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Federal funding bill includes $1M for Keene-based child-care training
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In her 44 years at the Keene Day Care Center, Suelaine Poling has seen a lot, including the cost of child care skyrocket.

Poling, the center’s executive director, said she’s recently noticed another concerning trend: New workers are going into child care without much, if any, formal training.

Keene Day Care Center works with those employees to get them up to snuff, she said, often assigning them a veteran staff member as a mentor. But for those who go into child care simply because they enjoy working with kids, Poling said starting work at the center — which enrolls about 90 children among its six classrooms — can be difficult.

“It is a bit of a different animal to come into a child care program like this,” she said.

That issue prompted a new initiative, which was awarded $1 million in a draft federal-spending bill, to offer training and other professional development opportunities for child-care workers in the Monadnock Region.

Led by Keene State College and the Monadnock United Way, the proposal is meant to improve worker retention in the child-care industry and expand local care options, according to officials with those organizations.

Federal funding for the program — which U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, announced in a recent news release — is among more than $45 million slated for New Hampshire communities in the draft bill. If enacted, that legislation would also finance sewer maintenance in Keene.

On top of the training-related concerns, child-care groups have struggled to retain staff during the COVID-19 pandemic because other industries pay better and don’t involve working with an unvaccinated population, according to Deirdre McPartlin, director of Keene State’s Child Development Center.

That threatens to further limit the number of child-care options, which McPartlin called “a red flag for the economy” because it keeps parents out of the workforce.

Data from the nonprofit Child Care Aware show that in 2019, nearly four in 10 Granite State kids in working families did not have access to licensed child care while their parents were at work, The Sentinel reported previously.

As part of its new initiative with the Monadnock United Way, Keene State — which offers a bachelor’s degree in early childhood development — would aim to boost the number of providers by hosting courses for new and current child-care workers, according to McPartlin. The federal dollars may also go toward a study of child-care needs in the area, including local staffing and affordability issues, and could help fund scholarships for people to attend the individualized training courses, she said.

“We all know the foundation of high-quality programming is to have well-trained teachers,” she said. “… Not everyone is able to afford a four-year program [or] is academically prepared for a four-year program, so our goal on this expansion team is really to meet the needs of our professionals and, at the same time, support them in retention efforts so that they’re staying in the field.”

The partnership between Keene State and the Monadnock United Way grew out of conversations on child care those organizations were having with city officials, the Keene Family YMCA and various daycare groups, according to McPartlin and MUW President Liz LaRose.

Among the main issues on that topic, LaRose identified affordability and a lack of child-care options in the Monadnock Region, where many providers have long enrollment waitlists. She noted that as of 2016, a quarter of New Hampshire families spent more than 10 percent of their income on child care — above the 7 percent that experts consider an affordable rate.

With federal funding for the new program set to arrive next year, if approved, LaRose said MUW — the Keene arm of a global nonprofit that helps back efforts related to children, education, financial stability and other basic community needs — is working to determine the best use of those resources. The organization also hopes to identify other funding sources so it can continue the training in future years, she said.

“We’re really excited about the opportunity to provide these services so that we can welcome more people into the field who love to work with children and would really love to have a wonderful job and a good career,” she said.

Leatrice Oram, chief of staff to Keene State President Melinda Treadwell, said the program “could get started right away, regardless of scale” if the federal funding comes through next year.

“We can do plenty with $1 million,” she said.

Poling said those efforts should also include trying to keep Monadnock Region natives in child-care jobs here, explaining that many experienced workers have left their jobs recently and that most young people interested in the field move away. Even the college students with part-time jobs at Keene Day Care Center often leave the area after graduating, further limiting the child-care workforce, she said.

But with more opportunities for professional development, Poling said, that trend could be reversed.

“It gives people a pathway and creates more of a feeling that this is a career,” she said.

Money for sewer maintenance

The federal spending bill also includes $325,000 for a maintenance review of Keene’s sewer system, Shaheen announced in the recent news release.

That project is needed because the city’s main sewer line, which carries all wastewater from Keene and Marlborough to a treatment plant near Dillant-Hopkins Airport in North Swanzey, was built in 1985, according to Keene Public Works Director Kürt Blomquist.

Blomquist said last week he isn’t aware of any specific damage to the underground line but that it’s made of concrete, which can deteriorate over time. The federally funded assessment would check for any blockages or weak points in that system, he said.

“No one has seen it since it was installed 36 years ago,” he said.

That work could involve temporarily draining the sewer line and probing it with a video camera, using ground-penetrating radar to detect any damage or sending signal-emitting technology through the line to check the wastewater flow, Blomquist said. The review would need to occur within around a year of receiving federal funding, he said.

Aaron Lipsky for The Sentinel

Anthony Petersen, dressed in a clown suit, leads trick-or-treaters down Main Street.

Aaron Lipsky for The Sentinel

Allison Jones of Ye Goodie Shoppe gives treats to Shreya Chandra, 3.

Red Sox Nation has lost an irreplaceable icon with death of Jerry Remy

It’s not in the good times that we needed Jerry Remy most.

It was in the dog days of summer during a lost season, when the Red Sox had fallen too far back in the American League East, the mid-season trades went in the wrong direction and a weeknight game was no longer competitive.

That’s when Remy and longtime partner Don Orsillo would scrap the baseball talk and begin riffing on the latest episode of “Days of Our Lives,” or tell stories about the dinner they had the night before in Toronto, or dig into Remy’s playing days and rehash an embarrassing moment when he was in the minor leagues.

Remy wasn’t just a broadcaster. He was a friend who spent more hours of summer with us than most of our family members.

Sunday, we mourned together the loss of a New England icon, who died at the age of 68 after a 13-year battle with cancer.

It’ll be impossible to replace the man who helped so many fall in love with baseball and tie their hearts to the Red Sox, even when the Sox snapped them in two.

While the Sox came up empty season after season until 2004, Remy offered daily reminders that baseball was supposed to be fun.

He and Orsillo could create unforgettable moments just by being forgetful.

One time, when Orsillo didn’t notice a typo on an ad-read, Remy asked him what he just said.

“Running away winning programs to help families,” Orsillo said.

“Running away?” Remy responded.

The ad was supposed to read, “award-winning.”

The two burst into laughter for an entire half-inning.

When the cameras caught a pair of young couples sitting in the stands, Remy noted it was a beautiful day for couples in love. Right on queue, the man made an inappropriate gesture, grabbing the woman’s breast, to which Remy said, “whoops.”

When Remy lost a tooth, Orsillo found a bag of tools, grabbed a wrench, picked up the tooth and procedurally replaced it in Remy’s mouth.

When a fan threw a piece of pizza that hit another in the shoulder, Orsillo and Remy spent much of the next inning giving a play-by-play of the events.

“Here comes the pizza!” will forever be part of Red Sox history.

Over and over, these two goofballs kept us giggling. We weren’t laughing at them. We were laughing with them.

It was easy to see how much Remy cared about his job, that his cancer treatment often took a back seat to two things: how much he’d miss baseball while he was gone, and how he could use his experience to help other people.

Remy was honest about his depression. And he encouraged people to get early cancer screenings that could save lives.

“If I can help anyone, that’s great,” he said in 2013. “Last time I got so many letters from people who have gone through cancer, gone through depression who are fighting it at that particular time. And I felt like maybe I did them some good. I don’t know. Hopefully I did.”

For a long time, it was rare to walk into a clubhouse that didn’t already have Remy sitting in it somewhere, perched in a red chair with a cup of coffee, talking to whichever journalists, players, coaches or other baseball hooligans who happened to walk by.

The players knew how much he cared about the game and appreciated his willingness to share his observations. The journalists appreciated his candor when he wanted to talk, but respected his oft-desired preference of staying in the background and keeping to himself.

As long as he was in a baseball stadium somewhere, anywhere, Remy seemed happy.

For a fanbase that suffered for so long, Remy’s light-heartedness seemed to connect so seamlessly.

So often at large Red Sox events held in the city, fans would be just as excited to see Remy as they would any of the current stars still playing for the team.

Those of us lucky enough to spend time in his presence will always remember the seriousness in which he took his job and how fun he made it look.

Sunday, we didn’t mourn the loss of Remy by ourselves. We mourned with his family, his friends, his former teammates and coaches, the players who got to know him over the years, the NESN colleagues who loved working with him and every single person who turned on their TVs during the summer months and listened to Remy share his perspective, crack a joke and start laughing so hard you lost track of what was happening on the field.

In good times and bad, Remy was always there.

Next season will be the first in more than 30 years that he won’t be there anymore. Red Sox baseball will never again be the same.

Cleo Boswell, six months, of Keene dons a cozy costume.

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Councilors hear cases for dog park, disc-golf course at former Keene campground
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A dog park or a disc-golf course?

That’s the choice Keene city councilors will consider in coming weeks after two local groups pitched different uses for the same piece of land in Wheelock Park.

In the spring, the city was approached by the Keene Disc Golf Club, which hopes to use the old Wheelock Park campground — which closed in 2018 due to low attendance — to build a second disc-golf course that would be more user friendly than the organization’s existing course at Otter Brook State Park. Then, last month, the city received a request from Rebecca Lancaster, who represents a group of people who have been trying for years to build a dog park in Keene, to consider letting them use the campground space for that purpose.

On Wednesday, both groups addressed the council’s Municipal Services, Facilities and Infrastructure Committee to explain why they feel the land should be used for their project. The committee voted unanimously (with the exception of Councilor Bryan Lake, an active member of the disc-golf group who recused himself) to place both items on “more time.” This will allow more information to be gathered before the panel makes a decision.

“The one thing we need from both is really a design and their nonprofit organizations [to serve as fiscal agents],” said Andy Bohannon, Keene’s parks, recreation and facilities director.

Bohannon has been working with the two groups to explore the possibility of using the site and said both ideas are conducive to the space that’s available at Wheelock Park, which is located off Park Avenue. He said while the disc-golf proposal is relatively new, efforts to establish a dog park in Keene have been in the works for a long time.

Lancaster, a Keene Board of Education member who is currently taking the lead on the dog-park initiative, told the committee Wednesday that a petition in support of the project had garnered more than 600 signatures. The location is ideal for a dog park, she said, as it’s close to Wheelock Park amenities such as restrooms and parking, but far enough from the nearest home to avoid any issues for nearby landowners, which has been a concern during past conversations about a dog park at other locations.

“The benefits for having a dog park is there really are no others locally in adjoining or adjacent towns,” Lancaster told the committee. “I was actually surprised, moving up here, that there wasn’t an established dog park in a town this size. So it’s a safe space for community members to exercise and socialize their dogs. It’s a great amenity ... something else that Keene could offer to attract families and young professionals and such to the area.”

Several people spoke during Wednesday’s meeting in support of the dog-park proposal. One of them, Rebecca Cloud, said she thinks it’s a great idea and that it would help address concerns about people walking their dogs on bike trails or letting them run in open fields.

“Part of the problem with that is just that people don’t have anywhere for their dogs to run and kind of release their energy and play,” she said. “And I think having a dog park is kind of a nice meeting-in-the-middle kind of thing, where people can bring their dogs somewhere and let them cut loose and run around and play and burn off energy. And it won’t interfere with the public.”

Meanwhile, Robert Johnson, from the Keene Disc Golf Club, said a course would be a good fit with other activities at the park and that the group would handle all the ongoing maintenance required at the facility, as it does at Otter Brook. He also said the spot would make for a less challenging course than Otter Brook, making it more family-friendly.

The Otter Brook course has done well, Johnson said, attracting players from around New England. But he said it’s not always suitable for younger players or those who are just learning the game, which is also known as Frisbee golf.

“As successful as Otter Brook has been, one thing that it is not is beginner-friendly,” Johnson said. “Lack of access off-season, changes in elevation and sometimes rugged topography can be overwhelming to new players, and this is where Wheelock comes in.”

He added that the club would commit to designing the course and raising the funds to build it and install signage, adding that he’s confident the group has the financial resources to fill in any fundraising gaps. If all goes in the group’s favor, he said, a spring completion date is “very doable.”

Councilors on the committee expressed interest in both proposals but agreed they need more information before making a decision. Councilor Andrew Madison pointed to Living Memorial Park in Battleboro, where he said a disc-golf course and a dog park are operated at the same facility.

Lancaster suggested a dog park may be more widely appreciated than a disc-golf course, saying that a broader portion of the community might take advantage of it. But she added that she’d be willing to find a way to share the space if possible.

“There’s quite a few more acres there than the dog park needs,” she said. “So I would love a chance to just sit down together and brainstorm and see if there’s a way to make that space work for both groups.”

Labor market shows signs of hiring uptick as coronavirus surge fades

Jerry Akers, the owner of 36 hair salons in Iowa and Nebraska, had 70 open positions for more than six months. The company shrank during the pandemic, but as he tried to staff back up amid the reopening in the spring and summer, Akers had trouble finding enough people to work as the delta variant spiked.

But something changed over the last month. The number of applicants online picked up. And suddenly Great Clips was able to hire 10 people after months of struggling to find workers, bringing the number of its openings down significantly for the first time all year.

“You almost give up hope when it takes several months to do what you need to do,” Akers said. “But we are seeing some forward momentum. There seems to be a little more interest for people to start getting back to normal.”

The labor market has endured a couple of disappointing months, denting the country’s confidence after vaccine skepticism and the delta variant’s surge conspired to obliterate the optimistic projections for the late summer and fall.

But with caseloads falling and the country’s vaccination rate rising slowly but steadily, the labor market is now seeing some signs of a hiring boost, as the country continues to climb out of the gigantic employment hole left by the pandemic.

New unemployment claims have fallen every week for a month straight — down to a pandemic low of 281,000 — after elevated figures through much of the pandemic. Business surveys, like IHS Markit’s purchasing managers’ index, show that service sector employers — the largest portion of the economy, by far — are increasing workforce numbers at the quickest rate since June, when the country added nearly 1 million workers to the payrolls.

And consumer confidence, the engine of the U.S. economy, reversed a months long slide in October to mark high numbers, according to the Conference Board’s monthly survey. Consumers were also the most optimistic about their own prospects to find jobs since 2000, the survey found.

Consumer desire to travel was the highest since before the pandemic. Restaurant reservations have recovered in October, from a dip in September, as measured by data from Open Table, to nearly return to pre-pandemic levels. Overall coronavirus cases have gone down by more than 50 percent since the peak mid-September.

“Job growth picked up in the month of October, with a lot of the temporary head winds that held it back in the last few months less of an issue,” said Bill Adams, senior economist for the PNC Financial Services Group. “I think one of the reasons job growth was faster in October is people felt like they were less likely to be pulled out of the workforce.”

Akers said that has definitely been the case with his workforce.

The company’s employees are overwhelmingly women, most of them mothers, and many of them single mothers, he said. Problems with finding adequate child care — difficulty finding day care facilities that are still open or have enough staff — has held back his staff throughout the pandemic, he said.

“So many of our employees or potential employees just had a terrible time finding day care,” he said. “Now there are more opportunities for our staff to find somebody to watch their children. So if I had to pick one thing that’s driving the higher interest right now, it’s he fact that there’s a slight change in the day care situation.”

Gail Myer is the chief operating officer of Myer Hospitality, a group of six hotels in Missouri. The company has had a hard time hiring as well, and are currently about 6 percent below full staff, with eight open positions. But the last few weeks have brought an increase of applications the hotel company’s way, he said. Overall, they have been able to move quicker on hiring since about mid-September, he said.

“I wish I knew the answer, but I really don’t know. It’s just a pleasant surprise,” he said. “What the pandemic did is it changed many people’s lives in different ways. My sense is that there is a return closer to normalcy. But it’s not floodgates opening, it’s a journey. Each person is having to work out their specific situation.”

The country has worked its way out of the deep crater in the labor market — 22 million jobs lost in the earliest days of the pandemic — in fits and starts, gaining the first half of those jobs back by August 2020, before the recovery sputtered out amid the winter surge last year.

It has added just over half of the remaining 11 million jobs so far this year. And it still needs to gain back at least 5 million jobs to match the number of jobs it had before the pandemic, or even more to account for what would have been typical growth over a non-crisis period.

But the country added just 560,000 jobs in total during August and September, well below the more than 2 million it added in June and July. The September share of the haul — 194,000 jobs, was particularly disappointing.

Economists are more circumspect with their predictions now, saying that the recovery from the unprecedented public health and economic crisis has proved to be more unpredictable than expected. Months where 1 million jobs are added may be a thing of the past, as supply chain issues, labor shortage woes, inflation and other wrinkles continue to complicate the recovery.

“The jobless claims data implies that people are streaming back into the workforce. The real question is, will it be the composition that we’re looking for?” said Joseph Brusuelas, chief economist at the firm RSM, saying that the country is still waiting for an uptick in employment among demographic groups like Black and Latino women. “It’s not going to be all in one month. It’s going to be spread out over two to six months. And that’s not going to be palatable to anybody in the policy sector or anybody who is a voter, right? But we’re starting to see it.”

Nick Bunker, an economist at the online jobs site Indeed, said that the number of job postings continued to grow on the site. But the company has not seen an increase in job search activity; the number of searches by people 18 to 64 actually ticked down in October, ever so slightly, but it was not statistically significant, he said.

“In other words, another month of data and there’s no sign of a quick or sudden return of jobseekers this month,” he said. “Labor supply is still likely to return as pandemic-era factors fade, but it’s clear now that the return will be more gradual than many of us thought earlier this year.”

Akers was careful not to be overly optimistic about the march back to full employment at his company.

“It’s going to be a long haul,” he said.