum, notes Professor Marcia Schmidt Blaine. “I’m a member of the New Hampshire Commission on Rural Affairs, which sees it as a major priority,” she says.

Bristol, a few miles south of Plymouth, is currently putting in high-speed fiber that will enable 10-millisecond latency response, which will minimize electrical service fluctuations. “We want to be that first corridor town,” says Bill Dowey, the economic development consultant who, after a career in tech, now chairs Bristol’s Economic Development Committee and formerly chaired the town’s Energy Committee. “Robotics and telemedicine need it, and we want industries to choose Bristol for expansion.”

5G, the latest iteration of wireless service that is currently being rolled out, is another crucial step in the spread of the robotics industry and tech in general. 5G’s relatively instant, interactive communications will result in robots being able to incorporate instructions in real time, allowing medical professionals, for example, to examine patients remotely and address health issues immediately.

Higher education’s essential role

Birx notes the essential role of higher education in advancing the concept. “It has always been one leg of every successful transformation that’s occurred within a community, whether it’s out west in Silicon Valley, down in the North Carolina’s Research Triangle, or along Boston’s Route 128. All of them have had, at the core, universities working with industry and government.”

A key factor uniting the three above-mentioned regions is the tremendous opportunity for companies to find research associates and long-term employees. These similar concentrations of talent are largely due to the area universities, which serve as powerful magnets.

Birx has a strong track record of brainstorming executable proposals with regional partners. “We’ve done this so many times in the universities I’ve been a part of,” he says. As chancellor of Penn State Behrend, Birx led the development of its Advanced Manufacturing and Innovation Center. The large-scale open laboratory revitalized a previously money-losing industrial park into a successful private-public partnership, which turned a profit with full capacity. In his previous post at the University of Houston, Birx founded the Center for Industrial Partnerships, which increased interaction between the business community and the university’s research faculty.

If you build it, “they” will come

The Field of Dreams mantra playing out in northern New Hampshire has two parts. The first “they” refers to the high-tech businesses and workers the state hopes to attract, and the second to the New Hampshire college graduates it hopes to retain; “they” are already here but might be forced to leave if high-skills employment is lacking.

The need and the opportunity are clear for those with vision, believes Birx.

“We’ve got a visionary governor (Chris Sununu) and a visionary commissioner (Taylor Caswell), and it seems like the time might be right to start really thinking about extending the I-93 corridor and build this vision of what could happen in the North Country,” he says.

“Planning doesn’t demand a lot of funds, but it does require an inclusive strategy to guide and pull together a vision and commitment from all of the communities involved so we can make this a reality over the coming decades.”

■  Peter Lee Miller