by Barbra Alan
According to the Obama administration’s domestic agenda, “Rural communities face numerous challenges, but also economic opportunities unlike anything we have witnessed in modern history.”
But identifying and seizing opportunities can be a real challenge for rural communities, which often lack the human capital and resources needed to do so. In response to rural New Hampshire’s need for such support, Plymouth State University created the Center for Rural Partnerships (CfRP) in 2005.
The CfRP was born from the University’s long-held commitment to serving the region, particularly rural New Hampshire. The center finds ways to leverage PSU’s strengths in teaching, research, and service to benefit surrounding communities, connecting people and organizations with resources they need to grow and thrive—a matchmaking service that creates practical partnerships.
The center’s approach to these partnerships is collaborative and supportive. “Rather than force our own agenda on others, we support the work of other organizations and their initiatives,” explains CfRP Director Thad Guldbrandsen. Often, this support benefits more than the community partners: they also provide graduate and undergraduate students with opportunities to collaborate with faculty and staff on projects outside the classroom.
One of the CfRP’s first and longest-running partnerships is with the Alton Historical Society. The CfRP was just days old when an acquaintance of Guldbrandsen’s, who was then president of the Alton Historical Society, contacted him for some advice on how to raise funds for the renovation of a building the historical society had acquired.
Initially, Guldbrandsen, a native of Alton, was ambivalent about the CfRP taking on the project. “It needed to be about more than just Alton’s history,” he explains. “For funders to be interested in supporting a historical society’s work, the historical society needs to translate it and show how it applies to a larger context.”
Guldbrandsen, along with some PSU faculty members and students, worked with the historical society to discover that larger context. “[The project] is really about the recognition of the history of transportation in the region and the relationship among transportation, economy, and land use patterns,” he says. “When the town was a center of industry, the building was a prominent freight building. When the rail line was discontinued, and industry in Alton died off, the building was neglected. Now that Alton is predominantly residential with a high proportion of seasonal residents and newcomers, the historical society is working to make it an education center for residents and visitors.”
Once the big picture had become clear to the CfRP and the Alton Historical Society, the partnership was ready to seek funding. After collaborating on two successful grant proposals, the CfRP stepped aside as the society began to write its own grant proposals.
The partnership’s focus then shifted to research support. The CfRP created a student internship program to assist the historical society in delving deeper into Alton’s history and translating that history to raise awareness and generate enthusiasm for the project in the community.
Most recent among the interns is Carl Dumont, a graduate student in the MEd in Heritage Studies program. A resident of Columbia, ME, who has taken most of his graduate courses online, Dumont says, “I had no idea where Alton was, but I’m a history buff and I love trains, so I thought it would be an interesting capstone experience for my master’s degree.”
Throughout spring and summer 2008, Dumont met with Guldbrandsen and the historical society members, made site visits to the J. Jones Building, and became a regular at the Gilman Library, where he did much of his research. “[The historical society members] were all so positive and upbeat,” notes Dumont. “I felt like I was stepping onto the ground floor of something very positive for the community.”
According to Guldbrandsen, “The historical society will be able to use Carl’s research in any number of ways, from helping a local elementary school develop community-based curricula, to developing museum exhibits, to providing background for a magazine or newspaper article—endeavors that will increase the town’s profile and raise funds to support the project.”
The Coos County Outreach Initiative
While the CfRP is committed to serving communities throughout New Hampshire, many of its recent projects are focused in the North Country, where there has been great need and opportunity.
Last spring, the Neil and Louise Tillotson Fund of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation awarded numerous New Hampshire-based organizations, including the CfRP, funds to help stimulate and support sustainable development in the North Country. The CfRP used its award to create the Coos County Outreach Initiative (CCOI), a program that supports PSU faculty, student, and staff projects that will have a positive impact on the North Country’s economy and quality of life.
Rather than make a large award to a single faculty or staff member, Guldbrandsen says, “I thought that [the money] could have a broader and deeper impact if we created a request for proposal process and funded multiple projects.”
Toward the end of the 2007–08 academic year, Guldbrandsen requested proposals from faculty and staff throughout PSU, and was encouraged by the large number of inquiries he received. One of those inquiries came from Dan Perkins, professor of music and director of choral activities, who had recently been named music director of the Hanover Chamber Orchestra.
Over coffee, Perkins shared with Guldbrandsen his idea for a North Country project. “The Hanover Chamber Orchestra wanted to do a concert in the North Country that would also have an educational component,” Guldbrandsen recalls. “We brainstormed for about an hour and ended the meeting with something that could work.”
While Perkins notes that writing the proposal was an arduous task, “Thad was very helpful in suggesting the types of programs that would have the best chance of being funded and the best language to use,” he says.
Perkins wasn’t the only one to benefit from Guldbrandsen’s input. “When the proposals came in, there wasn’t one that I hadn’t already seen,” Guldbrandsen notes.
Ultimately, the selection committee, composed of professionals from the North Country and various PSU faculty and staff members, accepted Perkins’s proposal. “One of PSU’s greatest strengths is in the creative arts; it’s one of the ways we make an impact on our region, and it’s also one of the areas in which we can serve the North Country even more,” Guldbrandsen explains. “This [project] was a way to bring cultural programming to the North, and create meaningful experiences for our faculty, staff, and students. I hope we build lasting relationships in the process.”
Night Music in the North
Perkins’s project, called Night Music, comprised two parts—music education workshops at three North Country schools (Lancaster Elementary, Whitefield Elementary, and White Mountains Regional High School) and a subsequent Hanover Chamber Orchestra concert performance at White Mountains Regional High School. Perkins worked closely with Frumie Selchen, executive director of the Arts Alliance of Northern New Hampshire, who served as a liaison between Perkins and the schools.
“The timing on this project could not have been better,” says Selchen. “The school district had just made the commitment to introduce a long-awaited orchestral program. Night Music provided the educational and moral support needed for the program and for the teachers who had worked so hard to make it a reality.”
To help prepare the students for the workshops and the concert, Perkins enlisted Carla Ruesenberg, a graduate student in the music education program, to develop a teacher resource guide with input from North Country music, art, social science, and history teachers.
In early February, Perkins and four principal members of the orchestra (Linda Galvan, cello; Elliot Markoe, first violin; Bozena O’Brian, second violin; and Rodger Ellsworth, viola) visited all three schools to present the workshops. A month later, the Hanover Chamber Orchestra performed Night Music to an enthusiastic audience of students, parents, and community members at White Mountains Regional High School. According to Selchen, the concert was “the first time, as far as I know, in several decades that a full chamber orchestra performed in Coos County.”
For Perkins, the preparation, the workshops, and the concert achieved exactly what he had set out to do all along. “I wanted to create a spark, to get the students and the community excited about music, what it can do, and how it can make them feel.”
According to Guldbrandsen, the CfRP is currently working to find funding to turn Perkins’s project into a full-fledged annual event in the North Country. “That’s one of the CfRP’s primary goals, to help initiate projects that grow into programs.”
Supporting North Country Economic Development
Another project that received CCOI funding was a marketing and tourism development project led by Professor of Tourism Management Mark Okrant.
With more than 30 years of experience as a national and international tourism researcher, author, and educator, Okrant is well known in the tourism industry. So when North Country innkeeper Sharon White approached Janice Crawford, executive director of the Mount Washington Valley Chamber of Commerce, about the challenges she was facing with her business, Crawford suggested she talk with Okrant.
“Sharon had moved up to North Stratford with her husband, whose dream it had been to own a lodge,” Okrant explains. Following her husband’s death, White decided to fulfill his dream and opened the lodge for business. And while she was enjoying being an innkeeper, she realized she needed to increase occupancy to stay in business.
As with Perkins’s project, the timing couldn’t have been better. “It just so happened I had my Tourism Marketing Analysis class in the fall, and I thought this could be a perfect marketing project for my students,” Okrant says.
When Okrant shared his idea for the marketing project for the Trailside Lodge, Guldbrandsen urged him to write a proposal. Upon review of the proposal, says Guldbrandsen, “[the selection committee] saw the capacity for this project to benefit more than just one business. Mark and his students could develop a marketing template that other tourism operators could use to increase business, either with the help of a student facilitator, or on their own.”
Once Okrant’s proposal for the marketing project was accepted, he and his students made the first of many trips up north to the Trailside Lodge in late September. “The students talked with Sharon, inspected the property and the land, gathered information about the lodge, the area, and its competitors, and took pictures,” says Okrant.
White says she was very impressed by the students’ professionalism. “They toured the grounds, and went from room to room in the lodge, asking me good, thorough questions.”
After meeting with White and reviewing data, the students determined that the marketing project would have two objectives: to increase occupancy by 10 percent and to increase revenue by 20 percent.
Toward the end of the semester, the students presented their marketing plan to White and Okrant. To help increase occupancy, the students proposed that White invest in advertising, particularly to mid-Atlantic and eastern Canadian markets, which they felt hold the greatest potential for prospective clientele. They even came up with a practical advertising budget. To help increase revenue, the students recommended that White raise her rates, which, after researching her competitors, they deemed too low. They also suggested that White consider marketing her lodge as a meeting place for organizations to hold seminars, conferences, and classes.
Other suggestions included creating themes for the various rooms in the lodge, placing decorative benches in the yard, installing WiFi, and furnishing each unit with brochures of area attractions.
“It was fun to listen to their ideas,” says White. And while some of the students’ suggestions echoed White’s own goals, she notes that they “drew conclusions that took me years to figure out.”
Okrant, who had served strictly in an advisory capacity throughout the project, was proud of his students’ work. “They went beyond the scope of the assignment; they made suggestions on how Sharon could make the interior and exterior of the lodge more attractive to a broader clientele, and how she could improve the lodge’s Web site,” he notes. “I liked their presentation very much.”
With the presentation made and the client eager to make the suggested improvements, Okrant and the CfRP are looking forward to advancing the project to the next level. “We want to take the students’ recommendations and help the lodge implement them, and we want to replicate this project for other businesses,” says CfRP Grants Coordinator Ben Amsden, noting that the CfRP is already working to find funding for both goals.
Expanding the Reach
PSU, in partnership with White Mountains Community College, recently took a giant step forward in expanding its support of rural communities with the creation of the Northern Forest Higher Education Resource Network. NFHERN is a network of colleges, universities, and research institutions throughout northern New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and southern Canada committed to supporting educational, economic, environmental, and cultural vitality in the 30-million acre Northern Forest region.
The key priority of NFHERN is to promote cross-institutional learning and research opportunities for students and faculty from schools throughout the network. The network is expected to strengthen each institution’s resiliency, create financial opportunities, enhance academic offerings, and enrich the communities they serve. According to Frances Belcher, regional collaboration coordinator for the CfRP, the network provides “an opportunity for the center to do more than support projects that benefit rural New Hampshire and the Northern Forest region; it will allow us to grow and improve by learning from others in the network.”
Did you know?
There are seven projects currently funded by the Coos County Outreach Initiative, ranging from the arts and sciences to business and cultural heritage.
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