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NH bill would create new relief fund for entertainment venues

PETERBOROUGH — Since opening in 1933, the Peterborough Players theater has closed for the summer six times, half of them during World War II.

Last summer was the sixth, as the performing arts nonprofit canceled its summer program — which typically includes seven productions at its Stearns Farm theater on Hadley Road — to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The Players’ managing director, Keith Stevens, told The Sentinel in November that the organization lost more than $500,000 in expected revenue last year, primarily from ticket sales.

“That has been a large gap to make up,” he said at the time.

However, two new relief funds — one of which may relaunch this week, with the other still under lawmakers’ consideration — could help venues like the Players ease financial strain as the entire live-event industry recovers from the pandemic.

One fund, the federal Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program, will distribute more than $16 billion to entertainment facilities nationwide, including performing-arts theaters, cinemas and live-music venues. That money can go toward payroll, rent and utility payments, administrative costs and marketing fees, among other expenses, though it cannot be used to purchase real estate or pay off loans taken out after February 2020.

The U.S. Small Business Administration, which is managing the grant program, began accepting applications April 8 but closed the online portal later that day due to technical difficulties. On its webpage, the SBA says it aims to reopen applications for Shuttered Venue Operators grants — which are funded by stimulus bills passed last December and in March, and could be as much as $10 million — this week.

For organizations that do not get federal relief, however, a bill introduced in the N.H. Legislature earlier this year proposes a financial alternative.

The Save Our Granite Stages Act aims to help small entertainment venues in New Hampshire remain viable through the pandemic, according to state Sen. Becky Whitley, D-Concord, who sponsored the legislation.

If passed, the bill would create a fund available to any for-profit and nonprofit venues that do not receive aid from the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program. The N.H. State Council on the Arts, a state agency, would administer that relief.

Whitley said she and state Sen. Rebecca Perkins Kwoka, D-Portsmouth, introduced the Save Our Granite Stages Act after hearing local venue owners plead for more support beyond the Paycheck Protection Program and other existing federal aid.

“For a number of reasons, they had fallen through the cracks for that assistance,” she said.

In addition to entertaining audiences, Whitley said live-event venues attract young people to New Hampshire and drive economic activity, since patrons often visit other nearby businesses, too.

“Our little live venues are really important economic multipliers,” she said.

The Peterborough Players plans to avoid closing for another summer and is scheduled to reopen for an abbreviated, three-play season in August, according to Stevens. (The organization will announce more details on those performances in early May.)

Even then, Stevens said, the organization will likely need to limit capacity at its 250-seat theater to a quarter of that figure due to social-distancing guidelines.

“It’s really hard to produce work that will not lose money if capacity is at 24 or 25 percent,” he said.

The Players intends to request federal relief when applications resume, according to Stevens, who said he was among the “25,000 people who crashed the site earlier this month.”

However, the organization likely won’t be able to apply until grants are awarded to even harder-hit venues, since it offset some revenue loss during the pandemic by fundraising, Stevens said. (The Players was also awarded $170,000 in emergency federal funding last November and received smaller aid disbursements earlier that year.)

As a result, Stevens said it’s possible that federal funds will no longer be available when the organization can apply. In that case, he said, the Players would request relief from the Save Our Granite Stages Fund, if that legislation is enacted.

State Rep. Donovan Fenton, D-Keene, who also sponsored the bill, said “quite a few” local venues have expressed need for financial support. Fenton echoed Whitley’s comments that investing in those organizations also helps the surrounding economy.

“These halls, these theaters, these performance venues — they’re destinations,” he said. “… This is going to bring back business to those areas.”

Peterborough Community Theatre owner Vanessa Amsbury-Bonilla said her business has avoided large financial losses during the pandemic by allowing private groups to rent its screen for a movie or video game. The cinema, which also raised $14,000 last summer to get through a temporary closure, will not request the latest federal relief nor the proposed state aid, according to Amsbury-Bonilla.

“I would rather see that money go to other venues that have not been able to shift their business model like we have,” she said.

But the funding is “absolutely paramount” for live-event venues, Stevens — the Players’ managing director — said, explaining that even as those organizations reopen, it takes time to attract performers and develop a full lineup.

Relief funds would help the Players cover some of its payroll and marketing costs, as well as new expenses related to installing COVID-related protective equipment, he said.

“[Entertainment] venues were among the first to close [and] are going to be among the last to reopen,” he said.

State senators unanimously passed the Save Our Granite Stages Act — part of an omnibus bill that would also fund small businesses and survey New Hampshire nursing homes for their COVID-related needs — earlier this month.

The bill is likely to become part of the state’s budget, which lawmakers are currently drafting, Whitley said. Funding for the program would come from aid that New Hampshire has been awarded in federal stimulus packages, she said, reiterating its importance to entertainment venues.

“It might even take years for these small businesses to recover.”

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Keene ZBA OKs new hospital residency at former Peerless building

The Keene Zoning Board of Adjustment has approved Cheshire Medical Center’s plan to create a primary care residency program at the former Peerless Insurance building on Maple Avenue.

In a hearing Tuesday night, zoning board members voted 5-0 to grant the hospital a special exception to use the vacant 62 Maple Ave. site for a new family medicine residency, in addition to other clinical and administrative operations.

Cheshire Medical Center, the local Dartmouth-Hitchcock Healthcare affiliate, had already agreed to acquire the property, but the deal was conditional on receiving a special exception from the zoning board, attorney Jason Reimers told the board Tuesday. Keene’s zoning code requires that any institutional use on Maple Avenue, like a health care facility, receive this exception.

Cheshire Medical CEO Dr. Don Caruso told the zoning board that the hospital needs more primary care physicians to meet local residents’ health care demands.

Citing data that show more than half of physicians nationwide work within 100 miles of their training site, he said the residency — which would include a training program and a family medicine practice staffed by faculty — would benefit both the Keene area and the entire state. New Hampshire currently has two family medicine residencies, in Concord and Exeter, according to Caruso.

He and Kathryn Willbarger, the hospital’s chief operating officer, also said acquiring the former Peerless building would reduce overcrowding at their main campus on Court Street. Cheshire Medical has proposed relocating clinical practices such as physical and occupational therapy as well as pediatrics to 62 Maple Ave., in addition to administration offices and a day care center for employees’ children.

“Without that additional space, Cheshire Medical Center will be challenged to meet the needs of our aging community,” Willbarger said.

The hospital must also receive site-plan approval from the planning board, according to Keene’s zoning administrator, John Rogers.

Cheshire Medical would begin using the 143,000-square-foot building “in the very near future” if it’s acquired, Caruso and Willbarger told the zoning board in a March 19 letter.

Liberty Mutual Insurance, which purchased Peerless in 1999, sold the Maple Avenue property last July to a limited-liability company that shares an address with the Connecticut real estate investment firm Twenty Lake Holdings LLC.

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Latest data show Cheshire County air quality improving
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For the first time, Cheshire County’s air quality earned the highest marks in this year’s report from the American Lung Association.

But according to a local expert, the report doesn’t offer a full picture of area air pollution.

Released this morning, this year’s State of the Air report tracks and grades levels of particle pollution and ozone nationwide from 2017 to 2019.

At certain levels, both ozone and particle pollution can cause premature death and other serious health effects, such as asthma attacks and cardiovascular damage.

Ozone in the upper atmosphere helps filter out damaging ultraviolet radiation from the sun, but once it’s in the air we breathe, it can become harmful to our respiratory system. Harmful ozone occurs when sunlight interacts with certain chemicals, such as those caused by car and chemical emissions.

In both categories, Cheshire County received an “A” ranking — up one grade from the “B” it’s received for the past several years and the first “A” it’s gotten since the report was initially released 22 years ago.

“Cheshire County by all accounts did really well on this year’s report,” said Michael Seilback, the national assistant vice president for state public policy at the American Lung Association. “Certainly any time you could receive ‘A’s without any levels of elevated pollution is something to be really happy about.”

For ozone levels, an “A” means the county had zero days during the marked time period on which the ozone was elevated, according to the report.

Particle pollution, meanwhile, is measured in two ways: average annual levels and short-term spikes.

Historically, Cheshire County — especially Keene — has had problems with fine particle pollution due to a combination of factors: the city’s location in a geological bowl and people’s use of wood stoves in the winter. A meteorological event called inversion leads the fine particles emitted from those stoves to be trapped in the valley.

But this time, the county fared well. It had no short-term spikes — measured in 24-hour periods — in particle pollution, and the average annual level also did not show a heightened rate of pollutants.

But Nora Traviss, an environmental studies professor at Keene State College, said the report shows only a general view of the area’s pollutants.

“This is a great broad brush approach for the goal of the report, which is to identify highly polluted areas in the United States,” she said in an email. “But it is a big brush so it misses important details and context, which are very important to rural areas like Keene and other New England valley communities.”

Traviss — who is working with her students to predict local air inversions — added that the county being in compliance with the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations for ozone and particle pollution doesn’t mean there aren’t still health risks.

The report shows Cheshire County has higher rates of asthma (10 percent) than Fairbanks, Alaska, (9 percent) and Fresno, Calif., (8 percent), which are considered the two cities with the highest levels of particle pollution in the United States, according to Traviss.

Additionally, the report doesn’t consider indoor air quality, which Traviss said is critical since people spend so much time inside. Poor indoor air quality in the winter, for example, could increase asthma rates.

“Sometimes its critical to get into the ‘weeds’ of these reports to point out the constraints of the conclusions,” she said.

Meanwhile, air quality measurements might not be representative of an entire county.

Seilback explained that each county is given one monitor, which is then placed in a community that’s reflective of the county. For Cheshire, that is on Water Street in Keene.

Traviss added that most rural areas have few, if any, regulatory monitors, so it’s difficult to know the entire region’s air quality.

“Generally, the monitor should reflect a broad perspective of the air quality for the county,” Seilback said, “but there are cases where a monitor is placed in one part of the county, and it’s so far away from a source that local residents would sometimes complain and say ... ‘We need a monitor here because they are saying it’s good in the county, but it’s not here.’ “

The four other New Hampshire counties for which the American Lung Association had particle-pollution data— Belknap, Hillsborough, Rockingham and Grafton — received an “A.” For ozone, Belknap, Merrimack and Coos kept their “A” rating, while Grafton kept its “C.” Hillsborough and Rockingham improved their ratings, receiving a “B” and “C”, respectively.

Seilback added that Cheshire’s rating bump is likely not due to one or two events, but rather a combination of local, state and federal efforts, as well as increased education, monitoring and awareness.

But despite this work and a good rating this year, Seilback said “we can’t become complacent.”

“We all have a way to contribute to keeping our air quality clean, whether that means making sure we are turning off our lights or not pumping up our air conditioner when we’re not home,” he said. “... Being cognizant of our contributions to air pollution is important.”