Fire Number Four

The fourth fire in two weeks happened over the weekend. It started in the garage of an abandoned house and damaged the house next door. I don’t know if the fire marshal has declared the fire incendiary or not yet, but either way it still touches on an issue that is central to Berlin: what to do about burned buildings.

I talked to Berlin Fire Chief Randall Trull, as well as city manager Pat MacQueen and housing coordinator Andre Caron about it today. Berlin is in a unique situation — if a building burns, the leftover property is often worth less than the total of cleanup costs. This results in landlords walking away from their properties. Chief Trull, Mr. MacQueen and Mr. Caron all pointed to RSA 155B as the best means to move forward in this situation. The law allows the city to do something about these abandoned properties, even though the city doesn’t own them. In addition, sometimes the law can even incentivize landlords to clean up properties they otherwise would have walked away from. It isn’t perfect, Mr. MacQueen said, but recent changes to the law are making it possible for the city to move forward with destroyed properties at less cost to taxpayers.

Berlin used to have 22,000 residents. Now there are 10,300. That means there is a wealth of infrastructure for a dearth of population. The empty houses are only one symptom; the closing schools are another. In a city where there are ample vacant properties for arsonists to burn there are also schools closing for lack of students. The Bartlett school will close in about two weeks, and not just for the summer. The new superintendent will be in charge of only four schools, where the current superintendent is in charge of six.

At the same time there are signs of improvement. The Gill Building, on Main Street, former home of Gill’s Flowers, is now available for rent. David Morin, one of the investors who bought and renovated the building, showed me around the four beautiful apartments and downstairs office space. It is the type of place any young professional would love to rent — well built, quiet, efficient and inexpensive. StoryCorps has jumped on the opportunity to rent the apartments for the first month. Now Morin and his partners are looking for a few people in search of quality office and living accommodations in the downtown. It is a promising move forward in a city Mr. Morin said is often making lateral movements.

Check out next week’s Berlin Reporter for an in depth look at these stories.

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