Just over six months into the gig, Keene’s downtown coordinator is embracing her role as a connector between businesses, government staff and nonprofit organizations that all want to see the city center thrive.
Elizabeth G. “Beth” Wood started the job May 1 as an employee of the Monadnock Economic Development Corp. City councilors created the position last year during Keene’s budget process.
City Manager Elizabeth A. Dragon, along with Councilor George S. Hansel, suggested establishing the role through a public-private partnership. The city pays $25,000 for the position while MEDC covers the remaining $25,000.
Originally from Burlington, Vt., Wood moved to Keene when she was in the 6th grade. She received her undergraduate degree in psychology from Keene State College and worked at Twenty One Bar & Grill for more than a decade, including six years as a manager.
Though her office is in MEDC’s building on Railroad Street, Wood said she interacts with city staff regularly. She meets monthly with Dragon, Keene Economic Development Director Medard K. Kopczynski, and MEDC President and CEO John G. “Jack” Dugan.
She and Kopczynski have also been visiting downtown businesses, along with Parking Operations Manager Wendy Walker and Bill Byrne of the public works department. They aim inform merchants about various upcoming plans, Wood said, such as MEDC’s proposed arts and culture corridor, efforts to beautify Main Street and questions about the future of parking.
But, she said, “we didn’t want to just go around, talk to businesses and then that’s that, you don’t hear from us for a while.”
So Wood is creating a monthly one-page newsletter for store owners with input from the parking and public works departments, and she plans to add information about downtown events. The first official newsletter will be published and circulated in mid-January.
Dragon, Keene’s city manager, said Wood’s role as a liaison has strengthened the city’s connection to businesses, the Greater Keene Chamber of Commerce and the Keene Downtown Group. Tools such as the newsletter provide a mechanism to promote local events and inform merchants about city plans that could have an effect on the downtown area, she said.
“Beth has been a great addition to the team and an example of a successful private/public partnership,” Dragon wrote in an email.
Wood said she enjoys building those relationships in town and being available to answer questions.
Over the past couple of months, she’s worked closely with the Keene Downtown Group to help organize activities with Main Street businesses and their neighbors. For the 2019 Holiday Shopping! program, for instance, customers can get a stamp for qualifying purchases at 50 participating stores and services through Sunday and enter to win a shopping spree, up to $500.
That program has been handled by the owners of Creative Encounters and Lindy’s Diner in the past, Wood said, but this year the downtown group is spearheading it, as well as the Keene Ice and Snow Festival in February. In its 18th year, that event has been passed to the group from the Monadnock Travel Council, with help from longtime coordinator Jim Narkiewicz.
“What’s cool about growing these events is we have more people in the downtown group that are partaking,” Wood said. It’s a cyclical process that expands the group’s presence and allows it to enhance more downtown activities, she added.
Mark Rebillard, the owner of Deep Roots Massage and the downtown group’s chairman, said plans call for a return to the festival’s original footprint along Main Street from Emerald Street to Central Square. Eight ice carvers are confirmed, along with snow sculpting competitions, and the goal is to get shops on board with hot cocoa stations, a window decoration contest and a “find the yeti” game for customers, similar to when stores hide Waldo in the summer.
Part of Wood’s role, he said, is to “beat the street” and encourage participation.
“The downtown group has always been an all-volunteer organization, and business owners are so busy it’s hard to get their attention,” he said. “… In any effort to reach them, it often takes more than email.”
Effective communication with merchants requires someone who can meet with them individually, he said, and that’s difficult for the downtown group because it’s composed of business owners who also have their hands full. Calling her a champion for downtown and the right person for the job, Rebillard said sharing Wood’s time has given the group the boost it needed.
“People want to know that they’ve been heard, and people want to know that things are being done, and all of that helps bring people together,” he said.
In nearly identical language, Wood said that’s the service she wants to provide the city. She’s found that merchants on opposite ends of Main Street often have the same overall goal, she said, but “there’s almost like a disconnect between it” that she hopes to bridge.
“I want to be the voice for downtown businesses, I want to help them push their initiatives, I want to help bring them together,” she said.
And promoting the downtown area and encouraging its growth helps more than just Main Street, she added — it attracts people to Keene, where merchants recommend other local stores and services.
“As long as you’re shopping, dining, eating local, that’s what we want,” she said. “We want all of our businesses to be successful. We won’t be successful as a whole if it’s just one place doing good.”
Wood underscored her open-door policy and said she’d love to have coffee or meet with any shoppers, merchants or residents to learn “what they want to see in their downtown, what’s important to them, what they want to make sure they’re heard saying.”
She can be reached via email at email@example.com.