Despite the economic uncertainty brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, Monadnock Economic Development Corp.’s new president says the organization is pushing forward with two major local projects.
Arthur Robert provided an update on plans for a business hub at Keene State College and an arts and culture corridor downtown during the Greater Keene Chamber of Commerce’s latest “coffee and conversation” meeting with members Tuesday.
Robert has been with MEDC, a Keene organization that works with businesses to facilitate development in the city and surrounding areas, for the past six weeks. He succeeded Jack Dugan, the corporation’s longtime president who officially retired earlier this month.
The business hub, Robert said, is the closer of the two projects to being shovel ready. He said it’s possible that construction on the center, which would be on Winchester Street, could start in early 2021, while related demolition work could be underway by the end of 2020.
“This is a project that’s been gaining momentum over time,” Robert said during Tuesday’s meeting, which was held via the video-conferencing platform Zoom and attended by about two dozen people. “We’re at a critical moment where we’re on the cusp of being able to move the idea of a collaboration between Keene State College and advanced manufacturers in the Keene area to establish a workforce training facility where both sides can share expertise, talents, equipment to train the region’s workforce and strengthen it over time.”
The hub would serve as a center for training and innovation, as well as a way to connect area businesses to the college. The $13 million project is a partnership between Keene State, River Valley Community College, Nashua Community College, the city of Keene, MEDC, and manufacturing companies based in the Monadnock Region and other parts of the state.
The development corporation also continues to pursue the proposed downtown arts and culture corridor, which would include art installations, venues and possibly live/work space for artists. Robert noted that MEDC completed a conceptual study and public outreach process in the fall, where residents were given an opportunity to provide input for the project.
“We’re looking to chart a path to move forward from that conceptual study,” Robert said of the plan’s status. “What we’re talking about is essentially establishing an organized space to support arts and culture running east-west, across Main Street, roughly from the (former) railroad property on the east edge, then tracking roughly west up along Gilbo Avenue.”
He added that the idea is to create an “attractive walking space” for residents and visitors to downtown Keene, as well as a community to support local artists. He added that part of the plan may including closing a portion of Gilbo Avenue to motor vehicles where it intersects Main Street, noting that this is something MEDC is discussing with the city.
As for a timeline, Robert said the corporation will be looking for funding sources to start moving some elements of the project ahead, but he said to expect more progress on the plan in 2021.
Both the business hub and arts corridor are part of a “stimulus package” that Keene Mayor George Hansel proposed as a means of generating more economic activity in the city. Hansel advocated for these projects to be prioritized, saying that focusing on shovel-ready projects would put the city in a better place to receive grant funding, which would help mitigate the economic impact of COVID-19.
Hansel chairs MEDC’s board of directors.
Robert has worked in the economic development business for three decades, most of which was spent in Massachusetts before returning to New Hampshire, his home state. In the past, he served as community and economic development director for the city of Framingham, Mass., and also held a number of economic development positions with the Massachusetts state government.