This September, Keene will host the first annual Radically Rural summit, where small-town residents from the Monadnock Region and beyond will gather to generate strategies for energizing rural spaces. Organizers of the two-day event believe that passionate individuals, armed with concrete tools for enacting change, can make up a community’s most valuable assets. In and around Keene, a handful of forward-thinking folks prove the rule, driving leaps in economic and cultural development.

MARY ANN KRISTIANSEN: HANNAH GRIMES

Mary Ann Kristiansen stands out among these bright minds. After a young adulthood spent in New York City working for J. Walter Thompson Advertising and Merrill Lynch, she moved to the Monadnock Region in 1991 to restore a farm that had fallen into disrepair. Meanwhile, she began crafting homemade soaps, excited to participate in a robust rural economy driven by makers and growers. For inspiration on this front, she looked to the original inhabitant of her new home, a woman named Hannah Grimes, born in 1776, who bartered with neighbors for any tool or food item she could not produce herself.

However, Kristiansen did not immediately find a market for her soaps, and instead met a host of other local producers equally frustrated with their lack of sales and seeking ways to increase their visibility. In response, Kristiansen opened the Hannah Grimes Marketplace in 1997, aiming to provide year-round vending for local products and to teach business skills to the men and women producing them. The store soon developed into a community gathering place where like-minded residents of the Keene area could meet and forge personal and professional connections.

In 2006, Kristiansen extended the reach of this vibrant network by assuming ownership of a failing business incubator and remodeling it for success. Under her guidance, the struggling nonprofit evolved into the Hannah Grimes Center for Entrepreneurship that serves the Keene area today as an engine of radical economic development. Aiming to support local entrepreneurs through the early stages of launching a small business, the Center provides coaching and workshops, networking events, financing opportunities and an intensive start-up incubator program. Since renting or buying office space can often raise overhead costs beyond the means of a new company, Kristiansen and her team also offer affordable workspaces including 24 incubating offices and four conference rooms, all equipped with high-speed internet access.

“Usually about 80 percent of businesses fail within the first five years. We have flipped that on its head,” Kristiansen says.

In fact, she says, the incubator program has an 84 percent success rate.

To explain this, Kristiansen points to the credentials of the Center’s staff members, each of whom has experience managing the logistics of a small business.

“We have personal skin in the game. We aren’t just some employees hired to teach you how to run a business when we’ve never done it ourselves,” she says.

An emphasis on collaboration also seems to be driving the Center’s success. Kristiansen believes in facilitating strong relationships among attendants of Hannah Grimes courses and workshops, leveraging peer learning to complement the instruction staff is trained to provide.

Over the past few months, Kristiansen has been particularly excited to participate in planning the upcoming Radically Rural event, along with fellow Hannah Grimes staff members and representatives from the Keene Sentinel.

Since its foundation, Hannah Grimes has assisted the launch of more than 90 small businesses that are now shaping their own impact within the Monadnock Region.

DANYA LANDIS & REBECCA HAMILTON: MACHINA ARTS

Machina Arts, for instance, has been captivating the community with an art-based approach to event management, engaging hundreds of Keene residents in cultural activities with a creative twist. Co-founders, Danya Landis and Rebecca Hamilton, are currently enrolled in the Hannah Grimes incubator program and rent office space within the Center for Entrepreneurship. Their 2013 start-up seeks to energize Keene’s art scene by curating functions with daring visual aesthetics, often backed by musical performances or other live entertainment.

Landis arrived in Keene five years ago from New York City, while Hamilton has spent time in Hawaii and San Francisco. In their previous homes, each was deeply immersed in the local arts landscape. Landis studied at the Maine College of Art and has since been represented in exhibits across the United States. She specializes in sculpture and teaches welding skills and steel sculpting at The Carving Studio in Rutland, Vermont. Complementing Landis’ fine arts background, Hamilton’s skill set is perhaps more eclectic. She has worked as a DJ, fire performer and spatial designer; Hamilton was recently appointed co-CEO with her sister, Emily Schwerin-Whyte, for her Gilsum, New Hampshire-based family business, W.S. Badger Co.

Combining their flair for business and creative expression, Landis and Hamilton have teamed up to orchestrate multi-sensory, art-infused events for residents of the Keene area, especially hoping to reach those with reduced access to cultural opportunities. Machina Arts primarily offers logistical planning and design services to event hosts, but sometimes Landis and Hamilton prefer to act as hosts themselves. Friday nights from 5-7 p.m., the women coordinate with Hannah Grimes staff to convert The Hive, a co-working facility at the Center for Entrepreneurship, into an after-hours social space for members of the community to meet, mingle and enjoy cocktails from an open bar.

At the same venue, up to three times a month, Machina Arts holds events within a live music series called Live at The Hive. In an inspired move reflecting their many-dimensional interest in the arts, Landis and Hamilton pair each band with a pop-up gallery or a creative professional who will paint or sculpt on the spot. Guests are invited to attend in costume according to a theme the two women choose ahead of time.

“We visualize these events as full immersive installations … and when people walk through that door, they are a part of what they’re stepping into. And so the costumes add to that because you’re coming into this separate world that is totally new and different, and you are something different in that world,” Landis explains.

This summer, Machina Arts has also organized a three-part Farm Dinner series, with 70-plate dinners held at regional farms selling out weeks in advance. For each meal, Chef Jordan Scott composed dishes using fresh and local flavors; instrumentalists from Monadnock Music performed a gentle acoustic medley beneath the table conversation. Landis and Hamilton hope to expand the series in future years to take advantage of spring and fall crops as well.

The next large-scale function Machina Arts will be helping to arrange is the Radically Rural summit in September.

JUDY ROGERS: PRIME ROAST & WALL DOGS

Judy Rogers, another local champion of the arts, is also founder and proprietor of the downtown coffee shop, Prime Roast. Through her small business, Rogers has been engaged in community-building efforts since the shop’s appearance on Main Street in 1996. One of her most successful projects has converted the walls of the café into a gallery for artists at all levels of professional exposure. During July, she has chosen to showcase the work of a young woman living with a physical and mental disability, who creates intricate collages from magazine clippings to represent her mood. According to Rogers, customers often enter Prime Roast to collect their morning Americano and leave with a painting tucked under their arm.

“It’s uncommon for us not to have sales,” she says. 

Another of Rogers’ initiatives reads like clever marketing, but also strengthens the network of mutual support binding Prime Roast customers together.

“Everybody who buys 10 coffees gets a free coffee,” she explains, “But many people pay forward their coffees to whoever might need them and may not be able to pay for them. People know that they can still come to this place in their community and they’ll be taken care of.”

Introducing her next project, Rogers shakes exaggerated fists in the air to demonstrate her enthusiasm. A troupe of community-minded artists, called the Wall Dogs, have chosen Keene to host their annual public art festival next year in June, she explains. Over the course of four days, they will paint 12 to 15 murals on the sides of historical buildings depicting major figures and themes from the city’s past. In return, Keene will provide them with room and board for the duration of their stay.

Rogers belongs to a committee that will be coordinating the event. She and other members have suggested arranging the murals to form a walking tour that would lead foot traffic past some of the downtown businesses located off Main Street. In her estimation, the potential economic impact of excited tourists racing through Keene’s business district to stand before an outsized portrait of, for example, Jonathan Daniels, is well worth the time she will spend planning for the Wall Dogs’ visit.

“The murals will be painted in 100 percent acrylic mural paint. They last for 50 years. So the buzz around this history tour will last for at least 50 years,” she says. “What we’re doing is we’re creating history out of our history.”

AMANDA LITTLETON: CCCD, MARKET MATCH & FARM FUND

Amanda Littleton, district manager of the Cheshire County Conservation District, has been fighting to bridge the gap between small-scale farmers and local markets for fresh farm products. To this end, she has helped pioneer the Granite State Market Match program, which aims to expand access to local produce for individuals enrolled in federal food programs.

Without an EBT machine on site to perform electronic benefits transfer services, a food vendor cannot make sales to a person using SNAP, the federal nutrition assistance program. The Cheshire County Conservation District has begun outfitting farmers’ markets and CSAs with the proper equipment to permit transactions between SNAP users and local producers. Last year, staff installed four EBT machines at locations across the region and this year they will install four more.

“It is such a win-win,” Littleton says, “It helps stretch the limited food budgets of people in our community who could use more dollars for fresh fruits and vegetables, and it helps grow sales for farmers.”

Littleton has also played a role in launching the Farm Fund, a financing project that awards grants to local farms looking to invest in infrastructure that will increase the productivity or efficiency of daily operations.

Since its founding in 2017, the program has distributed $25,000 among seven farms. For each annual grant round, the Cheshire County Conservation District has partnered with the Monadnock Food Co-op to raise funds, supplemented by gifts from anonymous donors. Most recipients have applied their grants toward the cost of purchasing new equipment, such as cold storage units for dairy products.

“Most of the farm businesses in the region are smaller. But, there’s a lot of opportunity for growth,” Littleton says.

She goes on to outline her vision for the continued development of regional agriculture, beginning with civic education on the importance of shopping local.

As Littleton speaks, she begins to mirror Rogers’ sentiments on the strengths of rural culture.

Both women feel their work has tapped into a widespread cooperative energy that will continue to drive change within the Monadnock Region.

“It’s all about community building and partnerships,” Rogers says. “This is about telling people about [an] idea and then getting the community involved in making it happen.”