Organization making a difference in the North Country honored as Champion in ActionStaff Report
July 11. 2018 9:42PM
BETHLEHEM — In 2005, Jeanette Fournier’s brother, Phillip, the sole caretaker for their ailing father and grandmother, was called to serve a tour of duty in Iraq.
With no job prospect or other support, she quit her corporate job and moved to the North Country to care for her family.
She tried her hand at painting once she settled in Littleton, but in her first two-day show she earned $24.
“It was devastating,” she said.
That was before she was connected with a slew of opportunities through the Women’s Rural Entrepreneurial Network, including classes on how to create a profitable art show, run a small business and opportunities to showcase her work.
“That literally changed my life,” she said.
On Wednesday the organization was named a Champion in Action by Citizens Bank and the New Hampshire Union Leader, which comes with $35,000 in funding as well as promotional and volunteer support.
WREN provides two sets of programs: technical assistance like one-on-one business coaching and access to markets for people to sell their goods, including two retail stores, an art gallery and farmers markets in Gorham and Bethlehem.
It also provides low-cost office space to fledgling businesses in Berlin and Bethlehem. Several participants said the work is important, especially as women who live in Coos County make 24 percent less than the state average.
“For rural development, that is a really critical segment of the economy,” said Executive Director Alison Chisolm. “What you might call mom-and-pop businesses are the foundation of our local economies.”
With nearly 1,000 members, WREN provided help to approximately 300 businesses last year.
All told, its work generated $250,000 of income for North Country artists and farmers in 2017. Its efforts have generated $3 million in revenue for local businesses.
Joe Carelli, president of Citizens Bank in New Hampshire and Vermont, said the organization’s nearly 25-year history providing services in the North Country has made a difference that he has seen personally.
When downtown Bethlehem was nothing more than a salon and an antique store, a number of women banded together to bring small businesses back to Main Street.
“In 1999, WREN took the lead in forming a condo association with two existing businesses to purchase a six-storefront building on Bethlehem’s Main Street,” he said.
Now those business are thriving, including one of WREN’s stores, an art gallery and a restaurant.
WREN plans to use the money to upgrade the computer systems to allow them to track inventory and make sales on the fly at “pop-up” or temporary stores. They are also planning a marketing campaign.
“We want to be able to step into the 21st century and we know we could do things better if we had a better website,” Chisolm said. “We are trying to sustain bricks-and-mortar in the online age. We want to increase our online presence. But we also want to create a reason for people to shop in our stores and come to town.”
The Union Leader will provide media coaching and coverage.
“We are excited to spend the next six months telling that audience about the social and economic impact WREN has had in the North Country,” said Katie McQuaid, the Union Leader’s director of marketing. “We know that telling these good news stories will help WREN attract more donors and fans, and more clients for its hundreds of entrepreneurs.”