Peterborough looks ahead as it encourages, promotes new ventures

Monadnock community takes active approach in cultivating next generation of entrepreneurs

The Monadnock Region town of Peterborough is taking a different approach to the so-called “silver tsunami” facing much of New Hampshire.

Community leaders boast the benefits of access to retirees who do not remain idle — among them are worldly artists and business executives, actively serving as mentors for aspiring entrepreneurs. And it is with their assistance that the town aims to grow opportunities that will attract the next generation.

The most prominent example is Our Town Capital, a dozen community-minded angel investors who are putting their money where their mouth is: investing in ideas that promote positive social initiatives and expand employment opportunities in the greater Monadnock area. 

Since forming in 2017, Our Town Capital — the name was inspired by the classic Thornton Wilder play based on Peterborough — has provided undisclosed amounts of seed funding to three companies: Nuttin Ordinary, a vegan, cashew-based cheese manufacturer; NH Tap, a water supply testing and filtration company; and Conducive’s Village at Stone Barn, a 33-unit condo development on a 32-acre farm.  (Anyone with a business idea for the region can pitch it via a form at ourtown.capital.)

“We are a seed bed, and we just want to create that ability to thrive once more and spread it to all of New Hampshire.”

“There’s a lot of emphasis on building capacity to help new ventures get up and going,” says Pete Troop, Peterborough’s community development director. “This is a town that has always been a place where people wanted to start a business — they found out about Peterborough, they fell in love with it, they wanted to live here, they brought their business here. That’s how Brookstone got started. That’s how Eastern Mountain Sports got started. There’s a long list of companies you would recognize the names of the owners that came here and started a business.”

‘A really strong community’

But corporate moves and bankruptcies resulted in an exodus of those retail chains, leaving substantial holes in the Peterborough business community, and specifically at its industrial park, Vose Farm Business Center.

“We came here because we could buy these buildings very reasonably,” says Whitten. “However, what we found was a really strong community, and a community that realized they lost 600 jobs just from this industrial park alone. They’ve done nothing but nurture and help build the employers here in town. It’s remarkable, and it’s a team effort too.”Charles (Chub) Whitten, principal at the park’s owner, Juniper Development Group, mainly owns commercial property in Massachusetts, but said he was drawn to Vose Farm by the price.

The park is now home to the corporate headquarters of SoClean, a CPAP sanitizing company that reported 2,805 percent growth last year and ranked on Deloitte’s list of the 500 fastest-growing companies. In addition to leasing 80,000 square feet of warehousing, SoClean recently purchased the former Eastern Mountain Sports building, where it plans to build out a call center on the second floor. 

“This is great news for the community,” says Whitten.

Juniper Development has also been filling capacity Vose Farm by subdividing warehouse space to accommodate the business incubator offices at MAxT Makerspace and expanding home-based businesses, such as high-end furniture maker Tod Von Mertens.

Nuttin Ordinary raised seed funding from Our Town Capital and other local investors, which enabled the company to move from a test facility in Harrisville to a 2,400-square-foot production facility at Vose Farm.

The location is convenient for its growing distribution line, including all Whole Foods stores in New England and 200 natural food stores located as far south as Virginia. 

Taking investments a step further, Roy Schlieben, director of MAxT Makerspace, hopes to develop a more robust accelerator program in collaboration with the investor group. The program would provide incubator space to approximately five businesses as well as a stipend and connections to resources that would help them launch on their own in three months.

“The thing about this community is there are very major collaborations going on, to be creative in terms of how we actually improve our world, not just our local community,” says Our Town investor James Kelly. 

‘Make things happen’

A town of 6,500, Peterborough, like so many other New Hampshire communities, needs to attract young people (as well as wealthy retirees) to maintain a sustainable tax base. 

Peterborough has hired consultants to promote the community via Instagram and Facebook, aiming to attract professionals in their late 20s to early 40s. 

Troop says migrants from New Jersey, Connecticut and Westchester County in New York find relatively good deals for available homes in Peterborough. But too often affordable homes are being nabbed by downsizing baby boomers.

Troop reflects on the trend at a discussion during the Business and Industry Association’s fall housing conference regarding market demand for senior housing rather than starter homes.

“I’m hearing state senators talking about solutions for the 55 and older housing problem, and I’d say, ‘You want to know what that is? It’s called changing how we pay for our schools,’” argues Troop. “Putting it on the property tax payer is driving that, and if you start taking kids out of the system of your community, you don’t have the vibrancy and the vitality.”

Nate Morison, the 18-year-old owner of Vicuña Chocolate, is hungry for a more vibrant youth scene reflected in downtown’s offerings, such as mixed-use housing and some nightlife. 

He notices the slowing foot traffic during the colder seasons. That’s why he was frustrated with Peterborough residents’ decision last year to vote down a density zoning ordinance, which would have immediately removed barriers for houses to subdivide their lots.

“We still have a lot of work in terms of buy-in from the folks who vote,” says Morison, who regularly communicates with the town’s Economic Development Authority. “Our stakes are pretty high, so a lot of people are willing to come together and make things happen.”

So far, Troop says, the town has approved two overlay districts that allow for infill development as well as an accessory dwelling unit permit. 

“We’re seeing a fair amount of people adding accessory units, and ultimately those can end up being the most affordable rental units that you’re going to find because it’s owner-occupied and they want to get in good people so they’re not charging as much as an absentee landlord,” says Troop.

Nate Morison, owner of Vicuña Chocolate, would like to see residents support downtown development that would draw a younger crowd. (Photo by Liisa Rajala)

An ‘agrihood’

A year ago, the EDA hired former state trade director Dawn Wivell to evaluate the community’s strengths, which led to ongoing formal discussions involving business and community stakeholders who meet regularly meet to discuss matters such as sustainability, business development resources and the arts.

“Over the past few months, we have developed this ecosystem to follow a hub and spoke model,” says Wivell. “The overarching group, the ecosystem hub, consists of representatives of each spoke as well as other important stakeholders. The hub ensures that communication is fluid and consistent with the various spokes that will all have their own constituents and will take responsibility for communication within their communities.”

Kyle Sullivan thinks the approach is garnering results. Sullivan and his wife Cassandra are co-owners of the curated whiskey bar Cooper’s Hill Public House. He said the forum has given a collective voice to downtown businesses and led to plans to submit a proposal for signs indicating cultural institutions and the downtown area.

“You get 101, you get 202, and you don’t actually know you’re going around this really adorable little town,” he says.

Lately, those involved in sustainability discussion have been discussing “Drawdown,” a book on the 100 most practical ways to reverse climate change. Kelly, a member of the group, points to refrigeration as among the most significant contributors that Peterborough restaurants could address collectively. 

“My personal point of view is that it is going to be a more inventive and creative process going on here than what is going to be driven out of Washington,” says Kelly.

Village at Stone Barn is being designed by Amelia Tracy, co-founder at net-zero real estate development firm Conducive, as the first “agrihood” in the Northeast, which includes residential condos, a working farm and a farm-to-table cafe.

Half of the 33 condo units scheduled for completion in late 2019 have already been sold, she said. 

Cassandra and Kyle Sullivan own New Hampshire’s largest curated whiskey bar, Cooper’s Hill Public House. (Photo by Annie Card)

“It became clear that, especially for my particular background in architectural construction, doing a real estate development deal to offset the costs of the regenerative farm was a good model because you could do consolidated clustered developments,” says Tracy.

Tracy is encouraging intergenerational living at Village at Stone Barn, where grandparents can have more hands-on teaching moments in the gardens and wildflower meadows. Her focus is not only on providing a local food source, but also rebuilding biodiversity and reversing desertification. 

Having attended environmental conferences across the country, Tracy says New England’s natural beauty and local farmers face significant risk and unknown conditions in the future. Experts suggest maple trees will migrate to Canada as New England’s climate becomes more like North Carolina. 

“Through agriculture, we can sequester the CO2 in the atmosphere to reduce and reverse global warming,” says Tracy, whose agrihood will be powered by solar panels. 

Renewable energy supporter and state senator, Jeanne Dietsch, a Peterborough Democrat, is taking Peterborough’s ideas statewide, as she begins her first term.

“We are a seed bed, and we just want to create that ability to thrive once more and to spread it to all of New Hampshire. There’s no reason that New Hampshire can spawn its own Silicon Valleys of specialized fields, such as regenerative medicine and alternative energy,” says Dietsch, founder of a robotics coding software company. “That’s what I’m trying to do in Peterborough — to help the alternative energy, sustainable construction and related fields, for us to be branded as an area that’s demonstrated.” 

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