If the Monadnock Region were being graded, it would receive several “needs improvement” marks on its economy — and its image.
Cheshire County was second-to-last in job growth among the state’s 10 counties from 2010 to 2018, rising just 0.4 percent in that time, according to Brian Gottlob, the new director of the N.H. Economic and Labor Market Information Bureau.
Only Coos County was lower, losing 6.6 percent of its jobs in eight years.
In that same time, Cheshire was one of three New Hampshire counties with a population decrease, netting a 0.8 percent loss.
Gottlob has delivered similar speeches on the region’s economic standing in past years in his role as an independent economist. Wednesday morning, he was at Keene State College’s Alumni Center in his new role as a state official, as part of the Greater Keene Chamber of Commerce’s annual “Perspectives on the State of the Monadnock Region.”
In his PowerPoint presentation chock-full of statistics and charts showing how this corner of the state compares to the rest, the data also included some positives for the county.
While Cheshire came in second-to-last in net migration from within the state during 2010 to 2017, that figure was positive in the past two years, a sign that people are starting to find the region more attractive. Other data in Gottlob’s presentation show that the majority of people who move to Cheshire County from out of state have high levels of educational attainment.
In community-focused data, Keene was one of a few cities that saw an increase in young people between 2010 and 2017. The portion of its adult population that was between ages 25 and 34 rose from 17.3 to 21.3 percent; only Rochester and Littleton saw higher increases.
Rindge and Peterborough were also examined in Gottlob’s presentation, though with vastly different results. While Rindge saw a bump in young adults, from 16.4 percent in 2010 to 18.8 percent in 2017, Peterborough lost 25- to 34-year-olds in that period. The town, which he called one of the oldest communities in the state, dropped from 10.9 to 9.1 percent in that age range.
“I never thought I’d say this until the last few years, but housing is becoming a critical issue and it’s not just affordable housing,” Gottlob said.
A chart showed the relationship between the amount of rental housing and millennials in communities, which he described as a pretty close correlation. Places like Dover, Newmarket and Portsmouth underwent transformations away from focusing on cheap student housing and instead building high-quality rental units that attracted young professionals, he said.
In presentations in past years, Gottlob said, he made similar observations in the Elm City.
“... There’s student housing and then there’s single-family housing [here]: There’s nothing in between,” he said. “How are you gonna get a young professional who isn’t … sure how long they’re gonna live there?”
He pointed out that Keene is now seeing development in the right direction, referring to two apartment complexes under construction and near completion in the city. Those complexes are the Washington Park apartments, between Spring and Roxbury streets, and Colony Mill apartments, in the former shopping center on West Street.
Along with housing, other major areas that Gottlob cited as needing improvement to further economic development included transportation, entrepreneurship and broadband access.
Measured by the percent of the population with broadband access, Cheshire County ranks the lowest in New Hampshire, with 79.5 percent having high-speed Internet, according to a 2016 report by the N.H. Broadband Mapping & Planning Program, which Gottlob cited.
“It plays into some other issues that you’re dealing with, he said, noting that businesses need a strong Internet connection. “… This is an impediment to that entrepreneurial activity that I talked about.”
During a brief Q&A session, an audience member responded to his comment about the lack of transportation with an argument that the region has Interstate 91, just as the eastern part of the state has I-93. But Gottlob replied that a quicker route to western Massachusetts, a relatively quiet area in terms of business, isn’t what the area needs.
“So while you do have good transportation access north and south, you just don’t have access to more economically vibrant regions, and I do think that that’s a bit of a challenge,” he said.
After Gottlob’s presentation, the panel of local leaders offered their thoughts on the state of the region.
Keene State College President Melinda Treadwell outlined some national trends that face post-secondary institutions across the country, such as declining birthrates and different ways students want to access higher education, and discussed how the college is preparing for these inevitable changes.
Robert H. Malay, the superintendent of Keene-based N.H. School Administrative Unit 29, talked about student trends, which include a decrease in high school graduates going to a two- or four-year college and a spike in students receiving free or reduced lunch. He discussed ways to help students, including his findings that involvement in any extracurricular activity results in higher academic performance.
And Keene City Manager Elizabeth A. Dragon detailed many past, ongoing and future projects, including work to make the city-owned Dillant-Hopkins Airport in Swanzey more relevant, plans for an arts corridor downtown, renewable energy goals set by the City Council and the current overhaul of land-use codes.
Toward the end of the Q&A, Gottlob addressed one of the final components of furthering economic development: public image.
“I live in Dover. I can tell you nobody hears about Keene, and when we do, you know what it is? Pumpkin fest riots, Free State movement and I don’t know what else. It never is about any of the really good things that are happening.
“… So whatever you can do to change that perception [not only] throughout New Hampshire but throughout the country and the region, do it.”