A region’s economy depends on many things — natural resources, financial resources, innovators, adequate labor, access to markets and so on.
Over the years southwestern New Hampshire has had all the elements. Once a region of farms, it became a region of factories after the railroads came through. Mill operators used the power of streams to produce textiles and other products; local miners pulled minerals out of the ground for customers in distant markets, and furniture makers worked the forests. In time, makers of machine tools and precision bearings and high-tech optics clustered together. And along the way local bankers and investors provided capital.
One other thing fueled the region’s expansion: an awareness that economic vitality doesn’t necessarily happen on its own, and sometimes has to be made to happen.
Early on, for example, more than a few Monadnock Region communities offered free land and other incentives to entrepreneurs to build and operate mills that would supply settlers with lumber and flour.
More recently in 1951, with a post-war economic expansion at hand, local business interests created one of the first local economic development organizations in New England: the nonprofit Keene Regional Industrial Foundation (KRIF).
Among its notable achievements, KRIF built what was called Precision Park on the east side of Keene — today the address of Timken, Markem.Imaje, Samson, The Mountain Co. and other important employers.
Over the years, KRIF used its credentials and contacts to oversee development loans from the N.H. Industrial Park Authority, and it spoke up for community-betterment initiatives such as new schools and the extension of roads and utilities that would attract new industry.
In time, KRIF was followed by the Keene Industrial Development Corp. (KIDC), later renamed Monadnock Economic Development Corp. (MEDC).
The names have changed, but the shapes and purposes of these agencies have stayed constant: independent, nonprofit, community-focused, results-oriented.
Consider the fruits of the last 30 years: a fully occupied 300-acre industrial park designed by MEDC in northwest Keene, the transformation of former railroad land in downtown Keene, plus financing for dozens of businesses and nonprofits throughout the county, including such manufacturers as Lentex in Walpole, Clear Solutions in Hinsdale, New England Wood Pellet in Jaffrey, W.S. Badger in Gilsum, and ABTech in Fitzwilliam, among others.
The net effect: $100 million of investment and 3,000 jobs in the region — equal to 12 percent of civilian employment in the Keene area labor market. That, plus significant property tax revenues for government and public services.
In sum, for the last 70 years the region has benefited from the facilitating hand of nonprofit economic development agencies.
Along the way, however, some things changed.
In the early years KRIF was funded by local business owners and operators. Old timers will remember the names: David Putnam, Arthur Whitcomb, Gene Felch, Windsor Brooks, Jim Ewing, Fred Hamblet, Ellis Robertson and Charlie Tarbox, among others.
Today, the pantheon of such community-focused business leaders is much reduced, hence no flow of sustained private financial support for economic development. Additionally, local government isn’t promoting economic growth as happened decades ago when Keene’s City Hall pitched in tens of thousands of dollars to help support KIDC.
In the cycle of history, there’s something to be said today for restoring local support for economic development in the region.
MEDC, during its three decades of operation, hasn’t needed external funding because it’s gotten along largely on development fees from big deals: recently, Keene ICE, the Keene Public Library expansion and Bensonwood’s Unity Homes factory.
However, big deals and the fees that they generate can’t be assured (there’s been a drought the last several years). Further, the appeal of big deals can take one’s eyes off important smaller possibilities — for example, helping early-stage businesses connect to local lenders, investors, community planners, collaborators and so on.
Prompted by these and other concerns, MEDC is now in the process of changing its direction to be less a developer of big brick and mortar projects and more a convenor of parties that can help take someone’s new idea (however small) to a bankable proposition.
That model seems right for MEDC, which over the years has come to know the region’s playing field and the players on it. And it seems right for the region based on the record of economic development nonprofits during the last 70 years.
As it was with its predecessor agencies, MEDC will need financial support from private and public sources to continue to help make economic change happen. When the ask comes — and it will come — give it serious thought.