CONNECT 2018, the cornerstone networking event of the upcoming Radically Rural conference, will showcase regional sculptors, locally sourced food and a $10,000 grant awarded to a startup company.

More than 500 people are expected to attend CONNECT, now in its 12th year but only in its third as a regional event bringing together local business and community leaders to share ideas, enjoy lively music and recognize the best in innovation. The event, with its theme of “The Rural Advantage,” opens at 5 p.m. Sept. 27 in the Mabel Brown Room of the Young Student Center at Keene State College.

“Instead of being a standalone event, this year’s CONNECT will expand the networking opportunities at this popular local tradition by also making it the networking centerpiece of a summit that focuses on opportunities for small cities and towns,” said Mary Ann Kristiansen, executive director of the Hannah Grimes Center for Entrepreneurship. “CONNECT has grown into this cool, inspirational gathering that celebrates innovation and advancement happening in regions like ours.

“Its popularity and success have spawned innovation and led to the Radically Rural summit this year,” she said, referring to the two-day conference that includes 15 different sessions organized on the themes of entrepreneurship, community journalism, Main streets and downtowns, arts and culture and working lands. The programming for these five tracks will be held at various locations in Keene’s downtown, capitalizing on the idea of using the downtown as a conference center. That concept was introduced at last year’s CONNECT.

“What we learn from CONNECT is the enthusiasm this region has for new ideas, its willingness to change in response to challenges and how collaboration can really advance this area as point of destination,” said Terrence Williams, president of The Sentinel, which partners with Hannah Grimes on Radically Rural and CONNECT.

The evening’s highlights include food by CC&Ds Kitchen Market, which has catered the event for years. The catering company features Charlie Pini (Charcoal Charlie), a pop-up barbecue pitmaster, and Denise Meadows (Free Range Chick), a popular caterer in the region.

“I’ve always shopped at area farms, farmers markets, mom and pop shops and with regional fishermen whenever I can,” Meadows, CC&Ds’ co-founder, said. “That’s how I was brought up.

“Through my work with Hannah Grimes, I’ve come to appreciate how truly important it is for my business to support local farmers and small producers,” she said. “Over time, we all have more to do and less time to do it in. We reach for the quick and easy — even ordering food online. So, supporting local may take a little more effort, but it’s worth it.”

CC&Ds will set up specialty food stations and, in addition to popular offerings, will also feature items with corn, milk and pork ingredients.

“We’re going to focus on the simplicity of these amazing foods we are so fortunate to grow and raise locally and often take for granted,” Meadows said. “While we are keeping the food simple, we know attendees will have fun with the food offerings, enjoy trying something new and leave excited about our region’s radically rural food.”

Once again, the event is staged by Machina Arts, a local events company that often uses local artists in its presentations. This year, 14 artists will display their work in a sculpture gallery on the floor of the Mabel Brown Room and in the balcony.

“Artists living and working in the Monadnock Region take advantage of our rural lifestyle and enjoy living in our rural communities,” Machina Arts co-founder Danya Landis said. “The majority showcase and sell their work in metropolitan areas and online. At CONNECT, our sculpture gallery will bring those artists to the surface. In addition to the sculpture itself, local artists will tell their stories — why they choose to live in the Monadnock Region and what the rural advantage means to them.”

Machina Arts is partnering with Upstream Sound with the goal of creating a dynamic audio and visual experience for attendees.

Popular Brattleboro band The Gaslight Tinkers will perform, featuring their African, Caribbean, funk, reggae and Latin sounds blended with traditional fiddle music.

During the evening, Rebecca Holland of Holland Homestead Farm will be presented with Hannah Grimes’ Entrepreneur of the Year Award. Holland manufactures skin care products made from goats’ milk.

Earlier in the day, during the entrepreneurship track programming, local investors will listen to various startup companies make pitches for a $10,000 grant and another $1,000 for the best idea. The announcement of the winners of those awards will be made during CONNECT.

Those wanting to attend CONNECT can buy tickets in advance through www.radicallyrural.com for $45 or at the door for $55. Those seeking to attend Radically Rural and pick from all tracks can register through the website for $149 with CONNECT included in that price. For more information on tickets, contact Shannon Hundley at shannon@hannahgrimes.com.