Crossroads

The next year or two will the years to watch in Berlin. The prison will finish construction, Clean Power will start building, Laidlaw will apply for EFSEC review, Fraser will reach an agreement with someone to supply cheap energy, Jericho Mountain State Park will have hold its first ATV festival and the blue line will finally run through town. I can’t imagine a better time to be reporting there.

I’ve recently had both pro- and anti-Laidlaw people mad at me for the way I approached their subject. My wife was accosted yesterday by a man who heard her last name and didn’t like an article I’d written. Someone else told me they were looking to expand their business in the area and really appreciated my reporting on other successes around the city. I feel like I’m pissing enough people off that residents must be reading the paper. They care enough to comment; that makes me feel successful.

No one I know wants Berlin to fail. People fight vehemently for their vision of the city, but they all have the same goal. Like Democrats and Republicans in Washington, D.C., factions in Berlin are battling each other, thinking the other side is wrong and evil, but both with a passion for their city, all because they want to see the city thrive.
It’s important to allow diverging opinions and contradicting viewpoints to be heard, otherwise there isn’t honest debate. But in many ways opinions are moot, because we are single actors, in many ways just bystanders. I interview people each week opening and running businesses in Berlin who don’t have time to attend city council meetings, chamber of commerce meetings or school board meetings. They are fighting to bring more life and success to the city in other ways; ways that include the words open for business. They are the wave that will push the city into the future.
I look at Berlin and I am hopeful. Regardless of what I or others think are the big issues of the day, there are people who don’t care about what is said in the paper or on the Internet. They are loyal to the city, and they will fight for it to the end.

I’ve been thinking about this moment in Berlin’s history, which, as Mr. Charest has said, is when the city must reach maturity. The story of Berlin is a smaller version of the story of the United States: once a manufacturing superpower, it hasn’t built anything in years. Honestly, I have to believe Berlin can remake itself, because both it and our country will have to to survive.
I want to tell that story, and not just on LPJ or in the Berlin Reporter. I’ve been thinking about doing a documentary on the city, telling the story of the entrepreneurial seekers who see more in Berin than just its past. This crossroads is truly exciting, and it could be a parable for the nation. The “big issues” as but a backdrop for the passion residents have maintained through countless setbacks. The irrepressible spirit of the city amazes me, and I think it is a story worth telling. The next year, I hope, will paint a clear portrait of what a community can do for itself, defining its future and without neglecting its past.

May you live in interesting times — an apt description for the residents of Berlin. It is also true around the country. Berlin can be the anecdote for the nation. I want to be there to see it, and to tell it.

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Strained Responses

Marketing, people, I’m talking about marketing!
I know there are people who are passionate about Laidlaw, one way or the other. I agree it is a big issue, and both Berlin papers have done a miserable job reporting on it. I intend to change that. I want to find out more about the company, about its history, about North American Dismantling, and about every aspect of biomass as it affects the citizens of Berlin.
BUT IT IS ONLY ONE ISSUE!
Will bringing Laidlaw to the area solve all Berlin’s problems? No. Will keeping Laidlaw from opening in the area solve all Berlin’s problems? No.
Stop trying to make the story of Berlin the story of Laidlaw. It isn’t; it is only one part. I intend to use this blog to discuss all the issues I see as pertenant. Anyone who would like to join in the discussion is welcome.
Nancy Clark, owner of the Glen Group, a marketing company in North Conway hired to market the North Country, said she doesn’t see the boiler as that big an issue, whether it’s making electricity or rusting away. There are bigger issues to deal with than this. Even if North American Dismantling conspired with Laidlaw to sell them the boiler so PSNH can buy a biomass plant in five years that isn’t the biggest issue in Berlin. It isn’t the thing that will cause the city to fail or allow it to succeed.
Norm Charest said Berlin doesn’t have anything to market. He said the blight has to go before it is worth it. I completely disagree. I think Mr. Charest is afflicted with the same disease everyone else that has stared at the boiler too long suffers from: blindness. Or call it a lack of vision. There are business people moving here. They see opportunity. Burned out buildings will keep some people away — people looking for a sure thing. But that doesn’t mean they will keep everyone away.
People in search of a guaranteed investment will not come to Berlin. The city can’t offer a 10 percent rate of return. But people like Curt Burke are willing to invest millions of dollars in the area. Is he crazy? Or does he see something?
Coupled with Tim Cayer, Katie Paine, and Tom Bendah, that makes a spark. As Berlin knows, it only takes a spark to start a fire.
People are moving to the area. I have been profiling businesses for more than a month of people from here and from away who want to live in Berlin. It can draw. Why does even Mr. Charest refuse to see that?
I worry when the economic development director has lost faith in the city. But in this case I don’t worry for Berlin. The city does not have its plans in order to attract people. It is not doing a good job at marketing. But people are coming. The efforts of the state, which have failed Berlin for years, appear to be one of the few efforts citizens can count on. And yet people come.
Dick Huot, manager of Northern Forest Heritage Park, got a Maine television program to profile St. Kieran Community Center for the Arts, Northern Forest Heritage Park, Gorham Moose Tours and Jericho Mountain State Park. Where are other efforts like this? If the opinion is the area is too blighted and burned out to market, than this would be folly. Guess what? It isn’t folly. It is exactly what the city should be doing, the economic development director should be doing, and every private business in the area should be doing. The chamber of commerce, of which Mr. Huot is a member, should be working as hard as possible to get these images of the city out there.
Take a look at this video. Is it really so hard to imagine these pictures can’t bring people to the area? Is there really so much blight this sort of effort is futile?
I don’t think so, and so I don’t want to see a valid discussion about marketing turned into a debate about biomass.
Want to talk about Laidlaw? Fine, but don’t try to drown out other pertinent discussions with your personal obsession, at least not on this blog. I, as the local newspaper reporter, am working to improve every aspect of Berlin and the surrounding towns. That means I will be covering dozens of issues, and one issue cannot take all the oxygen out of the room, extinguishing all other conversation. So please, open up a little, and care about more in Berlin than just one issue. It does not all come back to Laidlaw. It used to all come back to the mill. Those days are over; help me determine what comes next.

And one more thing: instead of asking, “What is the state going to do to market the area?” when I say, “You can read about it in next week’s Berlin Reporter,” pick up a copy of the paper. Don’t ask me to tell you what I’m reporting on for free. You can buy 40 hours worth of my work for 50 cents — that’s cheap enough.

More on Marketing: Relying on the State

New Hampshire Department of Resources and Economic Development has hired a North Conway company, the Glen Group, to do marketing for the North Country. Part of the plan is to throw an event at Jericho Mountain State Park. Mayor David Bertrand said previous councils relied on the state to market Berlin, and the results didn’t do much for Berlin. Is this one more example of the same?
Chris Gamache from New Hampshire Trails said if a campground wasn’t completed by the time of the event next July they would route people down the railroad bed to Moose Brook State Park in Gorham. Councilor Ryan Landry spoke up and said the council would rather keep the people in Berlin. But Berlin’s hopes aren’t the issue at the top of the state’s list. Councilor Landry said he wanted to keep people in the city; is DRED and NH Trails working to further those goals, or to promote the state park for the state park’s sake?
The city needs to continue working on its own to change people’s minds. Mayor Bertrand was correct: the city in the past relied too heavily on the state. They don’t want to do that again this time.
I’ll be talking with the Glen Group, Chris Gamache and DRED to find out more about this proposition; look for it in next week’s Berlin Reporter. Hopefully the city will not rely on these organizations’ efforts alone. The city recognized the 21/21 initiative as something they should embrace to move forward, but when it came to marketing the talk got fuzzy. Who in the city is going to make sure that doesn’t once again fall to the wayside? If everything changes and the city is renewed, but no one comes because no one knows every business will fail before people’s perception of the city changes. The marketing has to start now, so people will come so the businesses can survive and grow.

Tonight’s Meeting

On the agenda for tonight at Berlin City Council: Economic Development/Promoting Berlin Discussion.
Councilors will be discussing what the city can do to better promote itself. I hope that is a discussion that continues throughout the city. It isn’t something that should just be happening at city hall; the ramifications continue down Main Street, out Route 110, and throughout Coös County.
Hopefully that discussion will spark more of them, and marketing can become the thing residents rally around.

I was discussing marketing today with someone, trying to get some background on Laidlaw, and they pointed out that, from a marketing perspective, an abandoned stack in the middle of town is probably worse than a biomass facility. Who will come up with the money to tear down that stack if it isn’t used? I’m meeting with Mayor David Bertrand in half an hour to ask that question. Laidlaw has become an issue that divides this city, when it needs more than ever to be united. I’d like to find some answers to those questions, to poke holes in all sides of the debate. I can’t see the city spending money to demolish the stack, so how will it ever get better? A tweeter told me Dover declared their stack historic and stuck cell phone antennas on it. Honestly, its the only idea I’ve heard, so right now it sounds like a good one.
I’m coming into this debate, as I said last night, like the last one to a busted up party. But I still think there is a discussion worth having that does not see eye to eye with either side.
Is Laidlaw good? In the sense that it would provide jobs and do something with that stack, yes. Is the company bad, as some insist? I don’t know. I will be looking into that in the near future.
But what about Berlin? What does it do? A couple weeks ago Councilor Ryan Landry said if Laidlaw doesn’t build there someone else will. Likely true. Will it turn off tourists? Councilor Tim Cayer is working to bring ATVers here with a hunk of junk on the mill site. Are they turning away because of the stack? The ones I spoke to at Jericho didn’t care, but of course they are the ones that came. It is hard to determine what the real ramifications of the city’s decisions will be.

I guess that’s my question: If not a biomass facility, then what? Forget Laidlaw. Who will take down that relic? Who is going to pay for it? What is the better alternative?

The city is getting serious about its image, it seems. What will that image be? Councilor David Poulin had the great idea to get the stacks off the city seal. Who is proposing getting the stacks out of the city? How are they going to do it? Who is going to pay for it? Isn’t Clean Power building stacks instead of erasing them? What is this fascination with the old mill site and where has it gotten the city? It’s like an ex-wife the city can’t get over, can’t seem to escape the memories of.

I intend to find some answers, but I’m interested in your response. Laidlaw is just a symptom. I’ll find out about it, but that still doesn’t deal with the pink elephant in the room. Or is it a gray boiler? Whatever.

In Medias Res

So I haven’t posted in the last several days because I spent most the week chasing down stories more complicated than I understand. I spent so much time at conversations with people that didn’t result in stories that I wound up scraping for stories by the end of the week. Whenever I write a story I usually only put 25 percent of what I’ve learned into the paper. The rest is background and information to make sure I can explain it effectively. With what I’m looking at now, that isn’t the case. It is so vast and complex I’m treading water trying to comprehend it all.
Laidlaw and Clean Power — two companies the city has been fighting over since long before I arrived. What does each one represent? How many jobs would each bring, and what kind of jobs would they be? Can the forest sustain both? What sort of neighbors will they make? These are big issue to some people, and so they have to be to me too. The Reporter is the residents’ paper first and my paper second; if an issue is important to them it is important to me. It’s just up to me to explain it.
But this issue is different than explaining the city’s marketing problem, or its blue collar mindset. It’s different than recounting a city council meeting, or explaining the RSA 155B process, or profiling a restaurant. It’s about power purchase agreements, and PUC rules, and least cost options. It’s about Ellicottville, NY, and Portsmouth, and Concord, and Berlin. It’s about power, and it’s about power.
I don’t care about debates; I care about facts. Will a biomass plant look like hell in the center of town? Sure, if your priority is scenery and a tourism economy, but not if your priority is industrial jobs. I’m not looking for scenery, and I’m not looking to cover fluff. That discussion belongs in an article about marketing, not in one about power. The real questions I’ve got involve substance.
I find myself in the middle of a debate I don’t know the history of, expected to get to the root of it to explain to the people who were around for it. This is a blog, and not the place where I actually report; that’s in the paper, where more people actually care what I write and it affects people’s lives. People in Berlin seem to have already made up their minds about this issue, and I’m not sure they’ve done so on evidence. More often it seems they decided on gut feelings. I’m going to find evidence to prove whether those gut feelings are right or whether they’re crap. Love Laidlaw? I want to show you it’s evil. Hate Laidlaw? I want to prove their perfect. My goal is to test every hypothesis from every side, to tap it and poke it until the actual facts fall to the floor screaming, “Here I am! Here I am! Just leave me alone!”
Berlin’s economic future it tenuous, but the sun is rising after years of black. The residents deserve to know how their actions (or inaction) will affect them. I’ve heard that my stories have brought new customers to businesses struggling to survive. They have breathed life into things formerly dormant. The city of Berlin needs something to believe in, I hear. I can’t deliver something to believe in, but they’ll be able to believe the Berlin Reporter.
I’m not sure if this is a threat, or who it goes out to. To a reporter, truth is thicker than water. If you live in Berlin I wouldn’t expect to stop hearing about this issue anytime soon. And expect to hear from some voices you haven’t heard before. This is why I chose this profession. Now I get to see what I can do.

Even Google Is Against It

I love Google. I use Gmail, Google Maps, Google Docs, Google Calendar, Blogger, all sorts of Google applications. But then, every once in a while I find a reason to hate Google.
Google has a company policy to never be evil, so hopefully they don’t turn into a 21st century Microsoft. I can appreciate that. But then how come when I type Berlin NH into Google Maps, the tag that comes up under Explore this area is a couple photos and Arson charges in Berlin? This is the type of thing that makes me consider Google evil. Come on Google! I’m saying the city needs a marketing campaign, but it’s damn hard to argue with Google, a search engine so ubiquitous its become a verb. This is not the type of coverage the city needs.
I know, it isn’t really Google’s fault, because the map was made by the Union Leader. But wouldn’t it be so much nicer to have a map made by the recreation department, or the city marketer, showing the city’s parks and recreation spots? How about its swimming holes? Or its historic buildings? Its churches? They wouldn’t erase the word arson from showing up on the side of the Google search, but they would at least put the word in context. Berlin isn’t all burned out buildings, but look to Google and that’s what it appears. Who wants to do something about that? Thus far, the answer is no one. That makes it hard to point the blame at Google.

A Little Respect, Please

I sat down with economic development director Norm Charest the other day and had a talk about marketing and Berlin’s future (a good recap of the conversation will be in next week’s Berlin Reporter). He pointed out that marketing will only go so far when the first thing people see in the city is burned out buildings and decrepit houses. He said he didn’t see that marketing would amount to much, which I don’t agree with, but he did make an interesting point. He brought a business owner to the veteran’s park along the Dead River to show how beautiful the area is. They walked along the river for a little bit and then popped out the other side, with a great view of Mount Forist. The first thing the guy noticed, though, was a burned out building on Second Avenue.
That inspired me to take a walk along that same path, to see what that park is really like. I ducked in the woods wherever I could, checked out the Dead River and sat under the railroad trestle. What astounded me wasn’t the burned out building on Second Avenue, or the one on York Street, but it was the condition of the park, from A to Z, and the crap sitting in the Dead River.
Mr. Charest said it had been a long time since Berlin residents had anything to rally around, anything to really bring people together. He and I don’t see eye to eye on all aspects of Berlin’s development, but I can understand his point there. I think the Notre Dame renovation has been a rallying point, but not enough to energize the city. There needs to be something to pick the city up; something people can believe in.
But then, I remember what Dana Willis said. He is one of the developers of the Notre Dame project. He said it was the community involvement and effort he saw from Project Rescue Notre Dame that convinced him to do something with the building. PJND painted the windows blue, the school color, and cleaned up around the property. So was is it the renovation of Notre Dame that rallied these people, or was it the rally that led to the renovation?
Walking along the Dead River, it wasn’t the burned out buildings that caught my eye. It was the truck tires sitting in the river and the trash along the bank. Wondering what the photo is at the top of this post? It’s the bicycle sitting in the Dead.
Berlin needs to rally. Yes, there are burnt out buildings, and they aren’t going away fast enough. But what about the bicycle in the Dead River? What about the tires there too? What about the properties not adequately maintained? What about trash on the side of the road.
I hear the arguments already, about people not doing their part with their property. So what? Did Project Rescue Notre Dame worry that there were other vacant buildings on their street? Is there any excuse for the amount of debris in the Dead River? Does anyone need permission to clean it up?
This evening I volunteered to go out and pick up trash around Cathedral Ledge, to keep a place I care about clean. There are people who throw beer bottles off the top of the cliff. It will be me and others like me that clean up their trash. Who will clean up Berlin’s trash? Who will invest their time to clean it up?
No one can clean up the fires though, right? Wrong. The city is doing what it can to obtain and demolish dilapidated properties. Having worked on a story about this I am convinced the city is doing everything it can. Every few weeks at the city council meeting I hear about another building going through the RSA 155B process. It is hard for the government — city, state or federal — to deprive people of their property, which everyone should be grateful of. It takes time to change the charred landscape. Be patient.
And if you feel like complaining, go out and fish some trash out of the Dead River. Ante up and do your part, instead of bitching the city isn’t doing theirs. Become part of the rally that turns Berlin around. Or shut up and let the people who care about Berlin put the city back together.