Mayor and Council, 2010

As of early this afternoon, the following people had signed up to run in the 2009 Berlin municipal election:

Mayor — seat currently held by David Bertrand

David Bertrand
Paul Grenier

Ward 1 — seat currently held by Ryan Landry

Beverly Ingersoll

Ward 2 — seat currently held by Richard Lafleur

Robert Danderson

Ward 3 — seat currently held by Ronald Goudreau

Paul Cusson
Michael Rozek

Ward 4 — seats currently held by Timothy Cayer and David Poulin

Timothy Cayer

Normally I would leave this for an article in the Reporter, but registration closes at 4 p.m. on Monday. The paper doesn’t come out until Wednesday, and by then people won’t be able to sign up. Berlin needs residents to get involved to make substantive change happen. If the community is really invested in creating a new future, there should be five people running for every seat.

If you know someone who cares about Berlin, tell them to run. And if anyone needs help catching up on the last five months of city council affairs, I’m happy to talk about it, just give me a call. In that time I’ve built a solid understanding of how things work in the council, and I don’t think anyone should be intimidated by city government. It is a chance to make a real difference, give it a shot.

Register with the city clerk by 4 p.m. on Monday, October 5. City clerk’s office—first floor of city hall, on the right. Give them a call: 603 752-2340, or check them out here.

Fail Harder

Someone told me the secret to success: fail harder.
I work for the Berlin Reporter, which, as I’ve been told, used to cover bake sales from Errol to Shelburne. It wasn’t particularly interested in getting into the complex subjects facing Berlin. I have not followed the same approach.
I read an article in the Columbia Journalism Review about how newspapers need to stop just covering events and start covering issues. Berlin is lucky to have two papers, because they can each cover what they’re good at. I am trying to be proficient at covering issues, and I leave many of the events to someone else.
But issues are tough. PSNH, Laidlaw, Clean Power Development, CDBG grants, the Northern Loop, wood studies, revolving loan funds, wind farms, overlay zones, TIGER grants, federal prisons, state retirement benefit programs, and section eight housing are each distinct areas of expertise. Some might argue they are more than one person can hope to handle. Not true; that person just has to be willing to fail harder. And I do. I work for unattainable goals, and, while I haven’t achieved them, I’m gaining.

People are always telling me how to do my job. Not people at the paper, but random people who want a story about their business or me to look into their issue. They aren’t giving me tips, mind you, but telling me what I should cover and how to do it. It makes me wonder how people perceive the paper—do people look at it as a tool for the community, or as their personal dagger to wield?
I walk through Berlin more than many residents. One city councilor said I knew more about many of the city’s issues than he does, and he’s lived there almost his entire life. That isn’t true, because my understanding of Berlin is on a short time-line, but I have done my best to steep myself in the city’s issues. Sometimes at city council or other meetings I want to point out the obvious point everyone seems to be ignoring, but I can’t. I’m the fly on the wall with a bullhorn to sound once a week.

Fail harder—what a great idea. I’m proud of what it’s done for my reporting. What would Berlin look like if everyone gave it their all, without a thought of the consequences? Where would that take the city? The city makes tentative steps toward rebirth, weighed down by people dreading change. What if the city made a leap in one direction, any direction, with all the naysayers silent?
It is easy to fail harder alone. I can report as hard as I want, with reckless abandon for TRUTH, and no one holds me back. People have complimented me for what fail harder has done for the Reporter; I wonder what it would do for Berlin.

Definition of Post-Industrial

What does it mean to be post-industrial? I was walking around one of the Berlin parks this evening, and I was able to wander through the relics of the bygone era—the remnants of industrialization. It was like walking through Stonehenge, with echos of history that don’t make sense in the modern era. While I enjoy the traces of the past, the city itself is still trying to figure out just how to move forward.

Do people miss the mill and that industrial era? I never saw it, but I’ve heard about the heyday of Berlin. It sounds wonderful, and at the same time terrible. How do people feel about the transition that has occurred over the last half-century? Is it better to live in a city with clean air and empty storefronts, or was it better to itch for the weekend to go to camp but have money in your pocket? I’ve heard a lot of nostalgia for the old days; is it real? Given the choice, would residents go back to that?

I wonder if people see the circumstances Berlin faces as a blessing or a curse. True, there are lots of empty houses that occasionally catch on fire, and there are poor people moving in because of the low rents, but there is also a grand history and an infrastructure the city can now leverage in new ways, ways surrounding communities don’t have. The assets of today are the remnants of yesterday. Which era would you rather be in?

Rehab It, Make It Free and They Will Come

I was reading one of the articles I posted about yesterday, and had an idea that could completely change Berlin.

Offer a free apartment to any four year college graduate under 30 (or 35, or 28) who will settle in Berlin.

Berlin suffers from a brain drain. Too few young, creative people stay or return to Berlin. As in other places, “the best kids go while the ones with the biggest problems stay, and then we have to deal with their kids in the schools in the next generation.” Those that do stay or that come back are expected to shoulder more than their share of the burden within the community. Berlin needs more creative, educated young people to serve as the foundation for the city.
So how do you get them there? Berlin has an overabundance of housing, some of which will be demolished in the next few years using Neighborhood Stabilization Program funds. What about renovating some of those properties, but instead of turning them into low income houses turn them into free apartments for the people the city needs most.
This plan could work. Use NSP money to buy apartment buildings in need of rehabilitation, and then use BIDPA funds to restore them. Or, if you have to, use all BIDPA money so it avoids the rules associated with government money. Then advertise free places to live for driven people with four year degrees around the southern part of the state, Massachusetts and Maine.
New York City, which has astronomical rents, has a similar program for office space. They have few entrepreneurs compared to Silicon Valley or Boston because the brightest minds are often hired by big firms; the barriers new firms face are too high. The city has started to subsidize office space for start-ups in an effort to build the entrepreneurial culture.
Berlin could do the same thing. The city doesn’t have money, but it does have housing. Offer free rent—residents pay utilities—in a city-owned apartment building. The city would own the property, which, if the city grew, would increase in value. The building would become a solid investment. The city would get new blood and new money, and the people there would build ties within the community. Maybe some of them would move out, but many of them would stay. They would start businesses, get married and buy houses of their own. They would become the city’s next generation, mixing with the few entrepreneurs who stayed.
There would be no reason not to offer this to people from Berlin as well as those from away. The city could stop sending its smartest and best educated kids to Manchester and Boston and reap some of the investment it makes in its youth. It would be a cheap incentive to bring some of them back, and at the same time it would clean up more of the blight.

This is an example of the type of non-traditional thinking Berlin should be employing to figure out how it will move into the next century. Would it work? I don’t know. Go ahead and shoot holes in it, but then propose your own idea of how Berlin can reinvent itself.
Need inspiration? Check out this study from the Chronicle of Higher Education. That’s where I got my idea, maybe it’ll help with yours.

PUC, PSNH, CPD, AWOL, IOU

I’ve seen a convergence of random incidents that make me think it’s time to start asking some questions of the Public Utilities Commission and Public Service of New Hampshire.
In a story I wrote last week, Clean Power Development said they are ready to break ground on their project if they can get a purchase power agreement. CPD has a complaint before the PUC that says PSNH’s refuses to discuss buying power from them. PSNH argued CPD is trying to force PSNH to buy CPD’s electricity against their will.
Mayor David Bertrand wrote a letter to the PUC on Monday requesting they address the issue as soon as possible, as the CPD project would be a huge help to the city. And PSNH started following me on Twitter the same day. That’s enough gentle reminders to make me think I really need to get after this issue.

I understand PSNH’s feeling that it shouldn’t be forced to be an unwilling partner, but it seems like a dodge to the real question. Is PSNH required by law to consider all viable proposals to figure out what will result in the lowest electricity cost to rate payers? I think that’s the question I’d like to see answered with a simple yes or no. If CPD is in the best interest of rate payers, PSNH, a regulated utility, should accept their offer. If the CPD offer isn’t in the best interest of rate payers, PSNH should reject their offer. But PSNH can’t make that determination if it is unwilling to hear the offer in the first place, it seems.

I have read the docket, and it seems like CPD is asking one question and PSNH is answering a different one. I’d like to get the answer to the question CPD is asking, as that is the question the city of Berlin is asking. I suppose the PUC will ask it too, but I’m impatient.

So, PSNH, can you refuse to hear an offer? Is that a violation of your responsibility as a regulated utility?

Update: PSNH contacted me through Twitter and said they will address the question.

Update: Martin Murray of PSNH left a comment reiterating PSNH’s position that the law does not not require them to enter contracts with local generators. I wasn’t satisfied with that answer, so I called Mr. Murray to ask if PSNH is allowed to dismiss a proposal without considering it. He said due to the current complaint he was unwilling to comment. I tried several different approaches, including asking how PSNH decides who they enter into contracts with. I thought if I made the question more general, not about CPD, he might be able to answer, but he was still unwilling to comment. He said the issue is before the PUC, and it is for the PUC to address. He said PSNH will issue a response to the PUC docket in about a week.

I’m not satisfied with that response, but that’s what I got. Their response to the PUC hopefully will clear the mystery up. Either way, I intend to keep after it.

Not Alone, Against a lot

I heard about this while listening to NHPR, and though I haven’t listened to it yet I read the short version. It profiles Pittsburgh, a former steel town that now is trying to find its place in the present. (Incidentally, isn’t it great how sports teams used to represent the industrial? The Steelers, from a steel town; the Pistons, from the nation’s auto capital; the Bulls, from Chicago, the slaughterhouse city. A great history I think people forget.) Berlin could be in the rust belt, only instead of cars or steel it’s trees. But the struggles are the same. What’s next? they are asking in Pittsburgh, Ohio, Michigan and other states. I thought the parallels were apt.

Update: Listen to or read the complete story here. Or just sign up for the podcast; Marketplace never disappoints.

Along the same lines, someone recommended this to me as well, which talks more about the rural brain drain, something northern New Hampshire knows well.
I don’t know how anyone will use this information, but understanding the problem helps when formulating the solution.

On another note, as I drove home from the coast of Maine this evening I caught part of a radio talk show where the host was criticizing the President from a conservative slant that had little regard for the facts. I don’t have a problem with criticizing an administration, Republican or Democrat, but nonsensical ramblings with obvious biases do nothing to further discussion. Neither Keith Olbermann’s observations about the Bush administration nor Bill O’Reilly view of the Obama administration did anything constructive for the American people, and it is a shame millions of people’s minds are swayed by these men every day.
Berlin has to deal with the same kind of bias. When the mill was there residents dismissed the stink as “the smell of money,” I’ve been told. The money is now gone, and the city has to toughen up to the insults. There is no appropriate smug response today. The city can’t let the criticism get it down — heed the part that is accurate and let the rest go. Residents have to take a hard look at every aspect of the city in its current iteration and decide what to shed. That task can’t be taken lightly, and the city should never lose its sense of history and community, but it has to be done. No matter what the city does, there will invariably be detractors who have no investment in the community. Or there will be those people who are still trying to get past their own hangups associated with Berlin. Everywhere I go I hear this negative perspective. I heard it before I started working for the Reporter. Some of the criticism is valid, but much of it isn’t, it’s inane mudslinging, like that of Olbermann and O’Reilly. I have time to engage in discussions with thoughtful people who have misperceptions about the city; I don’t have time to argue every stupid comment someone makes. But someone has to, because there are people out there who take these nuts seriously. Just like Olbermann and O’Reilly, these people have followers who listen. It’s sad that Berlin has such an uphill battle, fighting bias along the way, but that seems to be a tenet of our society today. Get over it, ignore it, and formulate a plan to deal with it. Make the moves forward, regardless of what detractors are saying.

By the way: Both FOXNews and MSNBC are sad examples of news networks. I feel bad for anyone who watches either station. Watch both at the same time and you’re brain will catch on fire.

A Ray of Sunshine

A Sunday morning fire destroyed the house at 320 High St., and now its guts are spilling out onto the sidewalk. The smell of smoke burned in my lungs as I took pictures on Monday, and a man stopped by to peer into the building’s bowls. He said the it’d be a shame if no one comes by and takes all the copper piping and wire left exposed. I got the distinct impression he would do it as soon as I left.
I imagine it is easy to get down on the city. Sometimes it seems there are vultures everywhere, particularly after the quiet spell is broken, and the story about Berlin in the Union Leader is once again about fires.
I go home every night to a different town; the city’s struggles are not my struggles. If I were here every day perhaps something like this would be harder to accept, but I don’t, so I am able to look past it and forward.
Residents of Berlin have no shame in being weary. The past decade has dealt a lot of blows to the city, some of which might have appeared fatal, and yet Berlin has survived them all.
I drove to the WMCC campus today, and on the way in I noticed their sign. The best education is adversity the sign said. If that’s true, Berlin has earned it’s Ph.D.

The city hasn’t given up. It is a testament to its residents, even those who trash on it, that the place has the life that it does. In a community like Berlin it’s easy to become ideological enemies, but residents have maintained their pride in their home.
I don’t have that weary perspective, and I haven’t earned a higher degree in hardship. What I see here is positive, and I spend most of my time writing about them in hopes other people will see them too. But I thought after a fire, with the paper just about done, I would put together a list of good things I noticed today to cheer up anyone who feels the most recent fire is the weight that will cause them to crack.

  • Tony’s Pizza — If you haven’t noticed, it’s been cleaned up and it looks like a business might be moving in. I’m going to have to check this out in the future. Nice to see some development.
  • Morning Lane Photography — The building is looking great. The painting that has been going on outside for more than a week really helps spiff up Main Street.
  • Gill Building — New business moving into town… Story to follow to be in the next Berlin Reporter, so stay tuned.
  • Neighborhood Stabilization Program — $4.3 million. Need I really say more? OK, it gets released Wednesday, and it will be used to clean up the blight. Again, story to follow more in depth, but it’s happening.
  • ATV Trail — A big part of making the city a destination for ATVers, and it gets voted on tonight by the city council. Can’t imagine that won’t help bring people in.
  • Wang’s Garden — Need a sports bar. Check out this week’s paper to learn more.
  • Fagin’s Pub — They’re working on it, cleaning up the mess. Not sure when it’ll be open, but they’re on it.
  • Main Street Benches and Flowers — In fact, all of Main Street up to East Mason Street is looking great. The flowers, benches, scarecrow displays, everything. And store owners have been taking more pride in their store fronts, which shows. The whole thing looks great.
  • The Main Street Fires — Those two buildings will be coming down in a month or two. This, combined with the other upgrades on Main Street, make a huge difference.
  • The Traffic — I know some people hate it, but I love it. I was downtown the other day, and the streets were busier than I’d ever seen. People will bring the revival the city needs.

I hope that helps for anyone who was having a bad day. I could go on, because so much of what I see up here is positive, but I wanted to make the post quick. Negatives are here, but many of us who haven’t lived surrounded by them all our lives see them as the fringes, not the essence, of Berlin. A number of people have fallen in love with the area in the last few years; this is what they see. Thank god for that outside perspective; may it give hope to those without it.

Update: Two more: the city council passed the ordinance allowing ATVs on city streets, connecting the trails on west side of the city with those on the east, and the building next to the library has been cleaned up and will soon house a gazebo. Keep it coming…

Bringing It In

Last weekend Brad White, the owner of International Mountain Climbing School in North Conway, guided a rock climbing client on Mount Forist, perhaps the first use of city’s resource in such a way. They climbed three routes, and it was the first time the client had ever been to Berlin. Mr. White told me she loved the entire experience.
Mr. White went to Mount Forist after hearing from an employee how good the climbing was up there, and that employee heard about it from me.
Mr. White approached me on Friday to ask if I knew who owned Mount Forist and whether there would be a problem if he put new routes on the cliff. I told him I thought it would be fine, since several city councils have expressed interest in making the cliff a climbing destination, and since I’d climbed up there with out any problems. If anything arose, I said, he’d at least have some supporters in his corner. He said good, because he’d like to go up there to establish more climbs.

It’s a good story, right? Something positive for the city? Climbing as a tool for opening up Berlin to new blood, a new industry inline with 21/21.

Maybe, but I see it as something more: it is a call to action for the city. It’s time to stop relying on random outsiders (me) to talk up Berlin, and it’s time for the city to take its future into its own hands.
Berlin has changed in the decade since the mill closed. I was never here to see it before, but lots of people were. Those people are still perpetuating an image of the city from that time.
Mr. White has been climbing in the area for 20 years, and he has owned IMCS for 10. He said he thinks Mount Forist will make a perfect beginner cliff, something that’s lacking around New England. He wants to develop it, guide on it, expose new people to the area. He wants to do what 21/21 wants to do, and he’s a guy with the connections to do it. Why did it take this long to get him up to Berlin? Because there is no indication in North Conway, just an hour away, that Berlin is any different than it was a decade ago. And if it takes 10 years to change opinions an hour away, I hate to think how long it’ll take to change people’s minds in Boston.

What about a bunch of posters at rest stops that say, Berlin, New Hampshire: It’s not what you think, with a photo of the river south of East Mason Street at sunrise? Or a view of the snow-covered mountains? Or of a climber on Mount Forist? Or a canoe on the Androscoggin? Would it really be so hard to make people question what they think they know about the city? Isn’t it obvious those opinions keep people away?

I’ve heard enough griping about how WMUR and other statewide media portray Berlin. “They don’t cover us unless we have a fire,” someone told me the other day. So? Is the city really a slave to some ABC affiliate? Is there really no other way to reach people?
What does it take to change a mind? I don’t know, but it will never happen unless someone challenging the inaccurate assumption.

There is a documentary project about Berlin in the works, and a few movies being aired in different places about the city, but the city lacks a concerted effort to change people’s minds. Who is going to trumpet the good in the city? Who will make it their full-time job? Changing those opinions takes work, but for 21/21 to work it has to happen.

The local outdoor communities are the next low-hanging fruit. There are hundreds of climbers every weekend who come to North Conway. Many are beginners who stand in line for the same crowded routes they climbed last weekend. Every one of them could be exposed to the new Berlin, but it will take an effort the city isn’t accustomed to.
First, you need the climbs to be there. That takes the New Hampshire climbing community shedding its bias against Berlin, and coming up to develop new routes. Will they shed that bias without a push from the city? Maybe. But I’ve heard Berlin is trying to be more proactive, instead of waiting for things to happen to it as it did in the past. Here is a great opportunity to prove it — figure out how to get those people up there putting in more routes. (Want suggestions? Just ask.)
Then, once the cliff is developed, go on neclimbs.com and start posting pictures of people on the rock, the routes and the beautiful view of Success and the Mahoosucs from the cliff. Appeal to the climbing community with a new, well-developed cliff and they will come.
And then wait for the season to change. I can’t tell you now if Mount Forist is worth ice climbing, but I can come January. Then do the same thing on neice.com.

I don’t have a solution for Berlin’s troubles, but that’s because there isn’t one. One solution was the 20th century model for doing things in Berlin, with one employer supporting the entire economy. Now the city is looking for strength in diversity. ATVs seem to be taking off. I am offering a lead on how to revitalize the area through outdoor recreation. These are the makings of the broad-based economy Berlin has been looking for. Who is going to follow up on this lead? Who is going to make it happen? Change some minds. Remake Berlin.

Berlin, New Hampshire: It’s not what you think.

More Questions and Thank Yous

Thank you to Michael Bartoszek for your response to the questions I posted about Laidlaw’s intentions related to community gifts. Lou Bravakis, vice president of development for Laidlaw Berlin Biopower, called me Friday morning and gave similar answers, and he will be quoted in next week’s paper. Thank you to both Mr. Bartoszek and Mr. Bravakis for getting back to me in a timely fashion. The dialog is important, and I’m glad I can include it in the story. It is a shame it wasn’t included in the first article about the donation, but the daily covers many things I don’t and I am not about to criticize them.

Thank you also to Councilor Ryan Landry; he is correct, my choice of the word “criticism” wasn’t the best. Some committee members were looking for a more specific answer to the question of community support, not criticizing Laidlaw’s actions. The point was more that some corporations extract resources and profits from communities without investing in those communities, and they were looking to hear what Laidlaw’s commitment to community investment through charitable gifts and donations is. They weren’t calling Laidlaw’s past actions or future intentions inappropriate; they were looking for clarification. So thank you, Councilor Landry, for your clarification.

The Community EFSEC Advisory Committee wanted clarification on a number of Laidlaw’s answers, and committee chair Max Makaitis said Laidlaw would address the issues once the committee finished going through the list of answers. The committee completed its review Thursday, so there will likely be more in depth answers at the September 24 meeting.

The youth hockey donation provided an opportunity for me to ask Laidlaw some of the questions the committee had for them. It is possible those questions would have been answered by the responses that should be forthcoming, but as the Reporter’s reporter I won’t leave that to chance. Given the opening, I’ll ask the question. While I would love more specificity in Mr. Bartoszek’s and Mr. Bravakis’ answers, they’ve addressed the questions as carefully as any business person would. Honestly, I, and probably the rest of Berlin, would love to hear they plan to donate $100,000 a year to local groups. Or $250,000 a year. But no amount of tough questioning is likely to make that pipe dream come true.

But there is one more obvious question: What are Clean Power Development’s intentions on this topic? Did anyone ask them these questions? I haven’t been working in Berlin that long, so it’s possible they addressed them before I arrived, but I would like to hear CPD’s plans. In the same vein as Laidlaw, they are moving to Berlin to buy wood products and sell electrons, ostensibly at a profit. What contributions are they going to make to the community? Are large donations part of their plan?

The list of questions is easy enough, anybody from CPD care to take a crack at them?
Thank you, in advance.

Update: Clean Power’s Bill Gabler gave me a call to discuss what CPD is planning for charitable giving. It too will be in Wednesday’s Berlin Reporter.