The mural needed a second look.
Sylvie Rice, a volunteer with the Historical Society of Cheshire County, had pointed out that Abraham Lincoln’s profile is deliberately etched into the clouds of an otherwise colonial-era scene on Church Street in downtown Keene. In unison, the small group of local arts promoters and rural-development advisers craned their necks to better see the 16th president.
It was an apt metaphor for the fresh perspective they’re also giving plans for an expansive arts revitalization downtown. That project had seemed stalled, with its original organizer, the Monadnock Economic Development Corp., in financial trouble.
Now being led by the Keene nonprofit Arts Alive, though, the initiative took a step forward last week, when delegates from the national Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design toured the prospective arts corridor as part of their work helping hone the vision for it.
In addition to the Walldogs mural tour, led by Sylvie Rice of Keene, their itinerary included stops at the Colonial Performing Arts Center and its new Commercial Street venue, Showroom; the Jonathan Daniels Building on Federal Street, envisioned as a new arts hub; and “tentacles” of the corridor on Roxbury Street and Railroad Square.
Together with Arts Alive officials, the CIRD representatives — municipal-design experts Omar Hakeem and Candace Maloney — also met with city officials and local business leaders about the arts corridor project.
Arts Alive’s executive director, Jessica Gelter, has said the organization’s modest budget will prevent it from replicating the $30 million project Monadnock Economic Development Corp. had proposed, which included a large pavilion, live-in artist studios and a block-long pedestrian mall on Gilbo Avenue. Instead, the nonprofit is working with private companies and other community groups on ideas for the arts corridor, she told The Sentinel previously.
During the mural tour Wednesday, Gelter said those paintings, which Arts Alive helped sponsor, are a model — financially and creatively — for the community art she hopes is included in the new project.
“Our role in that was great,” she said.
Arts Alive was selected from a group of applicants earlier this year to receive technical aid from the Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design, a Washington, D.C.-based agency that helps small communities enhance their quality of life and economic vitality.
Created by the National Endowment for the Arts and the nonprofit Housing Assistance Council, CIRD tapped Keene as one of just four places nationwide for its highest level of assistance this year, prompting last week’s visit. (The other three communities are Midway, Ala., Spring Grove, Minn. and Frederiksted, U.S. Virgin Islands.)
That help will include holding a workshop in Keene in late January to solicit ideas for the proposed arts corridor and to connect local leaders with design experts, according to Hakeem, who runs a D.C.-based municipal-design firm. Arts Alive is receiving a small grant from CIRD to help put on the workshop.
“That’s when we’ll really roll up our sleeves and hopefully get some work done,” he said during the mural tour Wednesday.
While walking around downtown, Hakeem spoke with Gelter and members of Arts Alive’s board of directors about traffic flow and parking in the city. The tour, he said, was important to see what is needed to bring the arts corridor to life.
“I really don’t have a pre-established vision,” he said.
Gelter said in May that the project will build on several private initiatives already making downtown Keene a cultural hotbed, calling it more of an “amoeba” than a distinct corridor.
In addition to Nova Arts, a live music venue at Brewbakers Café on Emerald Street, and artist studios at a revitalized Jonathan Daniels Building, it may include a pop-up market for local artists in the Commercial Street parking lot, she said at the time. Arts Alive also wants to create a publicly accessible venue, like a museum or interactive studio, to complement the performance spaces downtown that aren’t open all day, she said. Outdoor sculptures and other temporary art installations could be placed around the city, too.
Gelter said Wednesday she hopes to have a more precise blueprint for the arts corridor this coming spring.
That timeline will need to take into consideration other construction Keene is eyeing in the Main Street area, she said. Plans for that project will get underway next year, with work unlikely to begin before at least late 2023, according to Public Works Director Kurt Blomquist.
The downtown construction could be an opportunity, Gelter said, to work with city officials on an imaginative design for the arts corridor.
Jim Murphy, a Keene painter and musician on Arts Alive’s board, said Wednesday he thinks continued cultural development is crucial for the Monadnock Region, noting a 2017 study that found the local arts industry generated $18.6 million in economic growth in a single year.
“We know how important financially the arts are for this area,” he said, adding that creative outlets attract young people and families.
That vibrancy was on display last week, according to Maloney, an architect on CIRD projects. Noting on the walking tour that she found Main Street “quite beautiful,” Maloney said she hopes to help channel the city’s existing energy into its arts revitalization.
“You can tell that the people of this town care a lot about it and their history.”
CLAREMONT — Kathy White, a 67-year-old Charlestown resident, had both shots of a COVID-19 vaccine, followed by a booster, but contracted the virus during an October visit with her son and his children.
White, who has an underlying autoimmune condition, got very sick and was “down for a couple of weeks,” she said during an interview in the Walmart parking lot in Claremont last week.
She recovered, she believes, with the help of immunity she developed through the vaccine as well as monoclonal antibodies she received at Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital in Lebanon. Though now “doing good,” White remains frustrated as the pandemic persists.
People have made it to the moon but “can’t get ahold of this pandemic,” she said.
White is not alone in her frustration with the persistence of the virus in the Twin States. Case rates and hospitalizations are higher than they’ve ever been. The case rates in the Sullivan County communities of Claremont, Charlestown and Newport, and across the Connecticut River in Windsor County’s Springfield, Vt., are among the highest in the Twin States. The cases are straining the health-care system, and they continue to affect area schools, long-term care facilities and community organizations. One contributing factor is the low vaccination rate in these communities, though public health officials hope that rate will shift upward with time and increasing availability of vaccines.
“While the rate of transmission statewide has increased significantly this fall, the data is clear that Sullivan County is experiencing higher levels of transmission than elsewhere in the state,” said Jake Leon, a spokesman for the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services.
The rate per 100,000 people in the last 14 days in Sullivan is 1,328 new cases, as compared to 807.5 new cases per 100,000 statewide, Leon said Thursday. The test positivity rate in Sullivan County is also higher than the statewide average, 13 percent compared with 9.3 percent.
With just 50 percent of the population fully vaccinated against COVID-19, Sullivan County lags behind the statewide average of 55 percent. That’s well below Grafton County’s vaccination rate of more than 61 percent.
Valley Regional Hospital in Claremont is seeing more inpatient cases of COVID-19 than it had previously.
“We are drowning in COVID,” said Dr. Jocelyn Caple, Valley Regional’s interim CEO and chief medical officer. “We have had a surge of COVID-positive cases at the hospital peaking at almost double the patient cases we had during the largest peak last winter; this is the highest number we have had at any time throughout the pandemic.
Recently, Valley Regional, which has 25 beds, had a pandemic high of 10 COVID-19 patients at one time in the inpatient unit, Caple said. Prior to the current surge, the high had been six.
The majority of the inpatient cases have been unvaccinated people, Caple said. Valley Regional’s surge comes as the state as a whole is seeing a higher number of COVID-19 hospitalizations — 340 — than it saw during the peak last January, before vaccines were widely available.
“As a physician who has had a front row seat to all of this, it can be disheartening to consider how many of these illnesses could have been avoided with more widespread vaccination — especially in our local community,” said Dr. Josh Rudner, Valley Regional’s emergency department medical director. “Myself and our entire care team does experience a degree of burnout related to the persistence of this pandemic and the ways it has impacted our daily work — increased volume, cumbersome and restrictive personal protective equipment, regional capacity limitations, etc.”
Like most hospitals in the Twin States, Valley Regional has had trouble finding hospital beds for patients needing critical care for COVID-19 and other conditions.
“At times, we are still having to transfer some patients far beyond our region, even several states away,” Rudner said. “The pandemic has also had an impact in limiting patient access to outpatient services from primary care to mental health services.”
Sullivan County long-term care facilities continue to see outbreaks. As of Thursday, an outbreak at Woodlawn Care Center in Newport included a total of 14 cases, including five residents and nine workers, according to DHHS. A federal vaccine mandate for health-care workers is pending.
Claremont schools continue to report cases of COVID-19 through an online dashboard. Through Thursday, there were 25 new cases in the city’s schools.
Tracey Osgood, a behavior specialist at Stevens High School, worked with a student to decorate Broad Street Park with Christmas lights on Thursday morning. Osgood said that many people she knows have gotten the virus, including a friend in Florida who had to be on a ventilator, and her teenage granddaughter and her boyfriend.
“I’m not saying it’s not serious,” Osgood said.
Her granddaughter was out of school for almost two weeks due to her illness and has “had to work to get her grades back up,” Osgood said.
Her mother, who is vaccinated and has an appointment for a booster shot, has urged Osgood get vaccinated as well. But Osgood said she’s had an allergic reaction to another vaccine and is unconvinced that a COVID-19 vaccine is right for her. She hasn’t ruled it out, but she remains unvaccinated and wears masks only when required to do so. On a recent trip to Lebanon, Osgood and her party decided not to have dinner at Salt hill Pub, when a member of the waitstaff asked them to put on masks in accordance with Lebanon’s mask mandate.
Abigail Anderson, a 24-year-old Springfield resident, also said she is not vaccinated and is unsure it’s right for her.
“I kind of want to be,” she said during an interview in the Walmart parking lot. But, she said, she is breastfeeding her 7-month-old and the newness of the shots make her nervous. Nerves about the vaccine also have led her to opt against getting her 7-year-old vaccinated at this point.
Still, she is worried about the effect that continued transmission of the virus may have on her family. She said she usually tries to wear a mask, but during a busy morning she’d forgotten it.
Like Claremont schools, Springfield schools also have struggled with COVID-19 cases this fall, so much so that the superintendent there declared a “September snow day” at one point and closed the schools for a day. Anderson said she worries that her 7-year-old’s first somewhat normal school year might be interrupted.
“A friend of mine had to quarantine,” she said. “Luckily we haven’t. It’s a little scary. That’s why I try not to do too much.”
Claremont does not have a mask mandate in place and appears unlikely to institute one. City employees are required to wear masks when interacting with the public, and the city has a “strong recommendation” that members of the public wear masks in city buildings, City Manager Ed Morris said.
“We continue to deal with it,” Morris said. “We take the safety precautions we need so we’re not transmitting it at work.”
The Claremont Opera House recently surveyed its patrons about the venue’s approach to COVID-19 protocols and received a split response, according to the opera house’s website.
“Some responded that we should allow patrons to choose whether to wear a mask or not, and they do not support proof-of-vaccination requirements, while others will not attend shows until we include requirements for proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test,” according to a web post by Board President Felicia Brych and Executive Director Andrew Pinard.
At this point, the venue requires masks, is limiting seating to 40 percent occupancy and is restricting food and drink to the atrium. It is not requiring proof of vaccination as most other large venues in the state are, Brych and Pinard wrote.
Several events at the opera house were recently canceled or postponed for COVID-19-related reasons and the venue is underselling shows by 50 to 80 percent partly due to a reluctance of patrons to attend public events in Claremont, they wrote.
The divided approaches to pandemic restrictions are apparent elsewhere as well. The Claremont Senior Center recently canceled a craft fair for COVID-19 reasons, but a craft fair scheduled for Stevens High School next month is still on.
Claremont Mayor Charlene Lovett said she’s concerned about the high case rate’s effect on the city’s economy and on the health-care system.
“It impacts employee availability, both in the private and public sector,” she said.
She noted that the state has recently set up a free COVID-19 testing site at River Valley Community College and pointed to a successful COVID-19 vaccine clinic on Veterans Day at the Claremont fire station. The clinic vaccinated 327 people, including 94 children ages 5 to 11, who recently became eligible for vaccination.
Access to vaccines is still a frustration for some. On Thursday, Claremont resident Matt Batchelder exited the CVS on Wall Street disappointed. The 35-year-old electrician, who wore a mask, said he had tried to get a walk-in appointment this summer with no luck and was motivated again to seek the shots by increasing case counts.
“It’s life now,” he said of the presence of COVID-19 in the community. “There’s not much we can do about it.”
Though disappointed at CVS on Thursday, Batchelder said he would try to get a vaccine through his primary-care provider.
The Claremont School District has a vaccination clinic scheduled for Dec. 5, and the New Hampshire mobile vaccination van is scheduled to make a stop at the town office in Newbury, N.H. on Dec. 5 from 1 to 5 p.m. prior to the town’s tree lighting. All vaccines, including boosters, are available, and anyone 5 and older can be vaccinated. Walk-ins are welcome, or appointments can be made by calling the Newbury Library at 603-763-5803.
More information about vaccines is online at vaccines.gov, vaccines.nh.gov and healthvermont.gov/covid-19/vaccine/getting-covid-19-vaccine, or by phone at 855-722-7878.
This article has been changed to remove a reference to Woodcrest Village Assisted Living, which is not in Sullivan County. As originally written, the article listed an inaccurate location for this facility.
Cheshire County Administrator Chris Coates said towns that contract with DiLuzio Ambulance Service may see a cost increase if the county’s planned purchase of the company goes through. But that won’t be the case in Keene, he said.
On Thursday, Coates gave a presentation to the City Council about the agreement of sale that the county is working to finalize with DiLuzio, which provides primary ambulance service to a number of Monadnock Region communities and also back-up services to several others. Keene uses DiLuzio to supplement its in-house ambulance service via an in-kind mutual aid agreement.
“This doesn’t affect, fiscally, the City of Keene,” Coates told the council. “You have your service in place.”
County officials on Nov. 11 announced their plans to buy DiLuzio, with hopes that the sale will be completed in 2022. The sale price has not yet been disclosed, pending government review and the finalizing of the sales documents.
Coates explained Thursday that last year, after the county received funding thought the federal CARES Act — the nation’s first major legislative package in response to the COVID-19 pandemic passed in March 2020 — discussions were held with DiLuzio about how the county could support the company’s operations. The response, he said, was an unexpected request for the county to purchase the service.
“That’s not what we went into this meeting thinking,” Coates said Thursday, adding that that the county started considering the possibility and ultimately decided it would be a good move.
Bob DiLuzio Sr., who owns the Keene-based company with his wife, Linda, told The Sentinel previously that after 60 years in the business, coupled with the toll of working through the COVID-19 pandemic, they decided it was time to sell.
Over the years, DiLuzio, like other ambulance services, has struggled with staffing shortages, response times and other hurdles, Coates said. He added that that if the company were to fail, and the county were left to pick up the pieces, then people’s lives would be at risk.
While Keene’s budget won’t see an impact to its bottom line as a result of the sale, Coates said towns that pay for DiLuzio’s services would see an increase. He noted that the sale would be an asset purchase — meaning the county would be buying DiLuzio’s existing contracts along with the company itself.
Coates said that he’s been meeting with town officials throughout the region to discuss the impact of the change. On Thursday, he said he still had a small handful of towns to get to.
“We’ve made it very clear that it’s pay to play, and what they’ve been paying all along, they’ve been getting a sweetheart deal,” Coates told the council. “So there is going to be some level of increase because that’s the reality we’re facing. Because this is going to be an enterprise fund, it has to pay for itself.”
The towns with DiLuzio contracts are Alstead, Fitzwilliam, Gilsum, Harrisville, Marlborough, Marlow, Richmond, Stoddard, Sullivan, Swanzey, Troy, Walpole and Winchester. The company also acts as backup for Keene and some other communities.
In Swanzey, which uses DiLuzio as its primary ambulance service provider, Fire Chief Bill Gould said that while he does anticipate that the cost of the service will go up, he sees the county’s impending purchase of the company as a good thing.
He said Swanzey relies heavily on DiLuzio’s service, noting that EMS calls make up about three quarters of the town’s responses, and about 70 percent of those result in a patient being transported to a hospital. But like other communities, staffing shortages have led to less-than-ideal response conditions.
“Currently, with their limited resources, DiLuzio does a decent job attempting to respond to all their contract communities and mutual aid partners, but that is a huge area with many requests for service,” Gould said in a written statement. “I commend their personnel for working through the pandemic and the workload they have to deal with.”
Prior to Thursday’s meeting, Coates told The Sentinel that while the county is not immune to the same staffing challenges as DiLuzio, “the county does have more resources to be somewhat more competitive. The County’s benefits and opportunities for participation in a retirement plan are generally better than the broader market.”
Gould said he believes the county would be able to keep up with the demand for ambulance service, but that there are still many questions to be answered. For the time being, he said his primary concern is making sure the town is able to get an ambulance to respond when the need arises.
In Walpole, Fire Chief Mark Houghton said he also feels this is a good move for the county. He said that while the Monadnock Region has been fortunate to have DiLuzio’s service for all these years, things have changed in the last decade or so, and it has become more difficult for for-profit ambulance service companies to keep things going.
“It’s made it a lot tougher to provide the level of care the community expects and deserves,” he said.
Houghton explained that Walpole uses DiLuzio only for paramedic intercepts, which typically occur when the required level of care is greater than originally believed. This means that of 550 to 600 incidents in a year, Walpole may need to call on DiLuzio for 30 to 40 of them. Given that, he said the town is probably prepared to deal with any cost increases that come from the county’s potential purchase of the company.
Meanwhile, Alstead Fire Chief Kim Kercewich said the town has its own ambulance service, like Keene, and relies on DiLuzio only as a back-up service. But like everywhere else, staffing issues are a big problem.
As fire chief, Kercewich said he feels that a transition of DiLuzio Ambulance Service into a county department would be a smooth one. But as a taxpayer, he’s worried about the costs the county will incur as it hires workers for the service, which will require not only money for salaries, but for benefits and retirement as well.
He also worried that once the service is taken over by the county, there will be less flexibility with its budget.
“DiLuzio is being run as a business, and that’s all well and good...,” he told The Sentinel, “whereas once it goes to the county, it’s basically gonna be here’s your money, make it last a year, you take whatever you can get.”
Sentinel staff writer Olivia Belanger contributed to this report.