After months of financial uncertainty, the Monadnock Economic Development Corp. is gearing up to start its next chapter with refocused objectives.
Keene Mayor George Hansel, who also serves as chairman of the MEDC board, addressed Cheshire County commissioners Wednesday morning with an update about what the organization has done since announcing in November that it was struggling to pay off its debt. Hansel said MEDC has undergone a debt restructuring process and held a number of discussions with stakeholders about how to move forward.
“MEDC has been around for a long time, we’ve had a lot of projects, and there were some financial issues that needed to be resolved before we could really move forward with this plan,” Hansel said at the commissioners’ meeting, held at the county building in downtown Keene and streamed via Zoom. “So we’ve undergone a pretty significant debt restructure, and our nine creditors have been really great about working with us.”
He said the organization has reached a place where its debt load is “sustainable” and that it did not sour any relationships with its financial partners in the process. Hansel said MEDC had $1.9 million in debt, which during the restructuring process was reduced to $1.1 million. The total amount forgiven to date was $767,786, he said.
Since 1999, when it was rebranded from the Keene Economic Development and Revitalization Corp., MEDC has been responsible for a number of major development projects in southwestern New Hampshire, including the $40 million conversion of former railroad land in downtown Keene into a retail and housing area and the expansion of the Keene Public Library.
MEDC announced last fall that it was experiencing financial difficulties and that an advisory committee would be appointed to help guide the economic development corporation in a new direction.
The organization has also seen several leadership changes in recent years. Longtime President Jack Dugan retired in the spring of 2020 and was replaced by Arthur Robert, who stepped down in early 2021. Shortly after Robert’s departure, Steve Fortier was named interim president.
Last year, citing its financial challenges, the organization requested to keep funds that it had agreed to pay both the county and the city of Keene stemming from the 2013 Cheshire County courthouse project. Both bodies voted to allow MEDC to keep the money, $10,000 from each.
“This ask reflects a financially challenging situation MEDC is up against today; you may have read about it in the papers recently,” Robert told the City Council’s Finance, Organization and Personnel Committee at the time. “We intend these funds to be used to support a strategic planning process that will create a foundation, and ultimately a sustainable business plan, for MEDC to continue its important work.”
Hansel said the strategic planning process identified two areas the organization should prioritize going forward: continuing its efforts to facilitate brick-and-mortar development for larger businesses while also focusing more on providing financial support to smaller start-up businesses that are looking to grow.
Hansel said part of the goal when it comes to smaller businesses is to help those looking to step up to a larger-scale operation develop a plan that’s ready to be put into action.
“[Retail bankers] said, ‘We have a lot of people that come to us with ideas, but their ideas are just not ready for us’,” Hansel said.
He also noted that part of the plan moving forward is to have a less Keene-centered approach, with MEDC also looking for opportunities to assist projects in more rural parts of the county. However, Commission Chairman Jack Wozmak said he was less worried about MEDC’s mission remaining somewhat Keene-focused, noting that the city is both the county seat and its commercial hub.
County officials also pointed out that workforce development has been, and continues to be, an issue locally, particularly when it comes to health care. County Administrator Chris Coates said the county has been considering what assistance it might give to boost workforce development in the area.
“There is a workforce crisis,” he said. “And I think it’s one of the things that I would really hope that MEDC could take a lead on, too, and bringing people together to really start to map how to address this issue on a bigger scale. I think it’s multiple partners that need to be at the table.”
He said the discussion will be ongoing and that he will be meeting with Hansel soon to discuss more ways the county can support MEDC moving forward.