I skipped the Berlin city council this evening to attend a public hearing in Gorham about expanding ATV trail usage to include some of the rails to trails land in Gorham, creating a corridor to Success. The conversation got heated at times as Randolph residents and several Gorham residents voiced their opposition to ATVs sharing the multi-use trails.
I couldn’t help but laugh watching the two camps, with divisions that go far beyond their preferred method of motorized or non-motorized recreation. It was a civics lesson but also an economics lesson. It was also a discussion Berlin should be watching.
Advocates for the plan want Jericho to connect to Success via Gorham, because they see potential for economic benefit in Gorham. They are betting a direct trail from Gorham will keep the ATVers sleeping and eating in Gorham, even if the Berlin allows ATVs on city streets.
If the infrastructure is already in Gorham and that trail opens, what will be the incentive to open a hotel or restaurant in Berlin? What will be the incentive to stay or eat in Berlin? Maybe there will be so many ATVers that the region will have to build excess capacity, but if not Gorham certainly has less to do to make itself the next ATV destination: it merely has to open a trail. Berlin has to build a tourist infrastructure, and that could take years instead of days.
But then there are the Randolph residents. I didn’t see one under 40, and they were not ATV riders. They talked about hiking and biking and snowshoeing and skiing, about how wonderful it is to hear the snow melt off trees on a winter’s day, and about how much they detest ATVs and snowmobiles noise. They were worried the trail might one day continue west from Gorham along the rail to trail property on U.S. Route 2, and they have been circulating emails for more than a week discussing how they can protect against such development. They have contacted representatives and senators and the executive council, and they have been amassing supporting organizations to their corner.
They were a different people talking a different language.
It goes back to the conversation I was having before, about seeing the other person’s perspective. The ATVers in the room didn’t have any appreciation for the fact that ATVs are annoying to people who don’t ride ATVs, and the non-ATVers didn’t have any appreciation for the fact that ATVers have a right to ride. Everyone just complained about the other side, while I tried not to laugh. (I feel comfortable laughing in Berlin council meetings—I know everyone there pretty well now—but this was Gorham, where I don’t know anyone.)
Berlin has something unique on this front: a lack of naysayers. In the months I’ve been covering the ATV issue I’ve heard one person speak out against it. In Gorham tonight there were 25 people that spoke against it, and 50 people came to the meeting. The room only had seats for 40, so people were standing against the walls and crammed in the doorway. It is a different issue in Gorham than it is in Berlin—the contingent of hikers and cyclists is larger there, and their perspective might make this a fight. One woman put it well, saying ATVing and other sports don’t go together well. They don’t have to be separated, she said, but it helps. In Berlin, it isn’t much work to separate the two, because there aren’t people doing other things. In Gorham, it’s much more an issue, and something that will likely inspire more debate. Randolph is like Berlin, but only the other side of the issue, so again there isn’t really a fight.
Berlin and Gorham may soon be competing for the ATV dollars, and Gorham has a head start. The ATV park may be in Berlin, but there aren’t lots of places there to spend your money if you come up for the weekend, and that will take time to change. In the meantime Gorham might take the thunder out of Berlin’s efforts to become the ATV capital of the state, simply by opening a trail.
One final thought: some people (including Chris Gamache from the Bureau of Trails) spoke of regionalization. I’ve heard that term a lot lately, from talking about schools to local government to economic development. But then, back at each town hall and city council chambers, I hear councilors and selectmen talking about how they want the businesses in their town to benefit, that they don’t care about the community down the road. The Grand Hotels, Grand Adventures initiative argues the region doesn’t have a critical mass to draw people in any one town, but as a region they do. But the region isn’t a region; it’s like Afghanistan or Africa—carved out of a map by people disconnected from its past, its future, its economy and its people. Gorham doesn’t like to be associated with Berlin, and Berlin resents Gorham’s success. No one there talks to Lancaster or Errol, and Colebrook is off by itself. Grand Hotels, Grand Adventures is an effort to make this appear a cohesive unit outside Coös County, but there is no effort to make it a cohesive unit within Coös County. It would be a shame if Gorham scoops the ATVers away from Berlin, if for no other reason than it will heighten the animosity between the two. The two communities will continue fighting each other, instead of cooperating to make each other stronger.
Mayor David Bertrand said in an interview today the current council thinks outside the box, something past Berlin city councils haven’t done. But when it comes to regionalism, this council is in step with past councils. Provincialism runs deep, and it seems to be a box the region can’t find its way out of. In a city and a region searching for useful answers to complex questions, it’s a shame to see so much animosity directed at people stuck in the same boat.