By Melanie Plenda, Originally posted in Business Monadnock
Photos by Lee Germeroth Photography
Keene has a master plan. And while there are lots of details like jobs and infrastructure that can make that plan come to fruition, it is the overarching ideals and goals in the plan that will ultimately craft and guide the city’s future.
To that end, community leaders gathered in October at CONNECT 2015, the annual dinner and networking event hosted by the Hannah Grimes Center for Entrepreneurship to discuss the ways in which citizens and leaders can think about and get involved in creating the community of Keene’s future. The evening featured several speakers who have built reputations in this region as visionaries.
“The goal of the evening was to reflect on the aspects that make up a thriving community,” says Rhett Lamb, planning director for the City of Keene and a Hannah Grimes board of directors’ member. “We’re talking about the ideas of how to build a thriving community, which are reflected in the framework of that master plan…And asking you to look for ways you can engage in building that community that you want and engage in the community around you and the world around you…
“Building a community is a contact sport.”
Those aspects include having a creative and learning culture; a quality-built environment; citizenship and leadership; a healthy community; a vibrant economy; and a unique natural environment.
Creative and Learning Culture
We’re not doing well as a community when it comes to a creative and learning culture, says Jeffrey Miller, retired president of Markem-Imaje and who sits on the board of trustees for the Monadnock Waldorf School.
“The difference between us having that (type of culture) and not having that is going to be the difference between this community thriving or languishing,” he says. “And if we look at our job market, I’d say, well, you know, we’re kind of already in the languishing.”
Ultimately, he says, a learning culture for the region’s children will mean the difference between “the opportunity to sit at Alyson’s and drink nice wine and eat fine food if we do it well, or if we don’t do it well, they’re going to be in small, cold wet shacks digging into raw porcupine.”
Miller explains that a community with a learning culture is characterized by people who spend their lives enthusiastically learning. And that’s important, he says, because already there are regions of the country and the state where people don’t have the job they trained for because it no longer exists. Or knowledge has grown exponentially since these folks were in school, and they haven’t kept up. This trend, he says, will likely continue for the the next generation, many of whom are training for jobs that will not exist in 20 years.
“So what that’s going to require is for people, not just us, but our children to spend our lives learning things they did not study while they were at school and to do that with enthusiasm and (do it) well,” Miller says.
So how do you learn to love learning? And how do you learn how to learn? Miller says, ideally, you learn to love it before you start school, but if not, then you need to learn it in school.
“And how are we doing?,” he says. “We’re not doing so well. Our children are not only not learning how to communicate and collaborate and critically think, they are spending their time preparing to do well on standardized testing.”
Miller says though Keene recently did well on standardized testing, that’s merely saying Keene is, “one of the tallest pygmies in the country because a full 50 percent of our 4th- and 8th-graders are proficient in math and science. Have you ever seen the joy sucked out of a child when they are just studying to prepare for a standardized test?”
As for what it means by having a creative culture, Miller says, it is all about applying knowledge and creating new things.
“In the very near future what is going to distinguish one country from another country, one state from another state, a region of the state from another region of the state, is the creativity of our people,” he says. “Just showing up to work, doesn’t work anymore; being average doesn’t work anymore. We need to be Lake Woebegone now, everyone needs to be above average. And the thing is the world no longer cares about what you know, the world cares about what you can do with what you know.”
Miller says focusing on the three R’s and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) is important and necessary, but not to the exclusion of things like drama, art, literature and journalism. He argues, if we lose those, we lose.
“Not only do we lose citizens who will be able to take care of our great cultural attributes in the community, but we lose what really are the roots of creativity; what forces people to really get together to collaborate, to take risks, to fail in public,” he says.
Quality Built Environment
Before Tedd Benson started Bensonwood Homes in 1974, he was an English major/carpenter, just trying to earn some money as a tract home builder in California.
“There was nothing ennobling about it,” he says. “The work was awful, the people were interesting and the buildings were bad. I remember telling my parents at the time we were building migrant shacks all dressed up with dry wall.”
It was a time full of shortcuts. However, his mind changed when he came east and started renovating homes in Massachusetts. The buildings were exquisitely designed and built to last.
“I asked myself, are we worse builders than we were 250 years ago? That can’t be,” he says. “How can we live with ourselves? I was young, naïve, idealistic and thought I’d revive timber framing in North America. I thought it would take about two years.”
Well, it took a bit longer, in part because there was no one left to learn from. Timber framing had gone the way of the wagon wheel, replaced by speed and cut corners.
“There were no books, no instructions,” he says. “So I went to where the instructions were, which was in the barns, in the houses and in the town halls, where buildings existed.”
Here he saw the species of wood, how to fashion a post, how to make braces and pegs, the depths of the mortises visible in the buildings themselves.
“So, actually they did leave a manual, and it was actually a pretty good one, but it was also a hard way to learn,” Benson says. “Because although the instructions were pretty clear, it would have been helpful to have a past master there over your shoulder to tell you how to do it.”
The deeper Benson looked, the more he realized that by studying those buildings, he was learning more than just how to construct a solid building. He was learning about character.
“Those people, 250 to 300 years ago, actually were not just building those buildings, they were actually building their communities,” he says. “They were building towns, they were building a country, they were building a society. They were adding to civilization. And clearly they were thinking that way 200, 250, 300 years in the future. It wasn’t for them, it wasn’t for their time – it was for the future. That’s the difference.”
Benson says we have to learn how to be people like that again, to learn to develop that character and think further about the future when it comes to planning the built portion of our communities.
“That’s a tall order,” he says. “It’s going to be easy to learn the techniques, but pretty hard to develop the culture. In our work, time is a different perspective, it is not for that customer, it is not for that first use. We, as builders of community are building for the future.
“So, in a larger sense, to do our task well, in town planning for instance, we need to think beyond our time and plan something new and durable that will have a legacy, 200 or 300 years from now.”
Citizenship and Leadership
When it gets cold in a beehive, the female bees fly around the queen to keep both her and the hive warm, says James Rousmaniere, retired president of The Keene Sentinel. In this regard, bees have a wonderful sense of duty and loyalty to their community.
And this idea is at the heart of building and engendering a sense of citizenship and leadership in a community. And it’s this idea that led Rousmaniere to ask attendees to decide what their next job or community-related function might be. He says this doesn’t have to be holding public office; being a part of the community could be as simple as supporting a family member, friend or neighbor in his or her pursuit of a better life.
Rousmaniere cited the myriad family members and friends he noticed who showed up for a recent community college graduation. He pointed out that while those who were graduating worked hard to get to a better place in their lives, it was the people around them who helped them get there.
Another example, he says, were the citizens who several years ago lent their thoughts to the master plan development process. These average citizens said they wanted to see changes in the community when it came to food.
“Something about food, food production, food presentation,” Rousmaniere says. “And that energy resulted in the Monadnock Food Cooperative. That came from citizens standing up saying this is what we need.”
Even the entrepreneur who has an idea and sees it through, Rousmaniere says, is doing his or her part in the hive, because it’s, “not just having an idea, but finding people to share in that idea to take it where it is now.
“So, in the hive of our community,” he says, “how will you make a buzz?”
We would be much healthier if we were doing things that nature designed us, says Rudy Fedrizzi, director of Community Health Clinical Integration at Cheshire Medical Center. Eat wholesome foods from the farm. Walk everywhere. We’d also be a lot healthier if we could be a supportive community, if we were more altruistic, socially connected and in a positive relationship.
“But,” he says, “there are a lot of barriers to living healthy, and if we are going to become the healthiest, we are going to have to overcome those barriers and those tendencies. So when you think of wanting to be the healthiest community in the nation, you have to think of it in that space.”
First he says, don’t put all your eggs in the medicine basket. That’s because, at its best, technical medicine can save you from such problems as an appendix bursting or a broken bone or it can manage a chronic disease.
“But if we’re really going to become the healthiest, health is created in the community. It’s created in family,” Fedrizzi says. “Probably the best health intervention is love.”
And there’s even more. It’s breast feeding infants, eating dinner around the family table and talking to one another face to face instead of texting. It’s created on one’s own street, he says, by knowing neighbors, having safe places and sidewalks to walk, thinking about everyone else’s children as one’s own and watching out for them, and even paying teens to rake leaves or shovel driveways.
He went on to say it includes kids walking to school, being eager and prepared to learn and eating wholesome foods once there. It means exercising and playing in school and having adults in their lives who care about them and who aren’t just their parents.
For adults, health can mean having meaningful work where stress isn’t constant, he says, and where people make a living wage. After all, he says, minimum wage is an unhealthy wage.
Furthermore, he says, quality health is supported in laws and policies aimed at public health and a safe environment.
“Because we come together that way, we can create a culture of health,” he says. “And if we create a culture of health, we are much less complacent about the injustice and disparities in our world.
“[Working together], that’s like the best medicine there ever is, because we are better together. And together we can create the healthiest community in the nation.”
Taylor Caswell isn’t a parts guys; he’s more a systems guy, which suits him just fine as the executive director of the New Hampshire Community Development Finance Authority (CDFA).
The CDFA, he explains, is in the business of helping to create vibrant economies through programs such as Community Development Block Grants and community development tax incentives. It’s a quasi-government agency, which is helpful, he says because “we have sort of the capability of looking beyond these sort of two-year windows of election cycles and other things and kind of dig down deep to see what we can really do to improve the economies in the communities around New Hampshire.”
Caswell says one of the terms he loves and uses is regenerative economics.
“Because everyone likes to talk about sustainable economies,” Caswell says. “I used to work with a guy who is a lot smarter than I am, he was a big sort of thinker. He used to say, ‘Sustainability is just a slower way to die.’”
So, he says, his staff now focuses on regenerative economies.
“What are the things that are going to create value to those systems, and how are they going to all balance, and how are they going to regenerate instead of just sustain?” he asks. “Sustaining is just sort of holding that downward slope just a little bit longer. Regeneration takes you up.
“You start to ask yourself, what are the relationships that create reciprocity between the different aspects of your community’s economy?” he says. “Not what you can take, take and take, take, take and what natural resources can you use, what can we dump into the whole thing, what can we extract. That’s not community; you want to regenerate.”
He says his team looks for the projects that have multiple benefits and can have a systemic impact on the community. In other words, projects that not only impact the economy, but have a combination of environmental, public health, economic and social impact.
“We ask, ‘what are some things that are going to come from this, other than just them repaying the loan?” Caswell says. “What else are we going to get from it?”
Caswell cited two examples. The first was the Bridge House, a homeless shelter in Plymouth that sought to build a solar array on the shelter to help reduce some of their costs.
“Well, it would certainly cut down on some of their operational costs. You can make it cheaper to run the place,” he says. And with fewer expenses, the shelter will “be able to do a lot more meals for these people who are chronically homeless in the community. Great social value right there.”
The second example was Saranac Tannery in Littleton, he says. A couple bought the old buckskin glove mill as a retirement investment and populated it with small local businesses.
The building, however, was heated by oil, and that cost too much and occupied space that could have been used by another business. Caswell says that the CDFA was able to help finance a biomass heating system for the basement. Not only did this result in cleaner fuel and lower costs, but the owners were able to gain 30 percent more rentable space, Caswell says.
“More businesses can move in, more jobs can be created, they’ve preserved the old building and it’s right there on the river….” Caswell says. “It’s huge value to the community. So when you talk about a vibrant economy, those are the things you need to think about: What are your systems, not whether you’re going to take from that system.”
Unique Natural Environment
We’ve defined nature as the place where the people aren’t, says Ryan Owens, executive director of the Monadnock Conservancy. The modern conservation movement has been built around mechanisms to keep people and “all their crap” out of nature, he says. There’s a sense that the built environment doesn’t belong in nature, that kids can visit and maybe learn, but they better keep their voices down.
“And don’t build those tree forts or dam up the streams; those are really unsightly when you do that. And vibrant economy? God forbid anyone should actually make a profit from using the land in any particular way,” he says. “And I want to say that’s all wrong.”
Owens said if anyone thinks this mentality is conducive to sustaining nature, “I want to disabuse you of that notion right now and encourage you to take the completely opposite view.”
Moreover, he says, the Keene Master Plan was correct by not only maintaining green spaces on the outskirts of town, but building such areas into the community by way of gardens, paths and parks that weave throughout the city.
“Not only is sustaining the natural environment not in conflict with some of these other values like the built environment and outdoor learning and a vibrant economy,” he says, “in fact, I think the opposite is true; that they are inextricably linked to one another.”
He says children should be learning in green spaces and forests and homes should be made from locally sourced timber that is in abundance. Furthermore, local folks should be partaking of and farmers profiting from the food grown in local soil.
“These values not only depend on the natural landscape for their vibrancy, the land depends on them as well,” he says. “And why? Nature has value, not just the intrinsic or spiritual or ecological value; it has tangible, and physical and, God forbid, even commercial value to it as well. And we will sustain what we value.
“Our job going forward is really to illustrate that value to people as much as we can,” he says. “Telling the stories of how the economy, and how health and how building and how learning is happening through nature not at odds against it.”