May 3, 2022

An Arts-Fueled Economic Development Strategy Comes to Keene

Stephen Sugg
Community members gather with the CIRD team to discuss design concepts for Keene's downtown.

The Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design recently partnered with the community of Keene, NH, to reinvigorate an arts corridor initiative that drives broader downtown economic development. And while the arts have long bolstered rural economies, CIRD’s work in Keene comes with a twist. Arts Alive!, a non-profit organization working to sustain the arts community across the Monadnock region, developed a close-knit and diverse project steering committee to partner with CIRD’s local design workshop team. Together they marshaled local resources around the Arts Core concept, aiming to generate an economic development plan that goes way beyond a typical rural arts strategy.  

The Keene Sentinel headline and article on March 25, 2022 - “Arts Corridor Visionaries Sketch Out What Downtown Keene Could Look Like” - reflected optimism emerging from CIRD’s local design workshop, carried out over the previous three days. The Sentinel article described sketches of “…thoughtfully designed streets and sidewalks, complete with splashes of color, greenery and spaces for festivals and vendors, which would guide Main Street foot traffic downside streets and alleys.” The article went on to quote Jessica Gelter, Arts Alive! Executive Director, who emphasized the need to connect existing and upcoming arts and commerce initiatives, building on Keene’s existing assets. The article – and the community’s energy around the workshop – are an early positive indication that arts-driven economic development might work in Keene (22,953 population) and elsewhere.

Keene Arts Core

A visitor to Keene might initially question the need for an arts corridor, or Arts Core as the Keene project has been dubbed. Downtown is already thriving. Parking spaces are a commodity; few storefronts are empty; high rents and a shortage of available housing units are common conversation topics. Yet something is missing. An east-west axis along Gilbo Avenue teems with both promise and empty space. Pedestrians look past a swath of land primed for better use. A skateboard park appears barely connected to the Main Street corridor that is only a short walk away. Artists and farmers clamor for additional and flexible exhibition and vending space. And a vast concrete expanse separates Main Street from a vibrant theater and a coffee shop buzzing with local art. Stakeholders agree: Keene needs an arts corridor to unite these disconnected, overlooked spaces.

"Before" and "After" images of the expansive parking lots around the Arts Core.

Listening to the Arts Community

On a cold winter day in February 2022, 50 Keene-rooted artists, arts supporters, and arts organization representatives joined the CIRD team for a facilitated pre-workshop engagement. Arts Alive! and the steering committee insisted on such a pre-conference gathering in response to longstanding concerns from the arts community that economic development initiatives too often overlook the needs and concerns of the artists—many struggling from paycheck to paycheck—while other civic interests are heard.

Arts Alive! listens artists; it is why the organization exists.

After introductions and deep breaths together, CIRD’s team shared the broad goal of creating a physical space in downtown Keene that celebrates a vibrant confluence of arts and culture, including turning a “parking lot desert” into a welcoming space.

Many local artists and arts supporters participated in the virtual community meeting held in February.

Then came the meeting’s guiding principles, focused on who benefits from such a corridor; who is the audience for the corridor; a history of the arts and creative sector in the region; and a discussion of art types from professional to community to fine art and traditional crafts. The goal:  gauging what matters to the arts community. Breakout groups then turned to current challenges and solutions that an arts corridor might bring.

Data from the meeting continues to inform CIRD and the steering committee’s work, including a strong desire for an inclusive space that welcomes locals, tourists, college students, youth, and business owners, as well as offering flexible exhibition space that accommodates Keene’s diverse spectrum of artists.

Art Anchors the On-Site Workshop

CIRD’s local design workshop over three days in Keene had elements common to every CIRD workshop, including community engagement sessions with enlarged drawings, ample sticky notes and colored dots, fast note-taking from CIRD’s team, and walking tours that allowed locals to share expansive visions for the proposed Arts Core while also addressing more mundane details. Bathrooms—or lack thereof—and parking concerns appeared often in CIRD’s session notes.

Unique to Keene was the capstone event for the workshop’s first day. Against the backdrop of a winter-like early spring New Hampshire evening, a pop-up arts festival welcomed CIRD’s team and locals alike, reflecting Arts Alive!’s and the workshop’s commitment to artists. A local African drum duet provided the soundtrack. Artists, including moonlighting local farmers and college students, sold their photography, drawings, ceramics, and more. CIRD’s tent welcomed passersby with candy—a lure to capture their opinions on domestic and international landscape design examples that might work for Keene. Attendees included local officials and a state lawmaker along with residents of all stripes, from business owners to homeless individuals, and members of project steering committee.

Musicians enlivened the pop-up arts event, while the CIRD resource team talked with community members about the project. Photos by Stephen Sugg.

Challenges & Learnings

Though the work outputs from the workshop are modest – high-level concepts for arts-based interventions that will enliven dull spaces and help the community begin to see the area in a new light – they are seeds for much bigger things to come. The extended design challenge, which the workshop has catalyzed, is capturing the imagination, resources, and engagement of community decision makers and investors who can make the project a reality. An economic development plan with the potential scope and scale of this one goes beyond the experience and capacity of a single arts organization or steering committee. Yet, citizen-led design inherently builds on local assets, and those community assets are boosted in the process. As a community anchor, Arts Alive! can convene such diverse stakeholders as business leaders, artists, and residents of 100 Nights, a homeless shelter within the proposed arts corridor—examples of the organization’s earned trust across the community. Arts Alive! is connected to national and regional conversations that build the capacity of arts-driven organizations, contributing to a growing body of case studies where arts, culture, and creative placemaking are at the center of economic development strategies.

What’s Next?

The CIRD team is finalizing the Design Book that will serve as a guidepost for the steering committee’s next steps in Keene. The document will include a summary of engagement activities, project and community history, and design concept drawings along with recommendations from CIRD’s team for additional funding opportunities.

Arts Alive! and other steering committee members will continue to engage with diverse communities in the CIRD Design Learning Cohort throughout 2022. The cohort program offers additional access to CIRD’s technical assistance and peer learning with other rural community leaders. It also allows the ongoing work in Keene to inform national rural design conversations, especially as communities tap arts and design as drivers of economic development.

CIRD will continue to provide resources, including coaching and fundraising support, as the Arts Core project moves ahead. CIRD’s team also will be back in Keene in September, as presenters at Radically Rural’s annual summit. Perhaps CIRD will discuss the power of arts-driven economic development, directing conference attendees to look out the window or to take a short walk downtown to see those ideas in action.