In Winchester, an economic development corporation is nearing construction on a business park. In Peterborough, a “hub and spoke” network is facilitating communication on topics ranging from the nonprofit sector to local food. Plans for a downtown arts corridor in Keene are underway. The city’s chamber of commerce is gearing up for a marketing push aimed at bringing new people to the Monadnock Region.
The variety of initiatives tackling economic development from different angles is one strength the region has, according to interviews with municipal officials, economic development professionals and other people engaged in the issue.
“We have a history of being excellent collaborators in this area,” says George S. Hansel, Keene’s incoming mayor. “We’re self-reliant, we work well together, and we’re all focused on economic development. I think that puts us in an excellent position to really make some progress.”
Heading into 2020, the people interviewed for this article say they saw positive signs, including expansions by some businesses, exciting new projects (such as the arts corridor) and a general sense that a wide range of stakeholders — city and town officials, nonprofit agencies, business leaders, local volunteers — are focused on the issue.
At the same time, they cited ongoing challenges to economic expansion in the region — most prominently, the shortage of qualified workers that many employers face.
“Workforce comes to mind as the number one thing that companies are interested in and concerned about,” says Phil Suter, president and CEO of the Greater Keene Chamber of Commerce. “So the more that we have a skilled workforce, and a pipeline of people that are getting trained to take on jobs in the region, the better positioned we are to be supportive of companies that are starting or expanding or interested in moving here.”
HELPING BUSINESS SUCCEED
People who work on economic development in the region say the best bets for job creation are new businesses starting up and existing employers expanding — rather than getting large, established companies to relocate from elsewhere.
“I think the focus of economic development in Keene primarily has been, or probably should be, ‘how do we grow small businesses?’” says Medard Kopczynski, the city’s director of economic development initiatives and special projects. “How do we grow our smaller businesses into larger businesses? How do we help our small businesses and startups succeed?”
Anecdotally, Kopczynski and others say they’re seeing local businesses grow. Examples include Moore Nanotechnology in Swanzey, which received planning board approval for a 21,800-square-foot expansion in December 2018; cashew cheesemaker Nuttin’ Ordinary, which has moved into a new facility in Peterborough and announced plans to make new hires; Peterborough-based SoClean, which has boasted rapid growth in recent years; and Paragon Digital Marketing in Keene, which plans to move into a renovated 1860s church on Court Street to accommodate its growing workforce.
A lot of the activity is coming from smaller, newer companies, notes John G. “Jack” Dugan, president of Monadnock Economic Development Corp. in Keene.
“I would say that within the last couple of years, there are a lot of businesses looking for additional space, expansion opportunities,” Dugan says. While not as many larger businesses are looking for new space at the moment, “what we’re seeing now is more startup activity, or relatively new business expansion ideas. And so, to that end, we’ve been making a lot of small loans to small businesses who are growing.”
In their own ways, different entities are working to make it easier for businesses to begin and grow in the region. Municipal officials in several communities say they have worked to streamline permitting processes, rezone certain areas and otherwise make sure the government is responsive to local businesses.
At the same time, some projects aim to attract new employers or create space for significant expansions.
Winchester Economic Development Corp. is close to beginning construction on the long-planned Stone Mountain Business Park near Richmond Road, according to Chairman Mark Tigan.
Supported by a $666,000 grant from the federal Economic Development Administration, the work involves building a road and other infrastructure that can make the former gravel pit attractive for businesses.
A 2015 feasibility study found that the 60-plus acre site could “support more than 500,000 square feet of environmentally friendly manufacturing” or offices.
Tigan says the development corporation plans to market to sectors such as machine tooling, food processing and wood-based industries. Aside from site-specific features, it matters that the town has a nonprofit development organization and municipal officials, volunteers and other residents who support economic development, he notes.
“One of the biggest variables is the fact that we exist,” says Tigan.
While running for mayor, Hansel said he wanted to bring three new businesses with about 50 employees each to Keene. He believes that is manageable based on the development opportunities that are opening up, as well as available incentives, he explains.
“Bringing a business in is in some ways less complicated than people think,” he says. “A lot of it is about matching the right site to the right company.”
Also in Keene, Monadnock Economic Development Corp. has started to flesh out its concept of a downtown arts corridor on either side of Main Street. At the same time, it’s partnering with Keene State College to develop a business hub on campus, where students would work with local companies.
The organization is preparing for a leadership transition, too: Dugan, the longtime president, plans to retire in the spring. He says the board of directors hopes to bring a successor on before he leaves.
BRANDING, BROADBAND AND QUALITY OF LIFE
Other groups are working on a range of issues that tie into economic development.
An ad hoc committee convened to study economic development in Keene listed several such priorities. Its report, which the Keene City Council adopted in October, recommended continued collaboration with educational institutions on workforce issues, marketing Keene as a cultural and recreational destination, expanding high-speed internet access and boosting public transportation, among other points.
Area towns are thinking about the internet issue by exploring partnerships with private companies to build broadband infrastructure. Chesterfield led the way last March when voters approved a $1.8 million bond to help finance construction by Consolidated Communications. The debt will be paid off by user fees once the infrastructure is built.
In Peterborough, meanwhile, a consultant hired by the town Economic Development Authority helped set up an “economic ecosystem.” The project features several “spokes” — groups that focus on particular slices of the local economy, such as nonprofits, retail, the arts or food and drink — and a central “hub,” where representatives of those groups and other stakeholders meet to discuss issues and solve problems.
“It’s a way of expanding the understanding of what our community is both needing and doing,” says James Kelly, chairman of the authority.
Such initiatives can help chip away at the region’s workforce and other challenges, according to Suter, of the Keene Chamber.
“It used to be that people thought of economic development as you’re out there scouring around trying to convince some company to move here with 500 employees or whatever it might be,” Suter says. “And that still happens. … But that’s not at the core of what economic development is about, I would argue, in the 21st century. I think it’s more about creating a place that’s attractive to people and that has the resources to support a business, whether it started here or whether it moves here or whether it expands here.”
The Keene Chamber is organizing an effort to brand the Monadnock Region through a multi-year marketing campaign. Suter says the goal is to draw more visitors, workers and college students to the region.
Like others interviewed for this story, Suter cites the region’s quality of life as an important advantage.
“I often say that, if all other things were equal and we had to compete on quality of life, bring it on,” he says. “We’ll compete with anybody in the country. I have no problem with that. You know, there’s some wrinkles in the all-other-things-being-equal piece. But we have a terrific lifestyle story to tell.”
Paul Cuno-Booth is a staff writer with The Keene Sentinel.