Blue Collar Prophets

It is my first day home after a four-night holiday weekend. My wife and I mini-vacationed on the coast of Maine, visiting family along the way. The drive back to northern New Hampshire was eerie after a summer of traffic. The roads were quiet and the sidewalks were empty; my first thought was how nice it is to have our town back. Shops are still open though, and businesses will have to shift into survival mode for the next few months. It’ll be a long fall before the skiers arrive.

Where I grew up on the coast of Maine there was only one season — summer. Midcoast towns are bleak in January, with boards covering windows and vacant parking lots. Tourism is a tough industry to build an economy on, with its seasonal nature and unpredictability.

What does the current economic upheaval mean for those businesses, and by extension, those towns? They are still guessing at what the environment will be. A city like Berlin may be well positioned to become an outdoor recreation destination, but for the first time in half a century the way Americans recreate is threatened.
What happens if disposable incomes dry up enough to impact the number of skiers and riders coming north this winter? What if it costs too much to cart three snowmobiles 100 miles north for a weekend ride? What will become of the North Country? What will happen to the cities that rely on that income?
Last year I did a story on NHPR News about ski areas. I was interested in how the economic crisis was affecting their business. The basic attitude was snow conditions trump economic conditions. If the weather cooperates, ski areas do fine. In addition, the New York Times reported people accustomed to vacationing at Western resorts like Vail or Jackson Hole were staying closer to home, resulting in greater numbers of skiers in “drive markets.” The result was a busy year for Attitash and Wildcat. The poor economy, it seemed, didn’t affect them.
But mulitply that scenario out over several years. The economy does not rebound; it plods slowly forward, another jobless recovery. Credit markets stay tight, and Americans no longer spend fast and loose. What does that mean for those towns that rely on that income?
In North Conway, which has a long history as a recreation destination, such a transformation would be devastating. A huge portion of the jobs there are in retail and hospitality, almost entirely supported by outside dollars. There isn’t the population to support the outlet stores, hotels and restaurants in the town, and if the tourists stopped coming they would quickly fold.

How different is that from the mill that supported Berlin for a century? What type of cataclysmic event would it take to devestate North Conway’s infrastructure in a similar way? Could a loss of American supremacy in global markets and the corresponding loss of the American consumer’s purchasing power do it? What happens in North Conway if China overtakes the U.S. as the world’s economic driver? Where will that leave places like the coast of Maine?

How will out of work people go on vacation? Who will pay those communities’ bills when there is no gridlock of Massachusetts license plates?

Berlin has a blue collar mindset, people say. Some complain about it: it holds the city back from joining in the new economy. But part of that blue collar history is a yearning to make something. Berlin is a city with a history of exporting a product, something this country does too little of today. The idea that computers or ATVs or anything else will replace manufacturing in Berlin is no more realistic there than it is for the rest of the country.
A city that relies on tourism in a country that over-borrowed and is now trying to make good on its debts it is bound to see tough times. Only so much paper can be shuffled, websites can be built and meals can be served before the fact that no one makes anything becomes clear. There has to be some sort of production for the country to survive, and it is that blue collar mindset that reminds us of that.

It can’t be furniture or shoes — they are made cheaper elsewhere, as former Ethan Allen and Bass shoe workers around the North Country can attest. But providing tourists with “good times” only works with a robust economy, in a robust future. Without something solid to base the national economy on those jobs are no more secure than a paper mill.
Berlin has an aversion to letting go of its industrial past. That sentiment is a good one, not just for the future of Berlin, but also for the future of the country. It is a sentiment key to reestablishing a foundation on which tourist towns can survive. If the city of Berlin is the last outpost resisting a service-only economy, where food is cooked and hands are shook but nothing is created, it should be celebrated. The industrial base has to be there.

Like all things, the blue collar mindset is part good and part bad. It may be a hindrance to developing in the city into its early 21st century iteration, but it is also a pertinent reminder of the failing of that iteration. It is a reminder of the rotting underpinnings of the current U.S. economy. This isn’t a problem Berlin can solve, but it is a perspective residents shouldn’t forget. It is a perspective that will hopefully keep them from once again constructing an economy around what could prove to be a bankrupt model.
The idea of a tourist destination may be attractive, but the “smell of money” the city lost was an economic foundation the country needed, and needs to figure out how to replace. The grumblings of a few who reject the new chosen path may have some value after all.

3 thoughts on “Blue Collar Prophets

  1. Eric, I couldn't agree more with what you're saying. You raise important truths.There is a misconception that our elected officials are looking to move away from our industrial base to motorized recreation and tourism which, I think, is inaccurate. The real issue I think the council is trying to balance well is how to blend all three foundations as positively as possible.If NH were to lose NH's second most important industry, tourism, we'd all be in trouble. But NH will not lose that industry if NH as a whole continues to balance what brings tourists to NH. The numbers of tourists may drop in sagging economies but the bottom won't fall out at least as statistics show.In Berlin government's quest of balancing for a better future, they've gained knowledge about the new industry that is vying to take over the paper mill industry; biomass and pellet production. Both are a natural fit for the area, and both are supported unanimously by mayor and council. Having a defense against down economies by having an industrial foundation under the city of Berlin is something I think this city realizes is important and wants to continue. The question becomes how much is too much, and do we want to become the alternative energy capital of NH if it could be at the expense of other foundations such as Success where an industry ousted Americas oldest cross country ski area and ruined a host of benefits to the quality of life many enjoyed that don't bother going there anymore.The pellet producer, Greenova, has been given a green light to move forward by the city as that company's size fits within sustainability levels of well managed forests, creates jobs,tax revenue and uses a resource no longer used as significantly by the paper industry. By the same token, Clean Power has chosen a size and location that offers exactly the same positives, except biomass doesn't use the same quality wood that the paper mill used. That is why we can not just say that because the paper mills have closed, we have all this wood for biomass companies. The fact of the matter is that we have less wood for biomass companies because these companies use the branches and limbs that are not so readily available due to the closing of the paper mills, and an economic downturn in the new housing industry. One of the big benefits biomass companies enjoy by using this "junk wood" is known as RECS (renewable energy credits). I don't believe these companies can obtain RECs by using paper mill quality wood. That would be a great thing for someone to look into further.Although the city certainly could use the tax revenue that Laidlaw could bring to Berlin as well a larger industrial foundation, the question has become, at what expense to the resources and other foundations we don't want to lose our grasp on. Jon Edwards

  2. I believe you will find little argument that the goal for Berlin should be to have a mix of recreation and light industry in order to build a diverse economic base. An economic base that assures Berlin never again need rely on any one specific industry for its survival. It’s somewhat ironic that the mill closing has made that goal possible. The real discussion is what role does the former mill property play in achieving that goal? It is obvious to most people that heavy industry does not belong in the middle of town and that there are higher and better uses for the site. Uses that will compliment each other in order to achieve a diverse economic base. I personally do no believe that having heavy industry on the mill site is a use that will help achieve that goal.

  3. Berlin must make a conscience decision about how it will move into the future. That is a fascinating position to be in. Berlin's ties to its 20th century heritage are ties the rest of the country would do well to remember. I drive through Maine and New Hampshire and wonder how it will survive if the economy continues to transform, if things don't turn around. China has become the 21st century Berlin, the 21st century U.S., where it is about making things, never mind the stink. The U.S. is in the same place as Berlin in some respects: trying to figure out what it's new role is. I wish these discussions were taking place at a national level, but at least they are occurring in Berlin.

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