This weekend saw more traffic in Berlin than the city has seen in a long time, including out of state license plates. But did into translate into more money for local businesses? Not as much as might be hoped.
Thunder in the Mountains and the New England Forest Rally certainly brought crowds, but it takes more than crowds to support a city. It takes money. And it’s unclear how much money came into town.
Richard Tessier of the Great Northern Moose Lodge said he didn’t see a real impact from the rally race. The fans watched the race and then followed the racers north without ever really opening their wallets. Not the best outcome for the city.
Thunder in the Mountains was bound to be a little more successful because it lasted two days, but because the city lacks the necessary infrastructure for tourism it still missed the largest portion of attendees’ dollars.
Where are people coming in for these events supposed to spend money? Where should they stay? Where should they eat? Berlin doesn’t have what it needs to make these events successful; it needs to figure out how to get them.
The city council is hoping the state will make the Budget Inn remove its rusty old sign. It is the only sign to the only hotel in town. Councilors Ryan Landry and Tom McCue made a point that they aren’t against business, but every councilor agreed the eyesore at the southern entrance to the city had to be addressed.
But what needs to be addressed more immediately is that the Budget Inn is that it is the only place to stay in Berlin. If someone chose to come up for both days of Thunder in the Mountains they have to head to Gorham to sleep. And on the way they probably bought dinner at J’s or Libby’s.
Berlin has worthwhile restaurants. TexMex, across from City Hall, has good food for cheap, and the Northland Dairy Bar is a North Country legend. But no one stops on the way to Gorham because there are so many more options once they get there.
Gorham, however, has done some things wrong. Burger King, MacDonalds, Subway, and Pizza Hut dominate the strip. Libby’s and the White Mountain Cafe own the high end market, but otherwise the food options are disappointing.
Berlin, in contrast, doesn’t have chain restaurants. Aside from Dunkin Donuts and Quizno’s, every eatery is a local establishment. Many people don’t understand how important this is to tourists, particularly to the ones with excess money to spend.
There was a discussion at city council several weeks ago about convincing the 99 or the Olive Garden to move into the Rite-Aid building the is being donated to BIDPA.
NO! Maintain the aesthetic of the city and lure an independent restaurant owner to town, as Mayor David Bertrand suggested. The image of a Berlin downtown overrun with chain stores is less appealing than a downtown with a biomass plant. Neither is a good vision for the future, but Wendy’s is a bigger turnoff than renewable energy.
The city doesn’t have much ability to recruit businesses, but the city could work harder to invigorate its tourist industry.
First, the city needs less rally, more Thunder. Host events that draw people to the area for more time. It may be more work, but events that have people come in and leave the same day don’t sustain hotels and restaurants, which in turn bring in people who support other businesses. The change to a two day motorcycle rally was a great step. Bravo.
The city should also eliminate transient events. Motorsports are great, but what is the best thing about being on a motorcycle? The open road. Berlin knows motorcycles, snow machines and ATVs, but that doesn’t mean they are the best attractions to Berlin. The city needs to encourage events that bring people to Berlin and then keeps them there, instead of events based on motion.
What about a music festival at Northern Forest Heritage Park? A three day bluegrass, jazz or blues festival would encourage people to come to town and stay, not to circle the area for two days then go home. People would need a place to stay and food to eat, which local vendors could supply. Growing an event like this could put Berlin on the map, and at the same time involve local businesses.
Berlin needs to change its image. Not the look of the city, but its image around the state. What is Berlin known for? Defunct mills, a logging park, an ATV park, a motorcycle rally, a rally race, an antique car show and snowmobiling. Does that strike anyone else as one dimensional?
I know there is art in Berlin. St. Kieran’s Community Center for the Arts had a wonderful retrospective on Robert Hughes, a local artist. Why is there no artist festival in the summer? Berlin is on the Androscoggin, with whitewater to the north and flatwater to the south. Where is the big push to draw kayakers and canoe paddlers?
Don’t forsake internal combustion recreation, but Berlin can’t cling to it alone. The city is at the foot of the mountains, along a river, only a few miles from the Appalachian Trail, with a huge cliff in the center of town. Is anyone trying to draw people in for outdoor recreation?
Berlin is a mill town, maybe to its core. But in figuring out what it will be next requires the city diversify. It has to offer entertainment even to people who do not share its residents’ vision of fun. Berliners love motorsports, but motorsports are not enough to sustain the entire tourist industry. The city is not in short supply of culture or character. It does not lack creative people with new ideas. It just needs to start implementing them.
The biggest challenge is the city’s marketing. Councilor David Poulin said he wanted to see the stacks removed from the city seal. That’s a start to revamping the city’s image, but how aggressive is the city working to that end? Most of the messages the city sends out are, “Send us your prisoners (state and federal). Send your trash to our landfill. There’s cheap rent for welfare families. Oh, and we have redneck powersports too.”
That’s the city’s image in the south. There are a few people challenging that perspective, but they’re losing. It isn’t an accurate reflection of the city, but it’s the most vivid picture out there. Until that changes it’ll take more than a restaurant or a new motel to get people to spend money up here. It’ll take a miracle.