George Hansel wanted to know how to make Keene more attractive to young people. Very young people.
“What would make you really like coming to Keene?” the city councilor and mayoral candidate asked Conor McColgan, 8, of Brattleboro at the Cheshire Children’s Museum on Saturday. “More of what? More places like this? How ‘bout some outdoor space with some fire pits going on and a covered pavilion with lots of people around and a concert?”
Maybe an amusement park or playground?
The possibilities did not seem to move Conor, dressed smartly in a jacket and tie.
“Well, you think big,” Hansel said. “I like that.”
The conversation was part of a Saturday morning visit to the Keene museum by Hansel and Councilor Mitchell Greenwald, his rival in Keene’s mayoral race.
Making small talk with kids and young parents, the two candidates circulated among the museum’s play versions of various workplaces, buildings and vehicles.
Hansel chatted with a Keene parent in the doorway of a faux dentist’s office. Greenwald stood near toy trucks in the “Construction Zone,” talking youth hockey with Jill McColgan, Conor’s mother. A kid behind the counter of a mock food truck put a plastic pizza in the oven for Hansel.
Greenwald introduced himself to a toddler sitting on the floor who seemed more interested in a shopping cart full of plastic produce. “A little young to vote,” he said.
“I think it’s good for the kids to see that you’re real people, like you have grandkids, you have children, you’re here,” McColgan, who is on the museum’s board, said in reference to Greenwald. She said it helps show kids that mayors are not “people who are just in an office.”
Deb Ganley, the museum’s executive director, said she got the idea to invite the candidates after hearing about a children’s museum in Wisconsin that hosted an inaugural celebration for the governor.
Keene’s general election is Nov. 5. Hansel and Greenwald are the only two mayoral candidates, having made it through this month’s primary election with nearly equal vote totals: 1,113 for Greenwald, 1,111 for Hansel.
Both candidates said they’ve been busy attending events and knocking on doors.
Though it wasn’t for mayor, a round of voting took place Saturday during the candidates’ visit. Museum staff had set up a ballot box and printed off a stack of ballots. Families were asked what special programming the museum should offer next August: “science lab,” “build it” or “ultimate forts”?
There was also a referendum: “Should Cheshire Children’s Museum have a Pajama Day?”
(The science lab won resoundingly, and voters said yes to Pajama Day.)
Much of Saturday’s event was casual chitchat, but municipal issues came up now and then. Tobias Iselin, 36, of Keene asked each candidate how he differed from his opponent.
“Experience,” Greenwald said. Greenwald, 67, owns Greenwald Realty Associates in Keene and has served more than two decades on the Keene City Council. He chairs the body’s finance, organization and personnel committee.
“We both want economic development, we both want to work on opioids, but it’s just a matter of who’s going to be better at working with the council,” Greenwald said, adding that the ultimate decision-making power lies with the 15 city councilors. “It’s a matter of getting all 15 horses pulling in the same direction.”
Keene’s mayor is the ceremonial head of the city and presides over the City Council. The mayor does not vote on council matters, except to break ties, but has certain procedural powers, and appoints members to city boards and commissions.
Hansel, 33, is a co-owner and executive at Filtrine Manufacturing Co. in Keene. He was elected to the City Council in 2015.
“I would say a lot of it has to do with backgrounds, but also maybe the things we really want to focus on,” he told Iselin.
Hansel said one of his top priorities is housing. He called it “the key to so many other things,” including making sure employers can hire enough workers.
“We’re gonna be in such competition for people over the next 10 or 15 years, people, businesses and resources,” Hansel said.
Iselin told the candidates that his concerns include young people leaving Keene, the city’s high property tax rates and the crime associated with the opioid epidemic.
Over the past few years, things like burglaries and thefts from unlocked cars seem to be happening more often in neighborhoods like his, which is near Keene High School, Iselin told The Sentinel.
“Nothing big, nobody’s getting hurt from it, but it worries me,” especially with young kids, he said. (He was at the museum with his kids George, 5, Henry, 3, and Elodie, 3.)
Iselin said he is still undecided about who to vote for.
“It seems like talking to both of them that they’re in it to help their community out, and I know that they both have long-term roots here, which is also nice,” Iselin said. “Which makes it a harder decision.”