Other Projects

So I’ve got a few other projects on my plate for the next couple weeks, which will probably end up on here. The first one I start tomorrow and ought to be pretty interesting. The second one I’m still in the process of figuring out. But I thought I’d give a little preview:

  • Food For Thought — Steve Dupuis is a stone mason who lives in Evan’s Notch on the border of Maine and New Hampshire. This past Spring, as he geared up to start a $50,000 job, the client called up and canceled. The job that was supposed to last Mr. Dupuis the summer didn’t last a day. Not one to get pinned down by circumstances, Mr. Dupuis cleared some land, expanded his garden, bought some chickens and some pigs and started raising his own food. He was looking for high yield on small money as an alternative method to feed his family. He said he’s not some back to the Earth hippy; this is just what he had to do. And, he said, it’s been a wonderful experience.

I’m trying to pitch it to NHPR for their Working It Out series, but because Steve actually lives on the Maine side of the border I’m not sure they’ll go for it. I might try MPBN, or for This American Life, but that’s aiming high. I’m going to mix the audio, and I’m also going to shoot a bunch of photos to create a multimedia presentation. I’m hoping it comes out well; I meet with Steve tomorrow morning for the first interview.

  • Beyond Brown Paper — The photograph archives of the Brown Paper Company are at Plymouth State University. I want to partner with them to interview people from around Berlin about the mill and life in the city before it closed. I want to take the photos and lay them over the audio, again creating a multimedia project that will tell the history of the city.

I’m not really pitching that to anyone; I just think it could be a pretty amazing compilation. I’ve talked with dozens of Berliners about the city’s past. That is a record that shouldn’t be lost forever. StoryCorps captured some of this history, but there is so much more waiting up there.
Those are my latest ideas for side projects. I’d love to hear any ideas people have for interesting stories and interviews in Northern New Hampshire, and I promise to post them here when (if?) I finish them.

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Craigslist? An Enemy?

Posting on New Hampshire Craigslist Rants & Raves section, July 5 (unedited):

  • I am thinking about buying a multiunit property in berlin and wondered about the town and the people there? Would this be a mistake?

Responses, same day:

  • Berlin NH is the Black Hole of NH…………..it consumes money, lives, and souls…..it’s appetite is insatiable, Great deals on multi multis, usually means evil surrounds them.
  • You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. You must be cautious.”
  • Was a nice town long ago.Now the prison is being built every scumb,welfare,loser is moving in here to live off the state.Unless you are already loaded w/ $$ it’s a bad idea there is NO jobs here no $$ .Every day we see more & more freaks ,scumb,etc here this is why we are moving out .This town turned into a hang out for low income people w/ 10 kids no job losers & once the prison is in all the Rif Raf from the prisoners will be moving in to be closer to them losers in jail.DON’T DO IT.Drive around every other house is for sale NO ONE wants to live here any more !!!!
  • Berlin WAS a nice place once, but with the paper mill that failed, it was the was the begining of the end for that one companey town, now its looking more like west hollis st in nashua, sad.

And the response, again, the same day:

  • thank you for the info, i will not invest in berlin

This is Berlin’s biggest challenge. In one day the possibility of investment in the city evaporates because of a few online posts. If the only word about the city of Berlin comes from the people denigrating it, the city’s future is lost. Councilor Tim Cayer said today he isn’t sure who is concentrating on change Berlin’s image down south. Shouldn’t someone be? Beautify Main Street, complete the ATV park, develop hiking and rafting; all of it is pointless if people aren’t willing to come up here.
How beautiful is Berlin? Yet it is the mill that dominates the city’s self-image. Councilor David Poulin suggested the city seal should lose the smoking stacks, two years after they came down. The city needs a makeover, bad. Not in substance, because what the city has is valuable. As Councilor Dick Lafleur said, the city should be proud of its history. But the pride, at this time, doesn’t extend to the web, and the city has no voice out there to counter detractors.
Who’s job is it to convince the world Berlin doesn’t stink? Who’s going to blog, and tweet, and post on Craigslist constantly, to change the perception of Berlin, New Hampshire?
A federal prison is moving into town. It will bring 300 jobs, starting pay around $37,000. The city’s fortune will improve, there is no doubt. Real estate investment right now would probably be brilliant, a year before the prison opens and people start coming. A five minute conversation should be able to point this out. But what does the investor hear?
“NO ONE wants to live here anymore!”
And what’s the argument from the city?
Silence.

I’m trying to contact the original poster to see what other interactions they had besides the posts listed above. Hopefully they’ll talk to me and I’ll be able to make a story out of it. But the story is already clear: Berlin lost the battle because it didn’t show up. What’s the plan for the rest of the war?

Update: The woman who posted the original question on Craigslist got back to me and her story will be in next week’s Berlin Reporter.

I Take It Back!

Ok, it’s time for me to backpedal.
I thought, less than a week ago, that capitalizing on ATVing and snowmobiling was pointless, because it was focusing on something citizens of the city were more interested in than people from around the state and further abroad. After several days discussion, however, my perspective has changed.
I don’t think ATVs are the silver bullet for Berlin, but I don’t see another industry that will allow the city to build needed infrastructure faster.
Maybe a casino would have, but New Hampshire doesn’t allow gambling. What the state does allow is off-roading, and people are flocking to Berlin to do it.
I spoke to a man from Deerfield who was up with his son to take advantage of Jericho Mountain State Park. He spent $500 for a two day trip, all of it in Gorham. That is the market Berlin has to tap into.
Berlin got $60 of his money because he broke his clutch lever twice, but otherwise he didn’t spend a penny in the city. But he brought his money up, and so do other people.
I was at Jericho Motorsports, across U.S. Route 110 from the park, and I met a couple from Massachusetts who came up for the day to ride. They rented ATVs and spent the day in the park. That was another $150.
With this money is coming to town, how can Berlin get its cut? The ATV businesses are actually doing a good job of it, but there is so little other infrastructure in town it doesn’t spread to Main Street.
But it will. The park has been there for three years, and Councilor Tim Cayer said the Blue Line, that will provide access between the park and Success, is almost complete. This will significantly increase the number of trails available without reloading the trailer. When all this is complete even more riders will come.
And then the hotels will come, and more restaurants, and more stores. Right about the same time as the new prison. Everything, in fact, is looking up.
I don’t ride ATVs or snowmobiles, but I can’t argue with the transformative potential of motorsports. Don’t believe me? Go to Jericho Mountain and ask where people are from; they are from Massachusetts, southern New Hampshire, Maine and Connecticut. People come to Berlin for this, and it’s time to capitalize.
Again, I’d like to see rock climbing and paddling take over as the draw, but there isn’t the traffic yet to build a hotel for those people. The ATVs, however, are there in enough numbers to do it. Someone with an entrepreneurial spirit would be smart to do it now. And Berlin would be smart to embrace it.

21/21

No, I didn’t make up the title.
That’s the name of the initiative put forth by Norman Charest, Berlin’s economic development director. It is a proposal to replace Berlin’s failing manufacturing sector with infrastructure to make the city an ATV recreation destination.
“This is not strictly a tourism initiative,” he said in tonight’s city council meeting. “The old Berlin is dead and gone. We need to reinvent ourselves, and this is the low hanging fruit.”
Mr. Charest said the city has already felt positive economic impact from the ATV park at Jericho Mountain, with businesses relocating to the area specifically for the proximity to trails. The city needs to capitalize on this, he said, and then push the capitalization into high gear.
This hits close to one of my posts last week where I said the opposite — that Berlin needs to diversify its recreation opportunities, not focus them, as part of a complete package for tourism. I listened to Mr. Charest speak tonight, and I heard the echo of a hole in his thesis. Two actually.

  1. Mr. Charest said if Berlin creates the infrastructure for ATVing, manufacturing jobs will follow. That was shortly after he said manufacturing jobs are migrating overseas, fast becoming only a memory in the United States. ATV park or no, it isn’t cost effective to manufacture goods in the U.S., and there is nothing Berlin can do to change that. Mr. Charest is working to bring recreation to the area in hopes that new jobs will bring the old jobs back. But he said the old jobs aren’t coming back. Where that leaves Berlin is a mystery, but certainly without a strong manufacturing sector. The city still has to find the jobs somewhere else.
  2. Enough with the power sports. Mr. Charest mentioned outdoor recreation, hiking, skiing, rock climbing and kayaking in his presentation. I could add to those: ice climbing, mountain biking, road biking, cycle touring, trail running, rafting, canoeing, bird watching, caving and geocaching. There are literally dozens of outdoor activities that could take place around Berlin; there is land enough for all of them. Unfortunately, there is only one in the 21/21 initiative: ATVing.

Mr. Charest is right; Berlin needs to figure out the next step in its evolution to a sustainable economy. And he’s doing more than most people: he’s working on a solution. The problem is residents of Berlin, Mr. Charest included, know how to do what they know how to do and don’t know how to move beyond those activities.
Can Berlin build an ATV park? Sure. As Mr. Charest said, “What we did for fun we now have to do for business.” But how does Berlin develop those outdoor recreation draws that Berlin residents don’t do for fun? How does Berlin develop Mount Forist for rock climbers, and plant caches in the woods for geocaching, and set up good trails for hiking and trail running, when these aren’t the recreation activities the city is familiar with? Where is the plan for that?
Mr. Charest’s plan addresses a need, but it unlikely ATVs, snow mobiles, hiking trails or anything else is ever going to bring back enough manufacturing jobs to return Berlin to its former glory. The 21/21 initiative, however, will undoubtedly bring jobs into the city and be an important part of moving the city towards the twenty-first century. It is only a sliver, however; as Mr. Charest said, “It is the low hanging fruit.” It is time for the city in general, and Mr. Charest in particular, to look for the things the city doesn’t know so well, to see what they can do to revitalize the local economy. The city needs to look beyond what its residents like to do on weekends, to what it has to offer to people from other backgrounds. It needs to start peering around the tops of the trees.

I’m interested in what people have to say about this. I’ve made it clear I think Berlin needs to do more to shed its blue collar image if it wants to thrive instead of just get by, and I don’t think more ATV entertainment will work toward that end. But I don’t have any answers, just questions. I’m going to pose those questions to local business people to see what they think the 21/21 initiative will do for them. The results will be in next week’s Berlin Reporter.

I also pose those question to you. What activities should Berlin be encouraging? Where will the city see the most benefit? Does outdoor recreation sans gasoline fit with the city? Is the current plan comprehensive enough? Who’s duty is it to see the plans come to fruition? Is there a blue collar mindset? What does that mean for the city’s future? What will have to change for the city to thrive, not just get by?

I’d like to hear what people think. Where should Berlin go next? What does 21 really mean for the city? Will the city need a 22/22 initiative, or can it find its way in the dark?

Our Town

My story on Our Town Biodiesel aired this evening on NHPR News. It profiles Forrest Letarte, the 25 year old founder and CEO of Our Town, which takes waste vegetable oil and turns it into home heating oil fuel. It’ll be on tomorrow morning as well, and you can listen to it on NHPR’s website. Check it out.

It isn’t a video at all — it isn’t possible to upload MP3s to Blogger, so I set it to photos. I only had two from this project, so they repeat. Listen anyway.

Repeat Repeat Performance

I was talking about Twitter with someone and they pointed out something wonderful: while there might be trending topics, it’s possible to read about whatever interests you through a simple search. There may be a saturating conversation that day, but it doesn’t extinguish everything else. Twitter is not a zero-sum game.
Radio, however, is.
I love radio. Some of my first reporting was for WMPG, the community radio station in Portland, Maine, and today I freelance for NHPR News. I listen to the NPR all the time, and I love it — most days.
The last few weeks have proved one of the biggest problems in media, perhaps the reason journalism is failing. I’ve heard more about Michael Jackson, the moon landing, Walter Cronkite and Henry Louis Gates Jr. than I ever heard about the Uighurs, that is until the Uighers hit Guantanamo.
On three different shows on NPR today I heard about Professor Gates. I agree it’s news, but has even NPR been so sucked into the 24 hour news cycle they have to beat stories to death? Is it really necessary to have multiple hours about the moon landing, fresh news 40 years ago?
It isn’t that I’m not interested in these stories, but I’m not interested to the exclusion of other news. What else is going on out there? Nothing? Or just nothing the media thinks we’ll care about?
A diversity of news, opinions and stories are what I turn to news sources for, but unfortunately the product is homogeneous, the same news hour after hour day after day.
And it isn’t limited to radio. Particularly television, but also news papers and website are prone to the same problems. They all cover the same thing, and not necessarily from differing perspectives.
It is easiest to understand in television and radio, where airtime is limited, but then some of the best shows out there disprove the myth that these mediums are bound to such a model. PBS’ Frontline and Frontline World, and PRI’s The World prove the over-saturation model isn’t the only one out there. They cover unique stories, featuring people, places and events not tackled by most outlets. If these programs are doing it, why can’t others?
The last few days I’ve heard about Cambodian fish, learned about Afghan MPs and seen the Somali stock exchange. These stories that connect to the world, and they need to be told. Niche sectors of public broadcasting are the only ones bringing it to us.
The most obvious argument why these programs are so much better: they aren’t built around the profit motive. The journalism world is falling apart, sure, but if coverage of Michael Jackson is all we’re getting I’m not sure its a horrible loss. When the New York Times covers Cronkite’s death almost a week afterward it’s easy to understand why people are leaving.
Newspapers have lots of real estate for stories, so they have to have a wide range. Many, like the Times, usually deliver breadth and depth, but the web offers even more real estate. Television isn’t totally lost, but many times it seems close. Radio has grown into it’s lower tier status, and therefore has learned better how to capture listeners attention. The World and This American Life bring stories, powerful and quirky, exactly what I expect from reporters. It doesn’t have to be with the same stories everyone else is doing — in fact it shouldn’t be.
Twitter lets me chose what I want to learn about, even if the main subject is the same as the headlines. But what if I don’t know what the stories are? What if I don’t know where to look? The headlines and the trending topics both let me down. I expect journalism and the media to fill that void. Maybe until it does I won’t be disappointed its crumbling.

Entrepreurial Spirit in Hard Times

Berlin usually lives in a different time than the rest of the county. In the last year the country has caught up to Berlin, but for a long time the two were speaking different languages.
Money flowed freely around the U.S. for the last decade, but not in Berlin. The mill has been gone for years, and crowded streets, secure jobs and a thriving city went with it.
The first drive through the city it looks dead, but that cursory view is incomplete. Go to city council meetings, and walk around town, and it feels like everyone 18 to 40 has left, but that impression isn’t right either.
There are businesses, started and run by 20 and 30-somethings, that are trying to pull Berlin out of its malaise. They are struggling yet surviving in this city that has brought down so many. They are the shoots of grass after the forest fire.
I’m working on profiling these success stories in the Berlin Reporter. The first installment will be next week. It will be a conversation with Stacia Roberge of Rumorz Boutique. In the coming weeks there’ll be profiles of the TexMex Cafe, across from city hall, Seventh Street Graphics, the owners of the movie theater and more. There are failures in Berlin, but there are success stories as well. It is important to notice them, to see what the city and its residents can do to support the young entrepreneurs trying to lift the city up. So stay tuned, and check out the Berlin Reporter.