After budget challenges late last year compelled a three-month shutdown and a need to reinvent itself for the future, the nonprofit Bethlehem-based Women’s Rural Entrepreneurial Network is emerging from its hibernation with a new focus and is developing a sustainable path forward.
"We are very excited and optimistic," Susan Retz, president of the WREN board of directors, said Monday. "Nothing is in stone yet and we’ll see how it goes."
WREN will be reopening on a limited basis and will begin small and on an annual budget significantly reduced from the one it had been used to operating on, but it will continue to provide valuable programs and cla sses, she said.
As plans are developed, the organization is also determining how its gallery and store - high on the list of offerings that area residents and members attending community input sessions on the future of WREN - will be used, said Retz.
The hope is that there could be some sort of reopening of the gallery and store in the next few months, she said.
"We are doing it quarter by quarter and will see how it goes the next three months," said Retz. "We are talking about doing different things with both the gallery and store. Hopefully by June, there will be something new and exciting."
On Monday, WREN representatives issued an emailed newsletter saying they spent the winter taking input on what WREN members and community members said is most needed from the 25-year nonp rofit whose mission is serve the needs of small businesses and artists in the North Country.
The first order of business was to redesign WREN’s technical assistance and training programs to better serve needs and meet the challenges on today’s economy, they said.
As part of that redesign, a range of social and networking events and business workshops will be rolled out in the coming weeks, in April.
From 5 to 7 p.m. April 5, a First Friday at WREN event will be a free panel discussion on exploring the "gig economy" and how to parlay one’s passions and skills into one or more paying gigs.
At 5:30 p.m. April 18 at the Littleton Food Co-op, a free discussion for local food producers and producers of other items will take place for those interesting in becoming a co-op vendor.
WREN will also be expanding its Launching Emerging Artists Practicum (LEAP), a program that allows artists to select the classes and build programs that best fit their needs and that culminates in a gallery show in November.
And for low- or moderate-income residents of New Hampshire, and as part of its mission to improves lives and livelihoods in rural communities, WREN will provide new and emerging small business scholarships.
The scholarships for up to three years include free WREN memberships and member benefits, free enrollment in WREN classes and business development programs for farmers,
food producers, artists and artisans, and free sector-specific one-on-one business assistance from WREN staff members and area experts.
In December, WREN announced it would be hitting the pause button and reevaluating ways on how to create a sustainable future before reopening in the second quarter of 2019, which officially begins April 1.
On Jan. 1, WREN had 13 paid staff members who were laid off when its Bethlehem store (the Local Works MarketPlace) and gallery (The Gallery at WREN) closed, WREN programs were suspended or eliminated, and the organization closed incubator space and prepared to sell its property at 22 Park Ave. in Bethlehem.
The decision to hibernate for three months came after a year of financial challenges.
Although a successful fund-raiser in April 2018 put WREN on a decent financi al footing, it ran into money troubles beginning in October when retail items that had sold in 2017 were not selling as much in 2018 and grants that had been sought weren’t awarded.
Prior to its hibernation, WREN had been operating on an annual budget of roughly $700,000, and its gallery and retail sales made up a large percentage of its operating funds.
As it slowly reopens on the limited basis, WREN doesn’t have any full-time employees, but previous staff is working with the organization and some of the people teaching classes will come back for other important work, said Retz.
WREN’s working plan hasn’t yet been funded, and all memberships, which made up a third of WREN income, were halted when WREN closed in December.
The organization will b e studying how it handles membership, said Retz.
"Right now, we have to talk with our membership and let them know we are planning to reopen on a limited basis and we could really use their support," she said.
Although selling its Park Avenue property, WREN is keeping its Main Street property in Bethlehem, its two condominium properties, and an undeveloped Main Street parcel in Bethlehem.
WREN was created in 1994 as a way to develop an eight-month training and support program to help 12 lower-income women become small business owners.
"Right now, we have to talk with our membership and let them know we are planning to reopen on a limited basis and we could really use their support..."