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

By William G. Scheller
July 31, 2003

Four rivers run through it.

The reborn mill city of Dover is tethered tightly to tidewaterby the Bellamy, Cocheco, Salmon Falls, and Piscataqua rivers, partof an estuarial system that makes it all but impossible to tell thedifference between coast and hinterlands. "From the marina right inback of my downtown office, I can take my sailboat down the Cochecoto Portsmouth harbor―or to England," says real estate brokerKerry Forbes.

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

By the 1970s, Dover resembled dozens of other small New Englandcities whose luck and purpose seemed to have shut down with thelast of the looms and sole-stitching machines. What Dover couldn'tlose was its superb location, close to Portsmouth's booming PeaseInternational Tradeport and Massachusetts' high-tech territory.

"Downtown Dover has about 450,000 square feet of mill space thathas been rehabbed into first-class offices over the past 10 to 20years," says Kerry. "That space is 90 percent full today because wecome in at about $12 to $14 per square foot compared to twice thatin Portsmouth. Dover has a lot of high-tech companies with 20 to200 employees, many of them launched by young entrepreneurs whostarted on Route 128 in Massachusetts but were drawn to the coastalNew Hampshire lifestyle. And the fact that there's no state incometax doesn't hurt either."

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

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

Clyde Allen runs Baldface Books, featuring used and remaindertitles, in a spacious building that once hosted a bank. Over thepast couple of decades, he's watched the blue-collar city changeinto a bustling haven for young professionals and upscale suburbanfamilies. Instead of having a beer at the pool hall, Doverresidents now meet over lattes at chic coffee shops. "When I openedmy store 10 years ago, a lot of downtown was empty," Clyderecalls."Now there are lots of new shops, and they're mostlylocally owned―the big corporate chains haven't moved in."Loyal residents plan to keep it that way.

(published in 2003)