In Somersworth, Friends, Not Jobs, Bring Millennials Home

Dec 9, 2014

"Paul [Goodwin's] 25 birthday - April 2013," writes DeSantis. "That's who we usually talk about when we refer to the Hill kids from our year. That's Pat [Jackman] up front left, then James Thompson in back, then Paul [Goodwin], then Emmett, Aaron [Wysocki], Me, and Leigh [Messier] is in front. At the time of that picture, only James wasn't living in Somo'" - Maddie DeSantis
Credit Maddie DeSantis

  When it comes to our state’s economic future, policymakers and business leaders bemoan New Hampshire’s aging population and the state’s failure to lure young people back to the state after college.  Usually, jobs are seen as the antidote. But in Somersworth, a youth renaissance is taking place thanks not to any employer – but to the strength of twelve millennials’ childhood bonds.

First, picture Somersworth. It’s got a couple pizza and sub shops, a pawn shop, a thrift store, and like in a lot of old New England mill towns, that’s about it.

#FOMO In Somo'

Now imagine you are 23. You graduated from college, you even have a master’s degree from Harvard. Do you really want to move back to Somersworth? Four years ago, Maddie DeSantis moved back home to Somersworth from Boston.

At first, it doesn't really feel good to be home. You sort of don't feel like you're doing all that you can do to be the successful person that you set out to be.

At this point, DeSantis is a bonafide Somersworth booster. Moving home, she says, “it’s the coolest thing you can do.”   She works for Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter, and serves on the city’s Historic District Commission. Somersworth, DeSantis is quick to mention, has the largest historic district in the state.


And she’s not the only twenty-something to start investing in this small city of 12,000. In fact, DeSantis is just one of about nine childhood friends who grew up near their neighborhood elementary school and moved back after college. Now she and her friends have helped attract several other young people to the city, like Coty Donahue, who was elected to the City Council in 2012, at 21.

When every single person you love is not just in the same town but within 5 homes of each other, it was like yeah, I’m gonna stay here!

Businesses

But perhaps the most high profile in this crowd is Emmett Soldati. He grew up down the road from DeSantis, and returned to Somersworth three years ago after going to graduate school in London.  

Since arriving, he’s opened Teatotaller, tea and pastry shop, and Leaven, a “beer and bread house.” The businesses were funded through Kickstarter and other crowdsourcing efforts, are entirely debt-free. They employ about 14 people, around half of whom are full time.

At this point, Soldati says, “it’s no longer about oh I’ll do this for a little while and then move on. It’s about what’s the next project, what’s the next business, where do we go from here.”

 

New Hampshire is a state awash in aging baby boomers. It is suffering a serious case of brain drain: students leave for college, and don’t come back. Is Somersworth doing something right? Does it have high paying employers? Special tax incentives? City Economic Development director Christine Soutter says -- not really. “I say it’s great happenstance,” she says, “I really do. All I can do is say ‘thank you, and I support you.’”

Doors were unlocked to let the neighborhood kids come in and sleep over any given night.

  Of course, Soldati, DeSantis and friends aren’t the only young folks in Somersworth. The city’s largest population groups are between the ages 20 and 34, thanks to its proximity to UNH, and increasing property values in Portsmouth and Dover. But, Soutter says, it wasn’t until these so-called “hill kids” returned that the downtown got its new energy.

In fact, Soutter says, since the mills started closing at the turn of the 20th century, Somersworth has struggled economically.  Now, she says, thanks in part to Leaven and Teatotaller, downtown is “fun, it’s music, it’s young people, it’s quality.”


Neighborhood Ties

DeSantis says she, Soldati and their friends didn’t choose Somersworth over big cities like Boston or DC for jobs, or free rent at their parents’ houses. They did it for each other.

In her black Chevy Malibu, DeSantis drives me around the small historic neighborhood she grew up in, pointing out the houses each of her 12 “best” friends grew up in. Although they all left town after high school, they stayed in touch through college, and reconnected each summer.  

Emmett Soldati says not only were their parents all friends, but “doors were unlocked to let the neighborhood kids come in and sleep over any given night.”

A sense of community – it turns out – can play a big part in motivating a young person to move to one place over another. Kate Luczko runs the nonprofit Stay Work Play, which is dedicated to attracting more young people to New Hampshire. She says practical concerns like jobs and housing are important to young folks, but says there’s a lot more to it than just that. “One of the things that young people look for is other young people,” she says. “They want to know they aren’t going to be the youngest person everywhere they go.”

DeSantis agrees. She says having her peers here are exactly why she’s putting down roots.

“When every single person you love is not just in the same town but within 5 homes of each other, it was like yeah, I’m gonna stay here.”

 

As for whether an idealistic community forged through childhood friendships will translate into lasting change for Somersworth -- well, we’ll be watching.