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Taste of Keene food fest marks 'grand reopening' for downtown
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Jordan Cannon and his family don’t eat out often, but when they do, they typically make the trip to Keene from their home in Alstead.

“Our whole family loves to eat, and there’s lots of good restaurants here in Keene,” Cannon said Saturday afternoon during the Taste of Keene festival, adding that Thai Garden is a family favorite. His 9-year-old daughter Estrella sat opposite him on a camp chair in the shade of Central Square, snacking on Pad Thai from the nearby eatery.

The Cannons joined well over 1,000 other people for the food festival, which featured more than 20 local eateries, breweries and distilleries. Central Square was closed to traffic throughout the afternoon, allowing restaurants to set up tents in the street, and the crowd to stroll around and sample different food and drink.

“We come to Keene fairly often, and this is busier than it’s been since before [the pandemic],” Jordan Cannon said. “I can’t think of another community event that’s happened.”

Jack Rooney / Sentinel Staff  

Jordan Cannon of Alstead and his 9-year-old daughter Estrella enjoy a spot in the shade in Central Square on Saturday afternoon during the Taste of Keene.

The event started at noon, and by 1 p.m., it had already exceeded sales projections that predicted about 1,000 people would attend, according to Mike Remy, a city councilor and events coordinator for the Keene Young Professionals Network, which organized the food festival.

In the lead-up to the event, Remy said organizers envisioned it as a “grand reopening for downtown.” And under clear blue skies Saturday, he said the event lived up to that billing.

“It definitely feels like it,” Remy said. “It’s great to see people out and about and enjoying the outdoors, enjoying Keene’s downtown.”

Danielle Heeran of Spofford, who attended the event with several friends, agreed.

“It’s the first, like, normal thing that we’ve been able to do,” she said. “And it doesn’t feel uncomfortable because it’s outside. It feels safe, and good.”

Keene resident Chris Brehme was at home with his wife, Kristina Wentzell, Saturday afternoon when he got hungry, and she reminded him the festival was happening.

“We’re vegetarian and we found plenty to eat,” Brehme said. The couple added that they munched on a veggie plate from Yahso Jamaican Grille, cauliflower mac and cheese from The Farm Café and bar snacks from 21 Bar & Grill.

The event was free to attend, while food cost one to three tokens, which were $2 apiece. Restaurants offered small samples of their dishes, which allowed for festivalgoers to try multiple eateries. A beer garden was set up in the Hannah Grimes Center for Entrepreneurship parking lot on Roxbury Street, which also had a stage where several bands performed. Alcohol tastings were $2 each.

But more than the food and drink, Wentzell said, the atmosphere made the event.

“It’s just really nice to have something like this to go to,” she said. “I want to support the local businesses. I feel like it’s safe to be outdoors right now and in this kind of an environment. It’s just been a long time since we could do something like this. It’s just very pleasant.”

Jack Rooney / Sentinel Staff  

George (left) and Rudy Benik, whose family owns The Stage restaurant, serve up some food Saturday afternoon during the Taste of Keene on Central Square.

The event drew more than just restaurant patrons. About two hours into the festival, a group of roughly 15 protesters marched through Central Square, waving Palestinian flags and chanting and speaking in support of freedom for Palestinian people living in Israel, after violence reignited in that region last month.

Beyond providing a safe and enjoyable community event, Remy said Taste of Keene was designed to spotlight local restaurants and bars, which have suffered during the pandemic. The festival raised more than $40,000 that will be distributed to the participating establishments, Remy said Saturday night.

“I think it’s really important to help people break the ‘I need to stay home mentality,’ and get out and really start to enjoy the food that we have to offer in Keene again and really get excited about what we have to offer,” he said. Remy added that Taste of Keene coincided with Keene ArtWalk, which began Friday and is celebrating its 30th year highlighting local artists with events through next Saturday.

With these events, and the warm weather, Eileen Benik, co-owner of The Stage restaurant on Central Square, said she was thrilled to see so many people out and about downtown.

“We’ve had a good showing. You never know with a new festival,” she said. “... I think people are ready to get out. We’re still just seeing now with the vaccines, we’re seeing customers we haven’t seen in a year come back now. So it’s been great. Some people came back right away, but to see our regulars come back after a year now that they feel safe has been wonderful, because we’ve missed a lot of our regulars.”

This story has been corrected to reflect that this was the first Taste of Keene event in many years but not the first ever

Jack Rooney can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1404, or jrooney@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @RooneyReports.

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Pedestrian bridge could be renamed for Keene mayor who championed it
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During his time as a public servant, the late Keene Mayor Philip “Dale” Pregent took an interest in improving infrastructure for non-motorists, according to his son. Now, the city will consider naming one of its bicycle and pedestrian bridges in his honor.

Pregent, who died in March at the age of 84, served two terms as mayor and also two separate stints as a city councilor. His son, Greg Pregent, who once served on the city’s bicycle and pedestrian pathways committee, said he introduced his dad to the need for more non-motor transportation infrastructure around 2010 or 2011, and the elder Pregent was quick to take up the cause.

He saw it not only as an opportunity to enhance the city’s recreational offerings, his son said but also as a chance to help commuters. For example, Greg Pregent said that prior to the construction of North Bridge, which carries the Cheshire Rail Trail over Routes 9, 10 and 12 just south of Kohl’s, it was difficult for people who worked at the Monadnock Marketplace to get there without a vehicle.

It is North Bridge that could soon bear Pregent’s name. “One thing my dad would want to be remembered for in the city is being a mayor of the common man, or the common woman,” Greg Pregent said, adding that his father always aimed to listen to constituents and help them out. “North Bridge and the trail improvements in the city are a great representation of him being able to be a champion for those things.”

After his father’s death, Greg Pregent said the family was contacted by Keene City Councilor Bobby Williams, who suggested naming the bridge after the former mayor. The family liked the idea, and Williams decided to move forward with a request to do so.

In a June 1 letter to the City Council and current Mayor George Hansel, Williams asked that North Bridge be renamed after Pregent. On Thursday, Williams’ request was referred to the council’s Municipal Services, Facilities and Infrastructure Committee for further discussion.

“Mayor Dale Pregent was closely involved in the planning and development process for North Bridge, which was built the year after he left office,” Williams said in an email Friday. “Today, North Bridge is a vital link in Keene’s growing network of pedestrian and bicycle trails, and we are all the beneficiaries of his effort and vision. I think renaming the bridge in his honor is a fitting way to show our city’s appreciation for his many years of dedicated service.”

The 1,060-foot North Bridge opened in 2012 for pedestrian and bicycle traffic.

Pregent, a life-long Keene resident, was first elected mayor in 2007 and won a second term in 2009. Prior to that, he spent six years as a city councilor, a position he ran for again after finishing his second term as mayor in 2011. His second stint on the city council lasted until 2013.

In addition to his dedication to city infrastructure, Pregent was remembered for his kind and humble leadership style and his passion for his community. More than one person who has served on the City Council over the years has credited Pregent for sparking their interest in civil service, including Williams.

“I am personally grateful to Mayor Pregent for helping me get my start in local public service,” Williams said. “He was kind and supportive to me when I was an aspiring candidate for City Council, and I appreciate the time we spent together.”

During its construction, the bridge’s moniker was a subject of debate, as “North Bridge” was originally meant to be a temporary designation. The city formed a committee to come up with a better name, but after discussion, the structure continued to be known as North Bridge.

Pregent’s other son, Tim Pregent, also liked the notion of the bridge being named for his dad, calling it “a great idea.” He said his father had been passionate about improvements to the rail trail system and had strongly supported the bridge during his time in office. “I’m proud and glad that he’s going to be recognized and remembered for something like that,” he said.

NH, Vt. health officials push to reach those still not vaccinated against COVID-19
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There was a first-dose COVID-19 vaccine clinic at Colby-Sawyer College before Emily Vrooman left campus for an internship on Cape Cod this summer, but she would have had to come back for the second dose, she said.

The information she received about the clinic “didn’t say anything about if you could do it somewhere else or not,” so she chose not to get the vaccine then.

Vrooman, who is 22 and graduated from the New London college last month with a degree in exercise science, said she plans to get the vaccine, but “I just don’t know where the sites are.”

Even as the Twin State economy continues to reopen from the worst of the pandemic, some people remain unvaccinated against COVID-19, including the majority of those age 29 and younger.

Because young people in the Twin States’ became eligible for vaccination later than older ones, they have had less time to get the jab. The youngest, those under 12, remain ineligible.

But there are also indications of other reasons younger people haven’t stepped up as quickly as their elders. Some, like Vrooman, simply haven’t gotten around to getting a vaccine, while others say they don’t want them out of safety concerns. Public health officials are now changing their tactics to try to get shots in the arms of the remaining unvaccinated.

A healthy majority of eligible residents in both states have gotten at one dose of the vaccine, but those percentages vary by age. More than 90 percent of Vermonters 65 and over have gotten at least one dose, while fewer than 50 percent of those in the 12-15 age group have, as of Friday according to the Vermont Department of Health.

Similarly in New Hampshire, nearly 90 percent of those in the 65-74 age group have gotten a shot, while less than 50 percent of those age 16-29 have, as of last Sunday according to the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services.

Dr. Michael Calderwood, chief quality officer and infectious disease specialist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, said he’s “a little concerned” about the rates of vaccination among young people in the Twin States and around the country.

Nationally, just 20 percent of those ages 12-15 have had at least one dose; 37 percent of those 16-17; 44 percent of those 18-24 and almost 50 percent of those 25-39, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While Calderwood said vaccine mandates may make sense in certain settings such as schools where children are required to have other vaccines, he said he’d prefer to start by getting people to step up voluntarily.

“I think we have to recognize that a reality of this is that a one-size-fits-all communication strategy just telling people, ‘Do it!’ is not going to work,” he said.

Instead, he said, the strategy should be to meet with people, hear their concerns and “make sure they’re getting the right information.”

He also acknowledged that young people are being asked to get vaccinated at a time when the number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths related to COVID-19 are declining across the U.S.

“I am really encouraged by where we are,” he said.

But, he said, some of the decline is seasonal. The region saw a decrease in case numbers last summer and then a spike in the fall, he noted. In order to resume in-person learning as normal, eliminate masks and reopen colleges fully, young people need to be vaccinated in larger percentages, he said.

Young people tend to live in more congregate settings and be more social, so they are “going to be a driver should the numbers go back up,” he said.

While younger people have lower rates of serious illness when they contract the virus, some do become seriously ill and others develop lingering symptoms that prevent them from a full recovery, he said. Unvaccinated people of any age can transmit the virus to others should they become infected.

Beth Daly, chief of the New Hampshire Bureau of Infectious Disease Control, said that she’s not worried about the rates of young people stepping up to get vaccinated, noting that the youngest, ages 12-15, only became eligible last month.

“I think we’re doing very well,” she said during a Thursday news conference. “It will improve with time.”

Royalton resident Raeanne Boule said in an exchange of Facebook messages that she does not plan to have her children vaccinated due to her concerns about the safety of the vaccines.

“My kids are allergic to the flu vaccine and I almost lost my youngest to something that’s been around for years,” she wrote. “I can’t take the chance with a vaccine it only took months to make.”

While the COVID-19 vaccines were created quickly in response to the pandemic, scientists, including some with ties to the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, have been laying the groundwork for them for decades. In addition, amid the pandemic the vaccines were manufactured at the same time they were being developed, which was aided by federal financial support.

Public health officials, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recommend the vaccines and say they are safe and effective.

Calderwood said the CDC has a specific hotline number for health care providers or health departments to call to ask questions about allergies and other safety issues related to the COVID-19 vaccine.

“I’ve done this for my own family,” he said.

Calderwood said he thinks there are a range of factors contributing to a smaller percentage of younger people having gotten vaccinated. He pointed to issues related to needing to take a day off from work and feeling ill following the shot. But he said he thinks such concerns have been “overblown” and that while some people do feel sick, most people are able to work following their vaccination.

He also noted that some people have been concerned about receiving the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which was put on pause for 10 days in April due to a small number of serious blood clots in people who had received the vaccine. The clots were found at a rate of about 7 per 1 million vaccinated women between 18 and 49 years old, according to the CDC.

For most people, however, Calderwood said the “small risk of the blood clot is outweighed by logistics” and the simplicity of the one-dose vaccine.

He also said there have been a small number of cases of heart inflammation in adolescents and young adults following vaccination with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, but for most those symptoms are short-lived and leave no lasting impact.

Overall, Calderwood said, the risks of the vaccine are far outweighed by the benefits of protection against COVID-19.

Evolving strategy

Dr. Rudy Fedrizzi, public health services district director for the White River Junction office of the Vermont Department of Health, has been keeping a list of reasons why people who attend the vaccination clinics say their friends are holding out.

Some people say they’re waiting for the vaccines to move out of the emergency use status that the FDA has currently used to authorize them; others fear long-term effects; some younger people seem less concerned about developing serious illness should they get COVID-19; some simply haven’t had a way to get to a clinic.

Fedrizzi said he thinks that giving people access to the vaccines in their physicians’ offices will be a “game-changer.”

For example, Fedrizzi said, he thinks most parents will agree to have their children vaccinated if it is recommended to them by their pediatrician and available at the same time children are getting other vaccines.

In addition, Fedrizzi’s office is working to break down barriers to access by offering mobile clinics. The next one is on June 15, when the district will be bringing the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine to the motels that are serving as shelters during the pandemic, as well as to Listen Community Services’ White River Junction meal site.

Fedrizzi said his office is also working with area businesses and schools to offer on-site clinics aimed at increasing access.

On Friday, Vermont Gov. Phil Scott announced a slew of pop-up, walk-in vaccination clinics, including one in Windsor and another in Sharon that were held on Friday, aimed at getting at least a first dose to 80 percent of Vermonters 12 and older. Shots also are available on a walk-in basis in Vermont at a number of pharmacies, including CVS, Hannaford, Walmart, Walgreens, Price Chopper, Rite Aid, Shaw’s and Costco.

“As we’re seeing a slowdown in the number of people being vaccinated, we need those who have not yet gotten their shot to find a clinic today,” Scott said in a news release. “It has never been easier, with hundreds of clinics across the state. Vaccines are free, safe and very effective — now is the time.”

As of Thursday, almost 79 percent of eligible Vermonters had gotten at least one dose with nearly 7,900 more to go to get to 80 percent, according to Scott’s release. Earlier in the week, the state published a town-by-town map of vaccination rates, which showed high rates of vaccination across the region. The areas with lower rates may look that way because residents used mailing addresses rather than physical addresses on their vaccination forms.

As of Friday, about 68 percent of eligible New Hampshire residents had been vaccinated, according to the CDC.

On-site shots

The Woodstock Inn hosted a second on-site COVID-19 vaccination clinic on Thursday, one of a series of clinics organized in conjunction with the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing, and the Vermont Department of Health to target workers in the hospitality industry around the state.

“The convenience factor has proven effective in the state, so we are delighted to make it easier for our employees and community to be able to access the vaccine right here in the Village,” Courtney Lowe, the inn’s vice president of marketing and business development, said in an email.

“We do not require our employees to get vaccinated, yet we have ongoing campaign messaging to encourage and educate our employees on vaccination,” said Lowe, who is poised to become the inn’s president on July 1.

Sam Witcraft, a 27-year-old Barnard resident, said the convenience of the clinic’s location and the one-dose shot made it a good fit for him.

It was “just the easiest way to do it,” he said as he waited in a short line for his shot. He said that his girlfriend, who is immunocompromised, had to go to Rutland for her two shots.

“I was in no rush,” he said, citing his “pretty great immune system.”

But, he said, he is tired of wearing a mask, and his employer Twin Farms allowed him to attend the clinic without clocking out.

Chris Richardson, a 37-year-old Woodstock resident and a member of the Woodstock Inn’s culinary team, also said he was drawn to Thursday’s clinic by the convenience of one shot and not having to set up an appointment.

For 84-year-old Woodstock resident Joan Columbus, the tipping point that brought her to Thursday’s clinic was being the only one in a recent line dancing class that hadn’t yet had a vaccine.

“The community is what has prevailed upon me,” she said in a phone interview afterward. “Everyone I know had a vaccine. ... It’s just social pressure. I didn’t have to succumb.”

Though she still has concerns about the origins of the virus itself and about the vaccine, she said she thought the clinic was well-run and despite the “one oof” of getting her shot, she didn’t have any immediate side effects.

“That’s not the worst thing that’s ever happened to me in my life,” she said.

Rising liquor sales make NH-Vt. border a booze battleground

In July, a new 10,300-square-foot New Hampshire Liquor & Wine Outlet will open in the Claremont Marketplace plaza on Washington Street, nearly doubling the space of its former store.

Not everyone is raising a glass to toast the occasion.

“That’s going to hurt,” said Rice Yordy, owner of Windsor Wine & Spirits in Windsor, Vt.

Yordy, who has been in business 15 years but lost several months of sales last year when a water leak at his busy Main Street location forced him to relocate to the other side of the railroad tracks on Depot Avenue, said a bigger New Hampshire liquor store 12 miles away will likely have an impact.

“A lot of people come in here, check the prices and then drive to Claremont,” he said.

Although Yordy has longtime loyal customers and has even picked up a few since a liquor store near the White River Junction VA Medical Center closed several years ago, he doesn’t relish the prospect of a shiny, new giant store across the river where people can buy “a bottle of vodka $5 cheaper.”

Still, spirits are nonetheless uplifting the coffers of both states.

Although the 15-month COVID-19 pandemic has wiped out many retail businesses, wine and liquor sales are about to post record revenue in both New Hampshire and Vermont, according to liquor control officials. With many bars and restaurants closed, more people have been stocking up to drink at home.

Retail alcohol sales comparisons between New Hampshire and Vermont are difficult because each state accounts for sales differently — New Hampshire includes wine sales but Vermont does not, among other factors. It also complicates calculations that the Granite State has more than twice the population of Vermont, and its tax-free status draws an untold number of customers over its southern border with Massachusetts.

In New Hampshire, liquor and wine sales, with less than a month to go before the fiscal year ends June 30, have so far increased 3.6 percent, according to the New Hampshire Liquor Commission. Last fiscal year sales totaled $765.6 million.

In Vermont, liquor sales at the state’s contracted stores have increased 6.5 percent through May 31, according to the Vermont Department of Liquor and Lottery. Last year’s sales totaled $87.9 million.

New Hampshire’s state-run retail empire, which has renovated or relocated 34 of its 69 New Hampshire Liquor & Wine Outlets since 2012, dwarfs that of the Green Mountain State, which sells spirits through a network of 77 privately owned stores.

The Upper Valley has been at the center of the New Hampshire Liquor Commission’s expansion plans, relocating and building new stores in highly trafficked spots easily accessible from the Vermont side of the river.

Only last month, a new 6,300-square-foot New Hampshire liquor outlet opened in the New London Shopping Center, replacing the old store located below a Hannaford supermarket. That followed the opening in 2019 of a 19,000-square-foot outlet in West Lebanon that is now one of the highest-grossing stores in the state.

The new Claremont store, which is scheduled to open next month, will stock 3,600 wines and spirits, about 62 percent of the inventory carried in its larger West Lebanon counterpart but far outstripping what’s available in any single store across the river in Vermont.

The threat a New Hampshire store poses to liquor businesses across the river was evident one afternoon last week in West Lebanon, when easily half the cars pulling into the parking lot sported green Vermont plates.

“Pretty simple. Price,” said Bruce Miller, of Jeffersonville, Vt., when asked why he shopped at the West Lebanon store while he was loading a case of Captain Morgan Original Spiced Rum into his truck. The six half-gallon bottles cost him a total of $132, $22 apiece, compared with the $216, or $36 per bottle, he’d expect to pay in Vermont.

Miller, an HVAC contractor, said he makes a habit of swinging by the West Lebanon store whenever he has a job in the Upper Valley — and not only for himself.

“Friends are always saying, ‘Hey, Bruce, if you’re going to be in West Leb would you pick me up something?’ ” Miller said. “I don’t know if I’d drive all the way from Jefferson, but I’m here every week.”

Bill Hyde, a retired Ohio county superintendent who now lives in Woodstock, Vt., said a local shop in Woodstock sells a good selection of wines but he keeps an eye peeled for specials at the New Hampshire outlet. Like Miller, Hyde said he usually “piggybacks” a trip to the West Lebanon store when he has an appointment at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center or another reason to shop along the Route 12A box store corridor.

Parking lot license plate surveys aside, sales data from Vermont indicate that it is still unclear whether the New Hampshire liquor store expansions are having an impact on Windsor County stores.

Although there were still about eight weeks to go before the end of the fiscal year, as of May 10, Windsor County retail liquor store sales totaled $5.4 million, compared with $6 million for the full 2020 fiscal year, according to state figures.

While a $600,000 gap may seem a tall order, Windsor County’s weekly average sales over the 2021 fiscal year would put it on pace to not just close that gap by the end of June but surpass it, roughly matching the rest of the state with a 6.5 percent total sales increase over fiscal year 2020.

So even if New Hampshire is targeting Vermonters with bigger and bigger stores at the border, the impact isn’t necessarily showing up in regional sales numbers.

Wendy Knight, deputy commissioner, liquor control, for the state of Vermont, acknowledged that New Hampshire’s outlet stores — which don’t charge sales tax and have a huge advantage in leveraging wholesale prices with distributors — are strategically located in border communities and could be drawing customers away from Vermont.

But she said the two states approach liquor control differently.

Whereas New Hampshire manages liquor and wine sales as a state enterprise whose principal objective is to fund state programs, Vermont’s aim is to promote the independent store owners who are embedded in the community.

“We are supporting local businesses,” she said.

Skip Vallee, owner of the Vermont-based Maplefields chain of convenience stores, said he has observed how taxes affect the retail sector and he doesn’t doubt they can influence consumers’ purchasing behavior.

Vallee, who last year acquired the Sharon Trading Post, which is a Vermont state branded 802 Spirits outlet, said because the Sharon store is the only Maplefields in the chain that sells liquor he has “no basis for comparison with border locations versus others.”

Nonetheless, ”I can say we are significant beneficiaries of the delta in gas tax with two New Hampshire (convenience store) and gas locations” in Lebanon and Littleton, Vallee said via email. “It is amazing the number of green license plates we see at these locations.”

On the other hand, he, said, Vermont does at least have an edge — over Canada.

“Before COVID, a huge part of the northern Vermont business was Canadians filling up and stocking up before entering Canada,” Vallee said. “Many used to come to the state just to fill up pre-9/11 border scrutiny.”

This article is being shared by a partner in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.