Autumn in New England is no time to be trapped in a windowless conference room staring at flip charts and PowerPoint presentations.
So say the organizers of Radically Rural, a first-of-its kind conference slated for September 27-29 in Keene, New Hampshire. Instead of using a hotel ballroom or other customary setting, the conference will spread out across businesses, nonprofits, and other venues in downtown Keene, a city of about 23,000 in southwest New Hampshire.
Conference organizer Mary Ann Kristiansen, director of the Hannah Grimes Center in Keene, says the focus of the meeting will be on “great new ideas.” There will be tracks in entrepreneurship, arts and culture, Main Streets, working lands, and rural media. Local partners, including the newspaper, a downtown business, and an arts organization, are helping coordinate the tracks.
Kristiansen says one inspiration for the conference is a resurgence of interest in living and working in small towns and rural areas.
“I think we’re feeling like rural could be trending and maybe we’re on the edge of that,” she said. “How do we have an event that emphasizes how cool it is to live in rural areas and what wonderful things are going on? That they’re great places to live, but also how do they become great places to work?”
We talked to Kristiansen via phone about the Radically Rural conference. A slightly edited transcript is below. You can find more information on the Radically Rural conference here.
Daily Yonder: Tell me about yourself and your organization, the Hannah Grimes Center.
Mary Ann Kristiansen: I’m the founder, and the executive director. I opened the Hannah Grimes Marketplace in 1997, 21 years ago, to create a market for locally made and grown products, and to help build the business skills of the makers and growers. So I moved to a rural area, making soap, and it was before the “buy local” movement and nobody wanted to buy local soap.
It was frustrating, and I just had a lot of creative entrepreneurs around me who didn’t have markets. One thing led to another and all of a sudden we had a shop on Main Street. We have 300 members who sell their products there, and they can learn how to price and package.
In 2006, we opened the Hannah Grimes Center, which is a business incubator and now a co-working space. We have conference rooms and workshops. Just a wide variety of things. But really, it’s just a hub of entrepreneurial activity.
Daily Yonder: Before I ask you about this event, describe your part of rural America for me. Where are you in New Hampshire, and what’s it like there? What kind of rural is it?
Kristiansen: We are in the southwestern corner of New Hampshire, and we have all kinds of rural. Our county (Cheshire) has a population of around 75,000. The Hannah Grimes Center is based in a town (Keene) that’s 23,000. But I live in a town that’s 238. Like all rural areas, we’re falling further and further behind the rest of the state with a lot of our numbers.
Daily Yonder: What traditionally have been the economic drivers there, and what’s it like now?
Kristiansen: We’ve had a very nice thriving, diverse economy with advanced manufacturing, traditional manufacturing. We do have some optics, we have insurance and finance.
We also have an awful lot of those regular, Main Street-type of businesses, small businesses.
Daily Yonder: Tell me about Radically Rural. What on earth are you up to?
Kristiansen: We really want to go beyond some of the more negative things that are happening in our rural areas. I think we’re feeling like rural could be trending and maybe we’re on the edge of that, and how do we have an event that emphasizes how cool it is to live in rural areas and what wonderful things are going on? That they’re great places to live, but also how do they become great places to work?
So [the conference will focus on] how do we share our radically rural ideas, how do we help shape our communities of all different sizes? It’s to help get a bunch of really cool people in a room together, or a bunch of rooms, and share ideas and create an experience that’s different than being in a conference room with no windows, and [the room temperature is] too cold. We will be walking around a real place, meeting in different spots, meeting people who are passionate about their rural communities too, and learning from each other and getting some new ideas and getting some buy-in, and going back and changing rural.
Daily Yonder: Who are you hoping will be there?
Kristiansen: We are hoping a wide mix of people. The five different tracks, we’re hoping to reflect that rural communities are diverse places and their success depends on lots of things. So we are hoping to get business owners, planners, or city counselors, people in community and economic development, artists, farmers, people who care about the land that we live on. So really a mix. But the people, the thing they all have in common is that they love rural areas and they have great ideas.
Daily Yonder: And what size, roughly, of a conference are you anticipating?
Kristiansen: Five hundred people. We want to get 100 people per track.
Daily Yonder: And what are those different tracks?
Kristiansen: It is entrepreneurship, media, working land, arts and culture, and Main Street. And we hope in future years to expand on that, it’s just where we started with what we had. We are thrilled with the way all three sessions in all five tracks have come together. They’re gonna be awesome.
Daily Yonder: Your materials talk about using Keene as a model for a different kind of conference center. What’s the thinking behind that decision?
Kristiansen: Two or three years ago, we had the governor’s council on tourism met here. And then Art Acts, which is a New England art collaborative which gets together once a year someplace in New England.
And they both were too big for the hotel ballroom, so they spread out around Keene. And they planted the seed of, “this is cool.” People had such a great time. They said it was the most amazing event ever. So they were very impressed at how it was organized, and how great it was to just get around in downtown Keene.
So we planted this idea at our Connect event last year, and when we started this event that’s what we wanted to do: Make sure people were having a real experience, having an experience, and it just opens you up to different kinds of conversations and learning, and gets you in the space.
It also helps us, lots of small communities have a variety of spaces in their downtown. And it might feel like a model for other communities, like “We could do that.”
Daily Yonder: And what are some of the venues?
Kristiansen: Our incubator co-working space [at the Hannah Grimes Center] will be the home for the entrepreneur track. We have an arts organization here called MoCo Arts that’s just finishing up a brand new building. So the arts and culture [track] will be in their new space.
The Main Street [track] will be in the old courthouse. They have a conference room that holds over 200. Media will be at Key State College in the alumni hall center. Our keynote speakers will be at a renovated theater on Main Street, Colonial Theatre. And the working lands, that will also be meeting at the Colonial Theatre.
Daily Yonder: Do you expect to have folks from beyond New England attend the conference?
Kristiansen: I think we’re pretty certain we’ve got some folks coming from beyond New England. I was just out in Fargo, North Dakota, a couple of weeks ago and made some connections up there. And now some folks from the Kauffman Foundation are looking at it. The University of Texas at Austin.
We didn’t think we’d actually make so much headway this year in getting to be national. We were hoping to at least get into New England. But it’s resonated with people. The more far-flung we can get, obviously the better mixing of ideas we’re going to have, and networks, and all of that stuff.
Daily Yonder: So you said, rural is having a moment or a resurgence, or some attention. Tell me more about what you see happening there, what makes you optimistic that way.
Kristiansen: I think that for better or for worse, I think the economic conditions of the rural areas have come to the attention of some of the larger foundations. So I think that idea that we need to do something different in our rural communities is getting some attention and some energy, which is great.
I also think, on the flip side of that, is that I think rural areas went down, down, down. And then they didn’t come up after the recession. And I think in that span of time, [people said,] “Wait a second, we’re not recovering from this recession while everyone else did.” I saw amazing ideas of what to do in rural areas [in response to those economic conditions]. So I think it’s an idea whose time has come. I think all these ideas are bubbling up, and people are doing things. And I think it’s time for them to bubble together. There are cool things happening out of necessity and because rural people are practical people. I’m always just amazed at what [rural] people are doing. And it would be nice to pull that together and feel inspired. And have it be a diverse group. Not an economic development group, not an arts group, not a media group, but a rural group.
Daily Yonder: What have I not asked you about that I should have?
Kristiansen: I think the tone of the event, which is we really do want people to have an experience. I think the type of people [we expect]. We really want doers and thinkers. People who love ideas, love sharing ideas, love getting them. We’d like a diverse crowd. We want people to engage. We would like to build it out in the future to include some other tracks, so we’re definitely going to be looking to people for ideas for next year.
And we are optimistic, it’s an optimistic event. We are positive on rural areas. We want other people who are, too. We’re optimists. We see opportunity everywhere, and we just want people who see that too, and want to develop it. And we see, I think too, I think we have a very critical need to rebalance rural and urban. It’s just grown so far apart, and we need to be successful.
Daily Yonder: What different organizations and entities are involved with supporting the conference? It sounds like a lot of folks?
Kristiansen: The two co-hosts are the Hannah Grimes Center and our local newspaper, the Keene Sentinel. And then we called in some of our local groups on the tracks. So the Cheshire County Conservation District, and then the Monadnock Conservancy are doing the working lands track. Prime Roast Coffee and one of our staff members, Shannon Hundley, are working on the Main Street track. Arts and culture is being organized by local arts organizations called Arts Alive. Media is being organized by the Keene Sentinel, obviously, and entrepreneurship by Hannah Grimes [Center].
Daily Yonder: Who was Hannah Grimes?
Kristiansen: Hannah Grimes lived in my house 200 years ago. She was born in 1776, I think that’s super cool. She wasn’t famous, but when I was looking through in the local markets, what she or her family didn’t make or grow they bought on market from friends and neighbors. … So she’s a namesake. I live in her house. I researched it when I moved up here, and this resurrected her. She’s an old New Englander.