So You Want to Live in ... Dover, New Hampshire

A high-tech makeover revived this water-laced mill town in New Hampshire. But it still feels cozy.

Four rivers run through it.

The reborn mill city of Dover is tethered tightly to tidewater by the Bellamy, Cocheco, Salmon Falls, and Piscataqua rivers, part of an estuarial system that makes it all but impossible to tell the difference between coast and hinterlands. "From the marina right in back of my downtown office, I can take my sailboat down the Cocheco to Portsmouth harbor―or to England," says real estate broker Kerry Forbes.

All that water carried the city through a long workaday history. The oldest continuous settlement in New Hampshire, Dover was an important Colonial shipbuilding center. In the 19th century, textile manufacturers built immense brick mills along the riverbanks. Later, the shoe industry supported the local economy.

By the 1970s, Dover resembled dozens of other small New England cities whose luck and purpose seemed to have shut down with the last of the looms and sole-stitching machines. What Dover couldn't lose was its superb location, close to Portsmouth's booming Pease International Tradeport and Massachusetts' high-tech territory.

"Downtown Dover has about 450,000 square feet of mill space that has been rehabbed into first-class offices over the past 10 to 20 years," says Kerry. "That space is 90 percent full today because we come in at about $12 to $14 per square foot compared to twice that in Portsmouth. Dover has a lot of high-tech companies with 20 to 200 employees, many of them launched by young entrepreneurs who started on Route 128 in Massachusetts but were drawn to the coastal New Hampshire lifestyle. And the fact that there's no state income tax doesn't hurt either."

The switch to a 21st-century economy hasn't changed the riverside mill-town feel of downtown Dover and its surrounding neighborhoods. But it's a mill town scrubbed and polished, with amenities such as forsythia-lined walkways along the Cocheco.

A municipal recreation complex with an indoor pool is tucked into one historic mill, right across from another that houses a major financial services company. A chic bistro and rum bar stands a few blocks from the Dew Drop Inn, a tidy luncheonette straight out of the 1940s.

Clyde Allen runs Baldface Books, featuring used and remainder titles, in a spacious building that once hosted a bank. Over the past couple of decades, he's watched the blue-collar city change into a bustling haven for young professionals and upscale suburban families. Instead of having a beer at the pool hall, Dover residents now meet over lattes at chic coffee shops. "When I opened my store 10 years ago, a lot of downtown was empty," Clyde recalls."Now there are lots of new shops, and they're mostly locally owned―the big corporate chains haven't moved in." Loyal residents plan to keep it that way.

(published in 2003)

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