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The Nashua of the 1980s is not the Nashua of today. Mayor Jim Donchess has seen that transformation first hand, serving as mayor from 1984 to 1991, and then returning to public service in 2016 after a 25-year hiatus during which he worked as a lawyer.
In that time, northern New England’s second-largest city grew in size and diversity. The “Gate City,” so named for the way it connects New Hampshire and the Boston region, is now home to around 90,000 residents, as well as BAE Systems and two regional medical centers.
We spoke with Donchess about his home city — what it offers visitors and what he sees as the city’s biggest problems.
Q: How do you describe Nashua to people who aren’t from there?
Donchess: It’s a very family oriented community. It’s a very safe community. And I think it’s a community where people enjoy a way of living that offers a variety of activities and amenities that are attractive. We have great programs for kids. We have a youth basketball program that serves thousands of kids. We have thousands of kids in the soccer programs. We have a downtown that, I think, is undergoing a renaissance with the Nashua Center for the Arts, a growing restaurant scene and retail. The population is growing, at least from one census to the next.
What do you recommend to visitors coming to Nashua?
Visit the downtown restaurants — and, of course, I like them all. Michael Buckley operates a couple of restaurants: MT’s Local as well as Surf. He has other restaurants in the area. Stella Blue is expanding right now and is looking to expand further, considering buying another restaurant space as I understand it. There’s Tostao’s just going down the street, which is basically a Puerto Rican type of fare. Martha’s is a longtime brewery and restaurant owned by the same family for over 100 years. One thing that also has developed recently is that we have a lot of breweries that are attracting a lot of people from out of town. Spyglass Brewing has been around for some years, but they just relocated to a big new standalone building in the south end. We have Millyard Brewing, Odd Fellows, Rambling House, and Liquid Therapy.
What do you see as the biggest problems facing Nashua today?
Affordable housing. Housing costs have risen dramatically. So younger families and first-time buyers are struggling to be able to afford the prices and rents along with that have escalated as well. People have trouble finding apartments. The vacancy rate is around 1 percent or even less. So we are trying to add to the supply of housing at all levels of affordability. It’s a problem for the business community as well because they’re trying to attract talent.
Another problem is lack of rail service. Passenger rail would make a dramatic change for Nashua, Manchester, and the state of New Hampshire. A certain faction in the Legislature and in the Executive Council opposes this idea, despite all the benefits that would flow to the state of New Hampshire from rail service. So that’s something we’ve been working on.
There was a bill to block state funding for passenger rail at the State House this session. Would Nashua consider paying for commuter rail without state support?
We’re trying to explore that in concert with Manchester, and we’re seeking some ARPA money from the county. But the reality is rail projects across the country, with the exception of one state it seems — that being New Hampshire — are supported by state governments on a bipartisan basis. There are projects in Idaho, Nevada, Texas, Virginia, Illinois — all over the country.We’re close to a thriving economy in Boston and rail service would bring jobs and a lot of benefits, including taxes, to New Hampshire.