Parking Pressure

Jim Rafferty from NH Charitable Gaming gave a presentation to residents Tuesday night about the casino his company would like to build in the Berlin downtown if legislation currently before the NH House passes. They would start with 250 slot machines and 10 table games in the Albert Theater and hopefully grow into a 40,000 square foot $50 million facility with a 300 room hotel and convention center at the Rite Aid building across the street. The city would get 3 percent of revenues, or an estimated $300,000 the first year. That doesn’t include the property tax and other taxes the city would collect.
Casinos, of course, have lots of opponents. Gambling is often considered a vice, and proposed casinos in nearby states have resulted in bitter battles.
The opposition in Berlin Tuesday rallied around only one issue, however: parking.
The city would lose valuable parking spaces if there was a gaming facility in the downtown area, opponents said, and businesses on Main Street would suffer.
Councilor Lucie Remillard asked if Mr. Rafferty would consider other locations outside the downtown. Others suggested the east side or the old Converse factory aside. Mr. Rafferty said the Albert Theater was the most viable location and he hoped to make the location work.

Many of the opponents were business owners with shops on Main Street. These shops would benefit from increased traffic through the downtown, and they would benefit from visitors to Berlin, no matter the draw. People made it clear they don’t want the casino in the downtown, but they didn’t really address why. Parking as a reason is ridiculous.

What if viable businesses moved into all of the empty buildings in downtown Berlin? What would the city do for parking then? Would business owners say having all those businesses in the downtown is a detriment because of the parking challenges it creates? What other industry would move into Berlin and spend the money to level a building to create 187 parking spaces? The phase one of the casino plan would level the Rite Aid building to build a parking area — no other business would.

Traffic could be a concern; Main Street wasn’t built to handle large numbers of cars. But if too many cars in Berlin would be a significant improvement over the current problem of too few. Both Mayor David Bertrand and city manager Pat MacQueen pointed out there are ways to deal with parking issues, and that a parking problem with adequate revenue isn’t really a problem. Mr. Rafferty said if they casino is so successful there is no place to park he’ll build the city several garages.

This debate goes back to the earlier discussion about creativity. What makes people see only roadblocks instead of opportunities? What made Lorraine Leclerc see opportunity in a burned out school building while others see roadblocks when an entrepreneur approaches the city with a business idea?
Casinos have negative characteristics. In many places opponents to gambling gain enough traction that municipalities see battles between pro- and anti-gaming factions. Such a debate is important, particularly in Berlin, which has to decide what path it wants to take forward into the twenty-first century. But parking as a roadblock to economic development? What sort of draw to the downtown can there be without creating congestion? How can the city reestablish the downtown as an economic, social and cultural center without people? What depressed city shoots down a business idea because it’ll attract too many people to the area?
Where is the ingenuitive spirit to attack this challenge? Where is the dynamic community ready to move quickly to clear a path for business? What is the yoke around this city’s neck that makes everything appear overwrought and dangerous?

A luke-warm reception to gambling is understandable. But not for such a thin reason as parking.

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A prison, a biomass plant, another prison…

… and a casino.
Will Berlin change its motto from The city that trees built to Not in your backyard? How about here? It is discouraging to think the only businesses the city can pursue are the industries everyone else wants to get rid of.
Yesterday I got sidetracked while talking to one of the firefighters about the most recent fire. We wound up discussing the economic challenges the city has, making for one more conversation to add to my list. The fireman said he looks around and sees many opportunities no one takes advantage of. He mentioned rescuing someone off Mt. Forist, the big cliff on the west side of town.
“That could be the next Cathedral Ledge,” he said.
Being a climber, I don’t agree; I think it could be better than Cathedral. Or at least it has the potential to be more of an everyman cliff than Cathedral, because it is waiting to be developed. Easier routes could go up without being scary or dangerous. This could be one part of the multi-step approach to drawing people to Berlin.
He mentioned ice climbing, and boating, and ATVs, but Berlin doesn’t have a single hotel and the restaurant selection is pathetic. What does it take to move toward adventure tourism? I don’t hear anyone even discussing it.

The creativity of people trying to solve the problems in Berlin is lacking. Norm Charest, Tri-County CAPs economic development director, said people in the area are caught in a mindset that keeps them from seeing opportunities. His biggest critic, Lorraine Leclerc, is on the same page — it was Project Rescue’s creativity and drive that got things going at the former Notre Dame school.
But these two are doing battle publicly instead of joining forces to solve the city’s problems. Maybe it is the curse of society to have more challenges created by living together than are solved, but it seems Mrs. Leclerc’s creativity is exactly what Mr. Charest championed. Mr. Charest had other development ideas, like an indoor adventure center near the ATV park to provide poor weather and after dark entertainment. Who is going to come up with more ideas like this and move them forward?

The city council seems to be waiting for someone to arrive with this type of creative thinking. They are hoping to find something better than Laidlaw to fill the center of town, some sort of economic advancement that doesn’t spew smoke. They don’t need one employer to bring back the 2,000 jobs the mill used to provide, but they need something. The council has been approached now for a fourth time with an outside idea: build a casino. Casinos may have positive economic effects, as do biomass facilities and prisons, but they aren’t the MOST desirable business to build a community around.
So where are the inside ideas? Where is the creative thinking coming from inside Berlin? The Gill Building was renovated in hopes that by cleaning up the downtown the economy will improve, but that misses the step of having something to build a beautiful downtown around. Who is going to come up with that?

Mr. Charest said he thinks the citizens are so beaten down they don’t know how to get out of this rut. Mrs. Leclerc proved they can. Who in Berlin is going to take the ball from these two and run with it?

Fire Five

Empty houses burning — at this point they just make me sad. The house with the sign on it has been sitting vacant for years, according to one of the firefighters who put it out Saturday morning. Three surrounding buildings will need repairs, including the one in the picture, which was on fire when crews arrived. And this three unit house, listed for less than $50,000, is now basically worthless.

It goes back to the issue of what to do with these vacant houses. They are a drag in so many ways, and worst of all when they catch fire and damage other people’s property. Hopefully the $4.3 million will make some headway in dealing with this problem. If not, there are still a lot of empty buildings sitting around waiting to catch fire.

Money for Nothing

The Neighborhood Stabilization Act is making its way to Berlin. The city is going to receive $4.3 million to rehab homes, demolish old buildings and reinvigorate the housing stock. The money was awarded Thursday, and Berlin received the highest percentage of its funding request of any city in the state.
City housing coordinator Andre Caron and I had talked about the money a week and a half ago, but at that time he wasn’t sure how much the city would get. $1 million for demolition will go a long way to pay for buildings in the 155B process. Mr. Caron said the city still has to learn the specifics of how the money can be allocated, but it should make a big difference in the city.
It begs the question — is it time to by real estate in Berlin? With the federal prison a year and a half from completion and money coming in to revitalize the neighborhood this could be the upswing moment.
Part of the $4.3 million will subsidize owner occupancy house purchases. The city will give you $20,000 (for example) to buy a home in Berlin if you are going to live in it. In a city where housing prices are in the basement such an incentive makes the prospect of home ownership seem more than a wise investment — a $35,000 house with at $20,000 injection of federal money is a done deal. If you can handle the winters.

Interesting Converstations

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).
Laidlaw?
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.

The Next Journalism?

I happened upon this article about where journalism is headed. I can’t say I’m on board 100 percent, and since it didn’t really explain what these entrepreneurs were doing it’s hard to judge. I’m not psyched about having to think about the success of the business while considering what to cover, and, as I understand it, online ad space is too cheap to sustain much, but it is good to see people thinking about how to revamp journalism and taking a proactive approach.

John Deere anyone…

Berlin’s city parks are unmowed. Its gardens are full of weeds. The past may be bleak, but the way forward isn’t much brighter.
The city cut its budget by $13 million this year. (Correction — the city didn’t receive $13 million in grant money this year, which made cuts look bigger than they actually were. The council tried to cut each department by 7.5 percent, resulting in about a $3 million reduction.) Every department got hit. At the public hearing last Thursday several people spoke up for the parks and recreation department, saying it couldn’t sustain with the proposed cuts — $30,000 less than last year. The kids, people said, will be the ones who lose out.

And they made another point: What do people want the city to look like? What image does the city want to project? Should parks match foreclosed houses, with overgrown lawns and weeds? Should the city round out its image of burned out remains, boarded up relics and abandoned industrial sites with its city parks’ lawns?

It’s hard to make cuts. The city asked for reductions across the board for fiscal year 2010, which starts on July 1. Every department had its supporters and detractors, and the city was stuck making tough decisions. The councilors and the mayor defended their cuts one at a time at the public hearing, citing their reluctance to increase taxs. But several residents looked at the resulting budget and announced they would prefer a tax increase to what they saw.
The city’s tax base is eroded by years of decline. With more than 100 empty homes and few taxable employers the city has no one but homeowners to turn to if it wishes to increase revenue. But when councilor McCue called the city depressed he got sharp words from the audience.
Councilor Goudreau said he didn’t care if people don’t like the word, Berlin is depressed. It’s understandable the word draws criticism, but to call Berlin something else would be euphemism. The question is whether the city is closer to 1934 or 1940. Or even 1944. With buildings around town that look like they were in the firebombing of Dresden, it’s hard to understand just which direction the city is moving.
City manager Pat MacQueen said he didn’t used to get complaints about the burned out buildings around town; people were so accustomed to these eyesores they didn’t even take notice. But now, with an interest in renewal, people are letting him know they care.
Still, progress is lateral. According to Dave Morin, owner of Morin’s Shoe Store on Main Street, when one building gets redone two more burn. It seems to him sometimes the city is sliding sideways, not moving forward.
And now there isn’t enough money to cut the grass. Perhaps the city is continuing on its decline. Perhaps its 1934.

Or maybe the city is making hard choices to so it can forward. The councilors don’t want to discourage growth, either in business or homeowners, so they are unwilling to raise taxes. And they don’t want to spend money that isn’t their, so they have to cut programs. They plan on spending $11 million on capital improvements over the next five years to rebuild the infrastructure that has sat untended for so long. Like the National Recovery and Reinvestment Act today, or the CCC and the WPA 70 years ago, the city is investing in its future. The short term pain may wind up trumping the long term value.

A house in Berlin cost $30,000. That’s either a steal in a city coming back into its own or a waste of time not worth the money; it depends on where in the depression Berlin really is. Either way, there is one thing the citizens and the city both would like you to do: cut the grass.