In the past 24 hours I had four conversations about Berlin’s economy. The conversations were with Paul D., Conway town engineer, Norman Charest, Tri-County CAP economic development director, the staff and sponsors of the StoryCorps mobile booth, and Norm Small, a Berlin business owner.
First, though, I have to mention my piece on dilapidated buildings came out today. It is on the cover of the Reporter. Pick up a copy and check it out, it explains many of the challenges the city is facing. I am interested to see what feedback I get from residents.
So the conversations. Everyone wonders what will come to Berlin to turn it around. Will it be the prison? Will it be a biomass plant? Will it be tourism? Will it be anything? I’m not sure any of those provide a good answer. As Paul D. pointed out, Berlin is too far from any transportation hub for any viable industry. Mr. Charest echoed that, saying it’s a depressed city which has grown accustomed to depression. What could possibly go right for Berlin?
Norm Small said his daughter, who is 29, is never coming back. The hope that the next generation will revitalize the area is lost, he said, because there isn’t anything there for young people. I’m not so sure about that, but I can see his point. Berlin has strong community spirit, and if the city can capitalize on that it can turn it into an economic asset.
I don’t know if the younger generations have that community spirit, however. I have seen it at city council and other public meetings with people over 35, but I don’t have examples of it with younger citizens. In fact, I can’t say that I see much for young engaged residents. I have not had a lot of experiences with people over 18 and under 35 in Berlin. They may be there, but up until now they have largely been below my radar. The same isn’t true for Gorham, which has a thriving population of 20- and 30-somethings.
So maybe Mr. Small is right, and Berlin’s youth will not provide the economic boost the city needs. Who then? The prison?
The new federal prison, I just found out, will not hire anyone over 37. And they have very stringent guidelines for hiring and a rigorous application process. As far as I can tell, Berlin doesn’t have the demographics to fill the more than 200 positions the prison will offer. Maybe there are, but, as I said, I haven’t seen them. Plus, with the depressed nature of the area, some of the guidelines will be hard for people to meet (read my upcoming story on the prison in next week’s paper for more on this).
I am extremely skeptical about this. At the last two city council meetings there have been people saying the majority of Berlin residents are in favor of the Laidlaw biomass plant moving to Berlin, but I haven’t met them yet. Everyone I talk to is against the plant moving to its proposed site, at the stack in the middle of town. There are vocal proponents, but every person I talk to in quiet side conversations is opposed. Mr. Small said the city council chose the newest member, Ryan Landry, partly because he opposed Laidlaw. It is pretty clear the council opposes it, but as far as I can tell they are representing their constituents well on the issue.
So what else? Mr. Charest thinks Berlin needs to finish grieving for the mill and move on. But to what?
I’ve heard several ideas over the day, and I think they are all worth considering:
- Brewery — My lovely wife suggested that one. Lots of warehouse space and easily trucked product. And fits with the town’s blue collar image of itself. Perfect.
- ATV Park — As Mr. Charest said, “It fits.” Again, matches the town’s image and would provide a good reason for the existing infrastructure.
- University — It’s a long way to Plymouth. WMCC is headed that way and is gaining a reputation for its nursing program. This one would be a huge success, but it’s long term.
- Indoor Recreation Center — Paintball, bumper cars and laser tag would compliment an ATV park well. That one I think is great.
- Biodiesil Plant — I have to admit I was impressed by Forrest Letarte. His model could be replicated anywhere. Why not in Berlin?
I know there have to be more. Industry won’t cut it, so it’s time to think of other options. I’d love to hear any other ideas for a depressed city with lots of infrastructure. Maybe the city can turn these ideas into profitable businesses. Maybe that way they can turn it all around.