Phil Suter

Phil Suter, president and CEO of the Greater Keene and Peterborough Chamber of Commerce, outside the chamber’s offices in downtown Keene on Tuesday.

For years, Keene’s chamber of commerce has been working on a plan to attract more people to the region. And after learning this work will benefit from a federal grant, chamber leaders are gearing up to put that plan into action.

This summer, the chamber will launch a new branding and marketing campaign focused on drawing visitors, workers, higher-education students and young families to southwestern New Hampshire. The project, which the chamber calls the Promoting the Monadnock Region Initiative, aims to secure the area’s long-term economic stability as its population continues to age.

“New Hampshire is one of the oldest states in the country, and this region is one of the oldest parts of this state,” said Phil Suter, president and CEO of the Greater Keene and Peterborough Chamber of Commerce. “So we have what I sometimes refer to as a demographic headwind that we’re kind of sailing into. That causes us to think about what we have the ability to do to kind of counter that headwind.”

The project will have two phases. The first is deciding how to brand the region. In the second, this brand will be used in a marketing campaign to attract people who are considering relocating or taking a trip.

Several years ago, the Greater Keene Chamber of Commerce — which merged this past winter with the Greater Peterborough Chamber of Commerce — started exploring how to counter the workforce problems that come with an aging population. The efforts started and stopped, but after the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the chamber found the need to invest in economic development was greater than ever.

The pandemic also gave the chamber a shot at relief funding to help get the program off the ground. Last week, the chamber learned that the initiative will receive $300,000 in CARES Act funding from the U.S. Economic Development Administration, to be awarded in $100,000 increments over the next three years. The EDA received $1.5 billion from the $2.2 trillion relief package to provide economic development assistance to communities affected by the pandemic.

The chamber teamed up with Cheshire County to apply for the grant, and the county will continue to serve as the grant’s administrator.

The total price tag for the next three years of the marketing program is $600,000, with the grant covering half of it. The chamber was able to raise $100,000 during a fundraising push last year. Now it must come up with another $200,000, which Jamie Trowbridge, CEO of the Dublin-based Yankee Publishing and a member of the chamber’s board of directors, said will largely be solicited from the chamber’s business members, as well as local municipalities.

“To start with, we really will be going to the largest organizations, the ones that really stand to benefit the most from increased promotion of the region,” said Trowbridge, who headed up a task force that has been working on the marketing plan for the past couple of years. “We also plan, at some point in the process, to approach all the municipalities.”

With $200,000 for the first year of the marketing program already secure, Suter and Trowbridge said that in the next month or so, they’ll issue a request for proposals to find an agency to help with the branding phase. The chamber will also look to hire a project manager to assist in the first phase and run the project in its second phase, the actual marketing campaign.

The branding process will involve soliciting public feedback, they said, as the goal is to create a brand that not only appeals to people unfamiliar with the Monadnock Region, but also stirs a sense of pride and community among those already here. The brand will also need to represent the entire region, which includes all of Cheshire County and the western side of Hillsborough County.

“We plan to be very inclusive of input from the community; we want to get the brand right,” Trowbridge said. “The brand needs to feel true to those of us who live here. We don’t want it to be so aspirational that it brings people here who have different ideas from the residents about what this place should be like.”

The initiative’s second phase will put that brand to work. The chamber will use it in a number of traditional marketing efforts, which could include anything from print or online ads to billboards along area highways.

One simple but important undertaking could be installing signage that welcomes people to the Monadnock Region, Trowbridge said.

He and Suter, who plans to retire this summer, said they hope the initiative will extend beyond three years. They said the chamber will look to keep the contributions coming over time, so the program can continue after the $300,000 grant runs out.

Though this initiative is a significant project for the chamber, other chambers do community marketing campaigns all the time, Suter said. And the assistance from Washington will allow the chamber to finally get the ball rolling, he said.

“This is two things: It’s a big deal, and it’s also something we should be doing in the normal course of our daily life as a chamber,” Suter said. “We got a shot in the arm with the EDA grant, and a really important one. We worked hard for it, and I think we earned it.”

Mia Summerson can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1435, or msummerson@keenesentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter

@MiaSummerson.