Monadnock Economic Development Corp. has convened a group of prominent local leaders to strengthen its business activities amid financial pressure due largely to outstanding debt.
The Keene nonprofit group hopes the advisory board will help develop a new strategic plan that could shift its focus from real-estate development to other activities that can stimulate economic growth, according to MEDC President Arthur Robert.
“In making those kinds of projects happen that have transformed the region, the organization has incurred some debts,” he said. “We have to find a way to move forward.”
The advisory board, which the organization announced Nov. 18, consists of at least a dozen public officials and business leaders from the region tasked with supporting the MEDC board of directors as it develops the new plan — a process Robert said could last through December 2021.
Since 1999, when it was rebranded from the Keene Economic Development and Revitalization Corp., MEDC has been responsible for 28 development projects in southwestern New Hampshire, according to Robert. Its efforts include a $40 million undertaking to convert former railroad land in downtown Keene into a retail and housing area where the Monadnock Food Co-Op is now located, as well as building the Cheshire County courthouse and renovating the Keene Public Library.
But MEDC has not completed a project since 2018, according to Robert. He said the recent lull is not a reflection of the organization’s financial situation, instead attributing it to the mercurial nature of development efforts.
“Projects take time to develop,” he said. “They don’t always pan out.”
Robert, who succeeded longtime MEDC President Jack Dugan upon Dugan’s retirement in May, said one of his first decisions was to hire a chief financial officer, following the departure of former CFO Bob Elliott. In the summer, MEDC officials began planning to create an advisory board, after a review of its finances identified “significant” challenges stemming from debts related to past development projects, he said Tuesday.
Robert could not be reached again Tuesday or Wednesday with follow-up questions on the nature of those debts. Keene Mayor George Hansel, who serves as chairman of the MEDC board of directors, declined on Wednesday to say how large those debts are, directing The Sentinel to Robert for that information.
The organization raises the majority of its capital from developer fees it collects and interest earned on financing it provides to small businesses, according to Robert.
The landscape for rural economic development has changed since MEDC was created, he said, adding that it, too, must evolve to remain effective and financially stable. Robert declined to provide examples of how the organization might shift its focus from real-estate projects to other drivers of economic growth.
“I think MEDC has the opportunity to evolve how it contributes to the region’s economic development going forward,” he said.
The MEDC advisory board is charged with helping the organization’s board of directors develop those specifics as part of the new strategic plan.
In the meantime, MEDC is forging ahead with a pair of ongoing projects: The organization is providing financial support and strategic guidance for plans to establish a $13 million business and workforce training hub at Keene State College and to create an arts and culture corridor in downtown Keene.
On the Keene State project, Robert said MEDC is awaiting a feasibility assessment that he expects to be completed in several months before taking further action. More details about the proposed arts and culture corridor, which MEDC first pitched at a Greater Keene Chamber of Commerce forum in May 2019, will be available in the spring, he added.
In a Nov. 18 news release, MEDC announced the names of 12 prominent public officials and business executives who will be part of its advisory board, though Robert said its ranks will likely swell.
In addition to Robert and Hansel, members include Keene City Manager Elizabeth Dragon, state Sen. Jay Kahn, D-Keene, and N.H. Mutual Bancorp President Gregg Tewksbury.
“In a rural area like ours, it’s hard to complete these large-scale brick and mortar projects,” Hansel said in a text message. “... Organizations like MEDC help bring creative financing to the table, making the projects viable and helping [shepherd] the various stakeholders through the pre-development process.”