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For Monadnock Region retailers, new vigilance accompanies reopenings

Some small local retailers are cautiously reopening their doors this week. But the customer experience will be a little different.

“We’re running around in here like crazy, trying to set up our protocols and have everything ready to go for a pretty kind of quiet, soft relaunch tomorrow,” Ted McGreer of Ted’s Shoe & Sport said Monday.

After two months of online sales, “virtual shoe fittings” and curbside pickup, customers will be allowed back in the downtown Keene running store, but only six at a time. They’ll be offered hand sanitizer, encouraged to wear masks and discouraged from touching merchandise.

If the store hits its reduced capacity, customers will be asked to line up outside the back entrance. Bright orange race-course markings have been placed on the sidewalk to create safe, 6-foot intervals.

McGreer said he’s thinking about how to maintain both social distancing and customer service in a business that often involves getting up close and personal with another person’s feet.

“We still want to be able to create that sit-and-fit experience that we’re known for,” he said.

New Hampshire stores were allowed to reopen for in-person shopping Monday for the first time since late March, when Gov. Chris Sununu issued his stay-at-home order closing all “nonessential” businesses. (Some retailers, including grocery stores, were exempted as “essential.”)

While the stay-at-home order remains in effect until May 31, Sununu has announced a series of steps to reopen slices of the state’s economy this month. Retail businesses — as well as hair salons, golf courses and drive-in theaters — were cleared to reopen Monday so long as they follow a set of specific safety guidelines.

Restaurants will be able to resume outdoor dining in another week.

Open doors and “OPEN” signs were visible at several stores along Main Street in Keene on Monday. But others chose to stay closed for now, and both car and pedestrian traffic seemed minimal that afternoon.

The Toadstool Bookshops in Keene, Peterborough and Nashua remain closed to in-store shopping “as we watch the results of testing,” according to a notice in the window of the Keene store.

“Since it’s a place for people to browse, we’d want to make sure that everyone feels safe being in the store,” said Don Luckham, that location’s manager.

Toadstool continues to offer curbside sales and free shipping, and visits to its website have “skyrocketed,” Luckham said.

Jane Gallagher was in her Peterborough antiques store Monday so a customer could pick up something bought over Facebook. But she’s not ready to welcome shoppers back into Grove & Main Antiques.

“I just don’t feel that it’s time yet,” she said, referring to the state’s COVID-19 data. “I don’t see the numbers doing what they need to be doing before we open up yet.”

She also worried about drawing day-trippers from Massachusetts, which is experiencing a more serious outbreak. And anyway, she said, she can’t imagine that many people want to “come and poke around” a store these days.

“The folks that I know in the area here are not ready for that,” she said.

Norm’s Ski & Bike Shop in Keene began letting customers back in Monday. Previously, it had been doing repairs and curbside sales three days a week, said co-owner Patty Clark.

Like Ted’s, Norm’s is taking strict precautions. No more than four people are allowed inside at a time, with a one-to-one customer-employee ratio so the employee can disinfect everything the customer touches.

If a customer tries on a helmet or article of clothing, it is labeled with the date and placed in a back room for days of quarantining. For obvious reasons, the store is trying to discourage too much of that.

“We’re trying to be so specific in finding out their needs, so we can go to the right product for them, and hopefully we’ll nail it with whatever they try on the first time,” Clark said.

Even as they reopened with new precautions in place, both McGreer and Clark admitted they are a little nervous.

McGreer said his store has gotten by with remote sales but needs to bring in more revenue soon. At the same time, he had a strange concern for a merchant — that things might get too busy, especially as some of his customers live across state lines.

Clark likened it to the “unnerving” feeling of getting too close to strangers in the grocery store.

“It’s not mandatory that people wear masks, but we’re asking people to while they’re in our shop, and we prefer it — even working outside with people,” she said. “Because if one of us becomes ill, then the shop will become quarantined, too.”

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Potential buyer makes offer on Troy Mills property

TROY — The Troy Redevelopment Group has found a buyer for the old Troy Mills complex.

During its meeting Thursday, video of which was posted to Facebook, the redevelopment group announced it had received an offer from the New York City-based management firm Cougar Capital to purchase the property for $288,000.

“It is subject to a number of things,” Richard H. Thackston III, chairman of the Troy Board of Selectmen and a member of the redevelopment group, said during the meeting. “The buyer has until Aug. 1 to do some physical and financial due diligence on the property, at which time we would execute a full contract on it, with the intent of closing by Oct. 1.”

The Monadnock Street facility would be converted into residential units, according to the letter of intent submitted by Cougar Capital. The firm is planning to renovate the property and create 135 apartments.

Thackston told The Sentinel that a different developer had previously expressed interest in turning the property into apartments, originally pitching a plan to build condominiums at the site in 2005, but the plan fell through.

“The Troy Mills is a great site and it is a shame that the previous developer was unable to bring his vision to life,” Cougar Capital said in its letter of intent. The letter goes on to lay out the firm’s plans to seek various tax breaks, including New Markets Tax Credits and Historic Tax Credits, to bring the project to fruition.

If all goes according to plan, the firm is aiming for a fall 2021 groundbreaking and expects to spend a total of $30 million. A $1,000 deposit would be paid to the town on acceptance of the terms of the agreement, and an additional $19,000 would be paid upon the completion of a purchase and sale agreement. The balance would be paid in full at closing.

Thackston said Cougar Capital has experience converting old mill buildings into apartments. According to its letter, the firm has closed more than 100 deals over the past decade and owns and operates more than 700 apartment complexes across New England.

Converting former mill buildings into apartment complexes has become a popular way to re-purpose them. Last fall, Brady Sullivan Keene Properties completed its transformation of the Colony Mill property on West Street into high-end apartments.

Thackston said Troy has a significant need for new housing, a problem which he noted has been felt in communities across the region. He said he expects the apartments to be market-rate, as opposed to specialty housing.

The current complex comprises several buildings constructed between 1920 and 1995, Thackston said, adding that the mill got its start producing horse blankets for the Union Army during the Civil War. At its peak, he said, the mill employed some 500 people.

Over the years, the facility transitioned into a leading producer of automotive fabrics, most recently making materials for Toyota and Ford. The mill closed its doors in the early 2000s and filed for bankruptcy two years later.

The property was given to the town due to a significant amount of back taxes, Thackston explained. The town then created the Troy Redevelopment Group, which was established to find a buyer for the property.

The group filed for bankruptcy in 2016 after dissolving in 2015, following controversy regarding the last attempt to develop the former mill. It re-formed last year and includes the town’s three selectmen as members, Thackston, Tim Byrnes and Curtis Hopkins.

“I’m glad someone wants to invest in Troy ... it bodes well for our region as a whole,” Thackston said. “There’s people interested in coming here and doing things, investing millions in capital, and people from outside can see that this market represents an opportunity for growth.”

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The pandemic for posterity: Historical society asks local residents to share their stories

While most people look forward to life beyond the coronavirus pandemic, Alan Rumrill tends to view the future through prisms of the past.

Specifically, the 37-year executive director of the Historical Society of Cheshire County and its staff are chronicling life today in real time for the benefit of those who come after us. Their goal is to encapsulate what people in the Monadnock Region are feeling, thinking and fearing as the pandemic evolves, so future generations — decades and centuries ahead — better understand the underpinnings of our strife.

Thus, in the early days of the pandemic, the historical society put out a call for area residents to send in their thoughts and personal stories of how COVID-19 has affected them. As of Wednesday, the historical society had received 89 submissions, and Rumrill encourages people to keep on writing as the pandemic takes its course. They went public with the request March 18, and submissions have come in via email, typewriter and longhand. The pace started slowly, picked up immeasurably and has since leveled off. Rumrill said it’s open-ended how long they’ll take submissions, to be determined by the virus itself.

“We feel it’s important to collect these stories while memories are fresh, so we could capture what was happening as it unfolds,” said Rumrill, who writes a weekly historical column for The Sentinel and similarly offers weekly snippets of local lore on WKBK radio.

“Who knows how long this is going to go on for? We’ve never done anything like this before,” Rumrill said. “I’m not sure how we’ll use them in the short-term; we’ll eventually organize them and file them electronically.”

Rumrill said Cheshire County was one of the first historical societies to embark on this mission, and many have since followed in various versions, including Peterborough and Putney, Vt. “I’m receiving emails from historical societies from all over the country now,” Rumrill said.

Local stories range from what daily life is like under shelter in place, tales of loneliness, milestone celebrations, suggestions on how to pass the time, even virtual pool. Here’s a sampling:

“I am a widow, living in Hinsdale. I’m feeling very lonely, trapped and isolated. I’m a social butterfly and I feel my wings have been ‘clipped.’ I took pride in keeping friendships by meeting my friends for lunch or coffee. I also enjoyed having friends come to my house for lunch or coffee. That cannot happen now. … My most disappointment comes with not being able to go to church for weeks. And not being able to participate in the holy season of Easter. … Being a widow is a very lonely life and being isolated as a widow makes your life even more lonely. Thank you for letting me document a part of my life through this computer.”

Another describes playing virtual 9-ball on separate pool tables via computer from the participants’ homes. One person breaks, then measurements are taken and the balls placed precisely in the same positions on each pool table. “Player #2 shoots until he misses and measures any ball that was moved. We play 9 ball because there are 1/2 as many balls to keep track of and it is not a called pocket game.”

One person wrote of how “Lady Boomers” became “Lady Zoomers” and celebrated a 68th birthday on Zoom. The submission concludes, “I sincerely thank those who reach out to senior citizens now living with social distancing who possibly suffer anxiety, depression and fear of contracting the Covid-19 virus. A phone call, e-mail or Zoom is greatly appreciated.”

Many describe what life is like in their households, and quite a few write about keeping their own detailed journals. Some relate tales of kindness from people in their neighborhoods, such as this:

“On my was back home (from grocery shopping), I stopped at our mailbox to pick up our mail and there were two handmade ‘Happy Day’ cards with pictures in them left from our neighbors twin [eight-year-old] boys Grant and Ryan. It all made for a ‘Happy Day’ during the Covid-19 Pandemic. It was [a] nice addition to our ‘Shelter In Place 2020’ experience.”

Rumrill said they’re all invaluable and will probably be read by generations to come.

The pandemic spurred Rumrill to write recently in his own column about how the 1918 Spanish flu affected residents in the Keene area. “Finding first-hand personal accounts was difficult,” Rumrill said, but those personal stories were perhaps the most compelling parts of the column. They reinforced to historical society members how important it is to relate history through the eyes of those who lived it.

In particular, Rumrill writes about the tragedy of Dr. Charles Eastman and his daughter, Irene. Dr. Eastman operated Camp Oahe, a summer camp for girls in Stoddard. His daughter was in New York City trying to build a career in acting and singing, and she visited Stoddard in mid-October 1918 with the news she had been offered a contract by the New York Metropolitan Opera, Rumrill writes. Later that day, she fell ill and was taken to the hospital in Keene. Irene died five days later of the Spanish flu and was buried in Sioux fashion — in an unmarked grave under a large tree behind the family home near Granite Lake.

More than 1,000 people in the Keene area contracted the Spanish flu, and during its height in the fall of 1918, several dozen were diagnosed daily. Like today, all public gatherings were shut down. But, Rumrill writes, “Despite the frightful toll of the outbreak, the worst passed suddenly as the numbers of new cases dropped as quickly as they had increased a few weeks earlier. Churches were allowed to reopen at the beginning of November, school resumed on November 5th, stores opened once again, and the ban on public meetings was lifted.”

Will history repeat itself? That’s to be determined, of course. But the historical society will be there to chronicle it, thanks to a big assist from the people of the Monadnock Region.

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Keene State's plans for fall include mix of live, remote learning

Keene State College plans to reopen campus in the fall, but classes and student life won’t exactly be back to normal.

Students may be required to return to campus in waves, so as not to overwhelm the college’s capacity to test for COVID-19 and ability to rapidly isolate anyone who contracts the viral respiratory illness, should an outbreak occur. When students do arrive, their dorm rooms will have a maximum occupancy of two.

“We will not have triples, we will not have quads,” college President Melinda Treadwell said Friday, the same day Keene State and all of the other members of the University System of New Hampshire, along with the state’s community college system, announced their intentions to reopen in the fall.

“If you have a high-density, close-proximity living environment, you create — as in long-term care facilities — the risk where it’s very difficult to control if an outbreak begins,” Treadwell said of the school’s dorms. “And so that’s why testing is so important. Our ability to test or know the immunity status or COVID status helps us quickly remove from the general population individuals who may present a risk.”

As of the fall of 2019, the college had an enrollment of 3,528, according to the Keene State Fact Book. That’s a 34.1 percent decrease since 2009, when the college’s total population was 5,356. Despite the coronavirus pandemic, Treadwell said Friday that the college is on track to enroll a freshman class between 853 and 887 students, which matches the school’s budget for the coming year.

Keene State is already working with state health and homeland security officials, and Cheshire Medical Center, to ensure the school has sufficient testing, tracing and isolation measures in place to reopen campus safely during the pandemic.

Along with UNH Police Chief Paul Dean, Treadwell is also co-leading a team to coordinate a system-wide reopening plan for all of New Hampshire’s public colleges and universities. She expects to present the plan to the system’s board of trustees at the end of June.

“I’m excited that we’ve reached the point where we believe the circumstances will enable us to control the risks associated with this, to manage with COVID rather than shelter from it,” Treadwell said. “... The plan will become an incident command structure for managing with COVID. This is how we will go into the fall with specific commitments.”

Those commitments, for now, include frequent and thorough cleaning and disinfecting, promoting physical distancing on campus and designating spaces to isolate anyone who gets sick, according to a news release from the college. All of these plans are still in the works, and Keene State is also looking at how it will handle class sizes and public events.

“Physical distancing in on-campus spaces is an important part of the planning discussion, as is planning for sporting events and other on-campus gatherings,” college spokeswoman Kelly Ricaurte said in an email Monday.

Teaching and learning will look different when Keene State reopens, too. The college is working on a flexible plan to offer a mix of in-person and online classes, depending on students’ needs.

“We’ll have blended classrooms, because there will be students quarantined, self-isolating, away, choosing maybe not to come back for portions of the semester,” Treadwell said. “So we’re investing in technology, professional development over the summer, so that our faculty are really ready to deliver the Keene State experience to a blended classroom environment.”

Specifically, the college is working to equip 25 percent of its classrooms with technology that will allow professors to stream live audio and video of their classes, Treadwell said. Keene State is also seeking state and federal funding to procure technology bundles, including hardware and Internet connectivity software, for students who lack sufficient technological resources for remote learning.

“What we have learned this semester is students who could engage, who had good connectivity, they felt really confident about the experiences they were having, and they felt that they really could engage with our faculty,” Treadwell said. “If students didn’t have that, it was a much less positive experience, and there is some subset of our student population, based on where they are, that their high-speed Internet is spotty, at best.”

Keene State has begun surveying students and faculty on the successes of remote leaning and potential improvements, and intends to incorporate that feedback into its plans moving forward. The college is hosting a series of webinars this week with current and prospective students to seek additional assessments of distance-learning procedures.

In addition to helping Keene State prepare to reopen campus in the fall, Treadwell said conversations like these also help shape the future of education, which she views as increasingly digital and collaborative.

“I think we have the chance, because COVID challenged us in a way we never would have been challenged otherwise, to think about higher ed and what it means on a campus like Keene State that values community so much, how do we create that,” she said. “Whether people are with us or distant, how do we create that same feel? And so there’s a lot of thought going into that right now.”

Keene State announced on March 18, in the middle of its spring break, that students would finish the spring semester remotely due to concerns about COVID-19. The news came on the heels of a faculty member testing positive for the disease.

In the nearly eight weeks since, daily life and classroom instruction at the college changed rapidly, and dramatically, as it responded to the pandemic. Now, as Keene State begins to prepare for reopening, Treadwell said the school has the benefit of hindsight, and the time to plan carefully.

“And we have to do that if we’re going to try to open and not have the experience of the spring,” she said. “... But we’re really confident that we’ll be able to manage this ... and communicate about it while we also guarantee safety and get back to work.”