Brud Sanderson and Todd Horner

Southwest Region Planning Commission Senior Planner Todd Horner, shown here working on a charrette on the previously proposed Keene arts corridor, is heading a regional economic effort.

Declining school enrollment. Rising diversity. Expanding high-speed Internet. The increasing importance of small firms. Growing employment in some towns and job losses in others.

Those are just some of the economic trends that a new planning initiative hopes to examine, laying a foundation to better understand the Monadnock Region’s economy, set economic development goals and identify the projects that are key to enhancing prosperity.

The initiative, called “Our Economy,” is led by the Southwest Region Planning Commission. It’ll be the commission’s first major overhaul of its comprehensive economic development strategy since 2005, said Senior Planner Todd Horner.

“It helps economic development entities ... to better understand what’s happening on the ground across the region, so that those organizations can help connect those projects with resources as they become available,” Horner said.

“… There’s a lot of creativity and innovation in our region, and sometimes it just requires connecting folks with the right resources in order to turn a project from an idea to a bankable, implementable project.”

While many of the issues identified in the 2005 document will be familiar today, Horner said, the specifics and urgency have changed. For instance, people were talking about workforce development and the housing supply 15 years ago. But staffing shortages and a lack of affordability and availability in the housing market have become far more prominent.

And other issues may not have been on the radar.

“It’s become readily clear how important [child care] is to supporting households’ ability to enter and stay in the workplace,” he said. “There’s been a lot more talk in recent years about racial diversity, social justice.”

The planning commission, Monadnock Economic Development Corp., the Hannah Grimes Center for Entrepreneurship and the Greater Keene and Peterborough Chamber have formed a steering committee to oversee the initiative. The planning commission’s Economic Development Advisory Committee will also play a role.

Identifying regional economic development priorities “bubbles up to the surface some really important things that are happening or should be happening in the community,” said Mary Ann Kristiansen, the executive director of the Hannah Grimes Center. “It kind of gives them light and focus ... and really helps move it forward.”

Horner said public outreach for the project will continue through the first half of next year, and he expects to wrap up the process by the end of 2022.

The initiative has already started sifting through the data, and is publishing its findings at oureconomy.info. Several posts examine demographics.

It’s well known that southwestern New Hampshire has an aging population that isn’t growing, posing long-term problems for the economy. But delving deeper, the planning commission has found some notable trends.

New Hampshire in general grew more diverse in the last decade, but the commission found that the southwest part of the state — while less diverse overall — diversified at a faster rate. The number of people who identified as something other than non-Hispanic white grew by 106 percent from 2010 to 2020, compared to 74 percent statewide.

As of 2020, 9.2 percent of area residents identified as a racial or ethnic minority, compared to 4.5 percent 10 years earlier — a net gain of 4,754 people. (Statewide, 12.8 percent of residents identified as something other than non-Hispanic white.)

Looking at sources of population change in the last decade, meanwhile, shows that most of the region gained population in only one way: international migration. Cheshire County lost 368 people through natural decrease (i.e., births and deaths) and 1,196 through domestic out-migration — but gained 565 individuals who migrated here from abroad. Sullivan County shows a similar pattern.

Findings like those raise important questions for economic development professionals, including how to attract more international workers and foster a welcoming, equitable environment for everyone, the posts say.

“What I think we’re learning is that that’s going to be key,” Steve Fortier, the interim director of Monadnock Economic Development Corp., said in an interview. “If our youth population is declining, the only way to have a strong and resilient economy, and therefore quality of life, is to continue to attract people to the region from outside of it.”

The commission has also looked at long-term employment trends. Cheshire County lost more than 2,600 jobs in the Great Recession and never recovered them, though there are variations from town to town. Swanzey and Jaffrey, for instance, both saw job growth of about 17 percent from 2005 to 2019. Meanwhile, employment fell by 3.9 percent in Peterborough and 13.2 percent in Keene — a loss of about 2,600 jobs in Keene alone.

Future analyses will look at what’s driving those shifts.

While the Monadnock Region economy faces challenges, Horner said there are also bright spots, from the rollout of rural broadband to innovative entrepreneurs to the vibrant manufacturing sector.

“We do have economic challenges that the region is facing, some of which may be unique, but most of which are probably common to many parts of the country, especially rural parts of the country,” he said. “But I think there is a lot of strength and resilience in the economy of the Monadnock Region.”

The planning initiative, he said, “is really looking to build off of those strengths. And that’s, I think, how we’ll overcome those challenges.”