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Even Where Times are Relatively Good, Worries Persist

Downtown Nashua, N.H. Photo by Flickr user StarrGazr

NASHUA, N.H. – There are a lot of towns in America that would trade places with this city, which sits just over the Massachusetts border. The unemployment rate is an unusually low 5.4 percent and people, on the whole, earn a good living, with a median family income of $61,000.

But it doesn’t “feel” that way to many in this place Patchwork Nation classifies as a Monied Burb. There was a time recently when it seemed like the recovery was slowly marching forward, but that has gone away in the past few months.

“I really started hearing it this summer,” said David Ryan, principal of Nashua High School North. “There was a period where it looked like things were getting better. They always do, right? But people are worried now. Most people think it’s going to get worse.”

The timeline of rising concerns in Nashua closely follows the decline in national economic sentiment, and it didn’t come from nowhere. Unemployment may be low, but it climbed half a point here this summer. There are empty storefronts along Main Street and concern that more may come soon, according to local business leaders.

And all of that has big ramifications for the coming presidential campaign.

Monied Burbs like Nashua were critical for Barack Obama in 2008 — he won those 285 counties by more than 10 percentage points — but he did that on the strength of voters who were unhappy about the country’s economic direction. As 2011’s summer turns into fall, they are unhappy again — and Nashua offers a good example of the angst they are feeling.

Little Things and Big Things

Nashua is by no means Shangri-La. It is a medium-size town of about 85,000 people that has its share of problems. There are poorer sections of town — the “Tree Streets” and “French Hill” — and foreclosures have run higher here than in most places.

But on the whole the town and Hillsborough County, where it sits, have avoided the deepest parts of the recession, with an economy balanced between technology, health care, financial services and retail. Like many Monied Burbs, it also benefits from being close to a big city that provides good-paying jobs for a population of commuters. Early in the morning the line of cars flowing south forms, taking workers down to greater Boston.

And Nashua is, in many ways, a typical Monied Burb. As we have noted on this blog and in more in-depth reporting, the Burbs with their higher education rates and incomes have generally fared better in the recession.

So why all the worries? Two things: the little problems around them that aren’t getting better, and the big things happening far away that they see on the horizon.

“People here really did think it was getting better,” says Chris Williams, president of the Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce. “But the small businesses here never saw it. They kept waiting, but it never turned around. You look at Main Street here and there are a few empty storefronts. And there are a few, one especially, I am worried about making it through the next few months.”

Quaint would be the wrong way to describe Nashua’s Main Street — there are too many bigger buildings, the last vestiges of an industrial past — but it is lined with the kind of small boutiques wealthy consumer love. Plus there is no sales tax on many items in the state, which has long been a draw for day-trippers from Massachusetts.

Despite that, “we aren’t getting the traffic we used to,” Williams said.

When You Know Too Much

Those are the little things. The big things are happening down on Wall Street and over in Europe. “We have an educated population, here,” Williams said. “They read the paper, and they’re nervous.”

As we wrote recently, of all of Patchwork Nation’s 12 county types the Burbs are most heavily invested in the stock market, by far. A full 62 percent have some money in the stock market.

The people in the Burbs and in places like Nashua read the business page with interest, and they are worried. For many Americans the European debt crisis is a story about people in far off places — Greece and Ireland and Portugal — but for those who read the finance pages, those stories are red flags that could have far-reaching consequences. (More than 4,000 people in greater Nashua work in financial services.)

So what are they more likely to do? To sit still and hold back on purchases, and that has broad implications for places like Nashua and for the economy as a whole. If the 70 million people in the Burbs who tend to have more disposable income don’t spend, it will be hard to turn the economy around.

Where to Turn?

And all of this is happening as the 2012 election draws near, which has special meaning in New Hampshire, home of the nation’s first primary.

Nashua, and Hillsborough County, went for Barack Obama in 2008, but not by a huge margin. He took about 52 percent of the vote here. There is a sense that this place full of swing-voting centrists is definitely up for grabs in 2012 after a hard swing back to the right in 2010, and that has to be a concern in the White House.

Maybe more troubling for the Obama team: the unease in Nashua is not just about the conditions on the ground, where the economy on the whole is still not bad. It is about bigger global forces that are impossible to control.

If that trend appears in other Burbs, it will make any reelection campaign that much more complicated.

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