Dartmouth: Ivory Tower Blues?

Dartmouth College is giving out pink slips, but the surrounding Hanover (N.H.) community is fairly robust

Dartmouth College and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center have long been the economic engines of Hanover. Now the stock market has dealt the college a blow. In January, 70 staffers took early retirement, and in February, the school laid off 60. Although the hospital launched a major expansion in November, spokesperson Jason Aldous says the expansion could be halted if the economy worsens.

It's hardly economic collapse. In 2008, Hanover's unemployment rate was 2.5%. Since then, only Dartmouth has had major layoffs. "If you ask the average guy on the street about the economy, he is shell-shocked," says Gregg Fairbrothers, adjunct professor at the Tuck School of Business. "But relative to the rest of the country, it's hardly anything."

The Dirt Cowboy Café provides evidence of the town's resilience. Sales at the 15-employee coffee shop increased 16% in the past year. Owner Thomas Guerra added new impulse buys, such as truffles, and is focusing on service. "A nice coffee is an affordable luxury, but it needs to be a real luxury," he says.

John Olszewski saw trouble coming a year ago. His company, 53 Technology, makes management software for schools. But it now offers Web site management services and recently built Web applications for a client that auctions coupons online. The two-person, $300,000 business works with contractors to keep costs down. "We don't know what it's going to look like this summer," says Olszewski.

Tom Ciardelli, on the other hand, has some idea of what summer will look like: bleak. Ciardelli, owner of outfitter Hanover Outdoors, has $475,000 in annual sales but ended 2008 down 5% from 2007. "We're cutting back on our orders, our part-time labor, and advertising," he says. He's still sitting on holiday inventory. He believes the hangover from last season will go late into 2009. "We're hoping that when things turn around we'll be in a better position to grow," says Ciardelli. "We're not alone in this."

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