Midwinter’s Nap

It’s dumping snow outside, and I’m looking forward to a drive to Concord tomorrow to see what the SEC has to say about the petitioners pushing for review of the CPD project. Hopefully the roads won’t make for more than half of my day spent in the car.

I’ve noticed Berlin in winter is much harder to get into. In summer, when I don’t have any work, I meander downtown and check out what’s going on. All the time that results in a story. People are always excited to talk in Berlin, and it’s though those interactions that I get a ton of my inspiration for stories.

In winter, though, it’s more difficult. The Reporter doesn’t have an office, so I spend my time at the community college, unless I’ve got something to cover. When it’s cold and raw out I don’t want to go wandering about downtown, and as a result I don’t make the same connections I would it the summer. I find fewer of the stories I feel like really make the Reporter stand out. It’s a challenge I have yet to figure out how to overcome in this 21st century model of reporting I am in. I want the stories, but the current Reporter setup makes that hard.

Of course it could be there is just less going on. The police log today took less than 10 minutes. So little happens when the weather and the cold clamp down it almost silences the city. The cold reflects not only my stories, but the police’s beats.

I know, however, there are still things to report. I don’t want to go over and over a dead horse, but with the Laidlaw and CPD projects moving forward, and with the election transition, there are so many things to talk about.

And at the same time there are new stories with no connection to these issues. They are hot on here, but I know there are thousands more topics, both positive and negative, that need airing. I heard a great one today about a 21 year old woman who received a double lung transport five months ago. It was inspirational and compelling. She is from Berlin and got a new lease on life. That is something worth telling.

Tomorrow I dive back into the ever present energy issue. It, too, interests and captivates me. There are more stories in Berlin than one reporter can handle. I try to wrap my mind around them all, an obviously impossible task. But the community makes me want to find more. It makes me want to dig and tell stories and keep every issue that ought to be on the front page. The residents deserve it. Berlin deserves it. It makes me want to drive up there now, at 10 p.m., to see what I can find. And it makes me miss my seat at WMCC, near the door outside the Bistro, where I often type my stories on the city. It is the perfect place to be caught in a storm, and it’s where I intend to be sitting as I watch the thaw. That’s when life afresh will reemerge in the city; I will be there to tell you about it.

A day of it

Today was a bit of a strange day as a result of the crazy weather. Instead of my normal Monday routine in Berlin I got rained out, only to go to council and put in almost a full day there. Councilors were discussing the rules and policies, which wound up taking nearly three hours. I got home at 11 p.m. and spent another hour writing up the story so it can show up in Wednesday’s paper.

It was quite a show to watch the remnants of the old council and the new members work together. Councilors Robert Danderson, Micheal Rozak and Mayor Paul Grenier dominated much of the conversation early in the night, which pertained to bridge maintenance and sewer construction. Councilor Mark Evans made his mark during the policies discussion, which lasted for several hours.

But then at the end, when Councilor Danderson said he’d like to have one of the councilors who supported writing a letter to the Site Evaluation Committee regarding Clean Power Development rescind their support, the councilors spoke largely in unison. Councilor Lucie Remillard, who I have not noticed to be particularly attached to either the CPD or the Laidlaw camp, said she didn’t want to do anything that might disrupt CPD’s efforts, though the council shouldn’t fight their battles for them. Councilor Evans and Poulin didn’t speak up in favor of supporting CPD’s efforts to move forward without SEC review, but Councilors McCue, Landry, Cayer and Remillard did.

In the end, so did Mayor Grenier. He said he had concerns about the project, but to try to stop it at this point would send an anti-business message around the state.

This is an interesting time for the council—significant transitions all over the place. Mayor Grenier seems intent on running a tight ship, which appealed to several councilors from the last administration. He also made what seemed like deliberate attempts to extend the olive branch. I’m not sure if his comments about CPD count as the latter, or if, as he said, he reached some agreement with Mel Liston of CPD when the two men met on Sunday.

Regardless, I’m interested to see how this plays out. As Councilor Evans said, the clarification of the new rules may be useful when the council gets down to business because there may be a number of close decisions. Keeping to the rules will be key to ensuring residents get the governance they voted for.

LPJ is also on its next step, and I’m hoping it’s a step upwards. I started the blog because I knew I’d need to have one if I ever want a job somewhere else. I don’t want a job somewhere else, but someday I will and now is the time to prepare. Well, the next step after a blog (and a Twitter account) is a website. Check. Granted, I’ve still got more work to do, but it’s passable. I particularly like the header—it reminds me of this great place I go from time to time.

LPJ launch

LPJ has been alive and well for about nine months now at lastprintjournalist.blogspot.com, but I thought it was about time to do something with lastprintjournalist.com. I’ve owned the site for several months, and I just needed a rainy day to put it togther. The site will house my blog, which hopefully will continue to be popular with people interested in media and northern New Hampshire. I don’t intend to go anywhere, but I’m hoping I can open up some exciting new opportunities in the future that can both expand my professional opportunities and help me become a better reporter.

Airless America

Air America, the liberal radio network, declared bankruptcy today. They referred to a “perfect storm” in the media today as part of the cause.
But Fox News, the news station at the other end of the ideological spectrum from Air America, seems to be strong as ever.
This is the second time Air America declared bankruptcy. It led me to wonder if running a for-profit radio station that proselytizes progressive policies is a doomed venture. It’s like the term Communist China; just not quite right. Air America espoused the benefits of government involvement but had none. Unlike NPR, Pacifica or American Public Media, Air America was trying to beat the capitalists at their own game while espousing the evils of capitalism. That just seems like a bad plan—wouldn’t you want to reject the capitalist model if you were trying to engender a more equitable distribution of wealth?
Making money off of conservative politics makes sense—you’re doing exactly what the ideology espouses. Maybe Air America would have had better luck had they stuck to their guns off air as well as on air. The common good, supported by corporations, which could easily become the targets should their business be perceived unethical, seems a shaky foundation.
I’m sad to see another media outlet go down. I wonder if Air America would be in favor of government bailout for itself. How would that affect their journalistic responsibility? If you consider yourself a liberal or conservative news network, do you have journalistic standards anyway? It would be interventionist government, which is what they supported for the five years they were on air.
It’s not that I really ever thought about it before; it’s mostly just food for thought. Wild media world today. Glad I still have my little niche in it.

No Jobs?

Two and a half weeks ago a representative from the U.S. Census Bureau came to the council meeting to ask the councilors for ideas about how to find people willing to work. She informed the council she was having a hard time filling the more than 100 temporary positions the Census Bureau had open for people willing to knock on doors this spring to collect basic demographic information, and she was looking for any possible assistance. The council directed her to the employment office, which she said she’d already been to. They gave her a few more suggestions, but largely they had no idea.
The Census bureau website describes the jobs: “These short-term jobs offer good pay, flexible hours, paid training, and reimbursement…”
$15 per hour plus mileage for about two months starting in April. The training starts in February. That’s not bad, at least for a few months. The requirements are you have to be at least 18, a U.S. citizen, and you have to pass a written test, which the woman from the census bureau said wasn’t difficult. The website calls it, “a multiple-choice test of basic skills.”
Nevertheless, the woman said, the Bureau is having trouble finding people to fill the jobs.
That surprised me. Honestly, when she said $15 an hour on a flexible schedule several of us looked at each other and discussed car pooling. That seems like a great offer. I knock on doors all the time for work; what’s a few hours more?

It struck me as odd that these jobs would be so quickly passed over. After all the talk of jobs in the last municipal election, here are more than a hundred jobs open to almost anyone in Berlin, and they can’t fill their ranks. Is it that Berlin needs jobs, or that people want better jobs? The non-seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for Berlin (last updated in November 2009) is 8 percent. Considering the national rate is above 10 percent, that’s not bad. It certainly doesn’t compare to Pittsburgh (11.2 percent), Stark (11.5 percent), Colebrook (13.9 percent), Stewartstown (15.7 percent) or Stratford (18.2 percent). There’s been so much discussion about jobs, I had to wonder how dire the need is in Berlin if people aren’t coming out for these ones.
Maybe Berlin has an underemployment problem, not an unemployment problem. Maybe people don’t want to quit working for minimum wage to make double their paycheck for a couple of months. That makes more sense, but with flexible hours and the legendary Berlin work ethic that hardly explains this situation away.
I am confused. It caught me off guard to hear about these jobs remaining vacant. It seems in this economy, in this region, people would gobble up such opportunities. Are people just not hearing about them? Do they have some aversion to working for the U.S. Government? (That doesn’t make sense—people seem interested in the federal prison.) Are they the wrong kind of jobs? I know they are temporary and without benefits, but I would think when you need work what the job is wouldn’t matter. Maybe for some people it does, particularly after they are accustomed to a certain level of income.
It struck me as strange, a phenomenon worth noting. If anyone has any insights I’d love to hear them. I’ve seen how hard Berliners are willing to work, so to me it just doesn’t add up. Maybe someone can explain the arithmetic.

Politics As Usual?

So I’ve kind of been out of the loop with the whole vacation and everything, but I’m starting to get back into things. In case you only stop in to read LPJ from time to time, there has been a vigorous debate going on in the comments pertaining to Laidlaw and Mayor Paul Grenier.
Laidlaw’s application was rejected by the SEC last week. They have indicated the issues should be sorted out quickly. The Sierra Club has also joined Clean Power Development and several private citizens in asking the SEC to reject the application, although at this point I’m not sure what that means as it already has been rejected.
Mayor Grenier thanked representatives from Laidlaw at the at his inaugural address, and he sounded rather authoritarian in his speech when he warned people not to try to derail the project.
Mayor Grenier does not have veto power or the ability to ram policy past opponents, some of with are resolute as in their beliefs as he is. The Laidlaw application was found wanting in several areas, and my understanding of the law is they have 10 days to rectify the issues before they have to reapply (anyone with a better understanding feel free to chime in). This may mean pitched battles in council and another substantial waiting period before SEC review.
Discussion about the merits of the project, its future and its developer, or the policies, rhetoric and outlook of the new mayor, are worthwhile discussions for a city to have. Honestly, I’d love to have every resident of Berlin chime in on how they feel about these issues. I wish there were some polling organization capable of truly gauging the feelings of residents. There isn’t, however, and the discussions are often behind the faceless veil of the Internet, which isn’t always conducive to honest discourse.

I have to say, however, I am happy to see people engaged. I wish all of Berlin cared the way people on LPJ seem to. I do not, by any means, have the answers for Berlin. My perspective is only one, and it is of limited experience and without deep roots in the city’s past. I recognize that at times that is a hindrance, but it is also an asset. I don’t know what former Mayor Robert Danderson was like when he chaired the council. I don’t know what Mayor Grenier was like before I met him several months ago. I don’t know what Councilor Michael Rozak was like when he was on the school board. I wasn’t around when Laidlaw first came to town, or when CPD first came to town, or when former Mayor David Bertrand was elected two years ago.
I know Berlin since I started working there in May 2009. What I see is a city with problems, but with a core of dedicated people willing to work and sacrifice to find solutions. They don’t agree on what solution works best, but they all agree that Berlin is a wonderful place worth fighting for. And I’m right there with them.

There is more to every story than I have reported. There is more to every political deal than has made it into any paper, or onto any website. I would love to find verifiable sources for all of this information and get it out there so the community can make more informed decisions, but it isn’t all sitting on my desk. I do what I can, and I’ve been able to break several stories involving biomass and politics. Do I get them all? No. But as one reporter covering the entire city I figure I do OK.
I take tips, and not the waitstaff kind, but I take them with a grain of salt. What are the motivations behind any information I get? Can I verify it independently? Will someone go on record and talk to me about it? That’s the guidelines I work with in the paper. Here, on LPJ, I am a little looser because this is my personal blog, but I still work to maintain a level of professionalism the citizens of northern New Hampshire deserve. I report leads I get, and I work to get more information up quickly as it comes in. I hope people find this valuable and worth reading.

In the end, what I hope LPJ does is foster discussion. I don’t have any answers, but I enjoy sharing my opinion. I invite anyone to do the same. I have had a sharp commentary from time to time (usually due to a late council meeting) but I refrain from personal attacks. Whether you dislike Jon Edwards’ rhetoric or that of the new mayor, I’d appreciate it if people focused on the substance of the commentary and not the person. It is hard to compromise with someone who just insulted you, or who you just insulted.
I do respect people’s right to disagree with me, or even to make points on my blog about why my opinion may be obtuse. It may be—I am not immune to illogical thinking (my wife can attest to that). But sign your name, do it respectfully, and further the overall conversation. Berlin is an amazing community. The debates about biomass and about politics will likely last for the next decade, as these projects and others move through the world. Residents need to be informed. I have no desire to proselytize. I would even entertain thoughtful commentaries from anyone who wished to submit one. But please maintain civility, it makes the conversation go much smoother.

And also, if you know anyone in the area who doesn’t care one way or the other about these important issues, try to engage them. The future of Berlin is at stake, and it should be the residents who decide where it goes. One argument is people were asleep at the wheel and elected Mayor Grenier against their best interests. The other is they diligently steered the car that is Berlin Mayor Grenier’s way. I am not about to guess which it is, and I don’t know that it does any good for anyone else in Berlin to do it either. The registered voters of Berlin made their decision, and now it will play out for the next two years. Keep struggling for what you feel is important, and hopefully in the end all of Berlin will come out on top.

Off to a BIDPA meeting. Hopefully I’ll see you in Berlin.

One Less Trail

The Bureau of Trails announced last week they will not turn a section the Presidential Rail Trial, or PRT, into an ATV trail for now. The announcement caused an audible sigh of relief in Randolph, where residents organized to protest the proposal. The proposal didn’t include opening up the PRT beyond Jimtown Road in Gorham, but Randolph residents said they were concerned riders would continue beyond the legal boundary. Many said they already do.
The clear divisions about this issue, depending on where people live, make for an interesting picture of the challenges that will face the North Country in the future.
In November Berlin opened city streets to ATVs, and there was a lot of celebration that this effort finally bore fruit. A few months later Randolph residents celebrated with a similar enthusiasm, but their’s was because they succeeded in keeping the trails closed to ATVs. What a difference 10 miles makes.
Residents consider the North Country a region, but in the typical New Hampshire sense—not united enough to impinge anyone’s freedoms. Protecting all those individual freedoms, however, has it’s communal costs, which the region has experienced for decades.

I used to work at an ambulance service as an EMT. The bulk of the community we covered was two towns geographically comparable to Berlin and Gorham. There was a distinct distrust between the two towns I could never understand, to the point where fire departments were reluctant to call each other for aid. The ambulance and school systems were integrated, but not the fire or water department, and I could never understand why. I was 19 or 20 at the time, but even then it seemed more was wasted than gained in such a rivalry. Memories that went back further than mine seemed convinced this was the only way to do things; I was never so sure.
Someone told me Berlin/Gorham is in many ways more attached to Maine than New Hampshire. The mountains formed a barrier, they said, and the river acted as a highway when the communities were young. The Lewiston Sun Journal used to report heavily on what happened in Berlin/Gorham some time ago, backing up that claim. It makes sense: as you go north from Brunswick along the Androscoggin you hit mill town after mill town. Berlin would have been one more along the line.
I grew up in Maine and went to college there, though I’ve lived in the Conway area for the last seven years. The differences between the two states are pretty stark, and so understanding which had more influence on the region is critical to understand how to attack the problems facing it. New Hampshire is about the individual. Live free or die does not imply disparate communities banding together, impinging upon their individual freedoms, for the common good. The mill mentality, however, and the isolation Berlin has endured for a century, have always stuck me as much more willing to pull together for the good of the community. Someone told me in an isolated region like Berlin you don’t have the privileged of ignoring your neighbor, so you learn how to get along.
But how far does that extend? Driving from Lancaster to Errol makes it hard to consider Coös County a cohesive unit. The distances aren’t huge, but the terrain is, and all of the sudden lumping solutions into one big initiative becomes daunting.
But the alternative is for many communities to fend for themselves. Groveton and Errol don’t have many of the assets the Berlin/Gorham corridor has; what will become of them if such efforts are abandoned?
But what is most troubling is the inability for communities minutes apart to reach a consensus on what they are going to do to survive. Berlin, Gorham, Randolph, Shelburne, Milan and Dummer are a region unto themselves. They are the Androscoggin Valley, and what ensures the survival of one ensures the survival of them all. The socioeconomic disparities may convince some people they can divest themselves of this connection, but as Randolph residents are learning with the closure of the Gorham Rite Aid and Shaws, even if their community isn’t in decline the ramifications of the valley as a whole affects them. For wealthy residents it means they have to travel to Berlin or Lancaster to fulfill their prescriptions; for poorer residents it might mean they lose their job.

Berlin, Gorham, Randolph, Shelburne, Milan and Dummer don’t have to agree on everything. ATVs are clearly more divisive in some communities than others, and it wouldn’t be in anyone’s best interests to shove a solution down an adjacent community’s throat. But the Androscoggin Valley has to unify enough to approach the problems it faces head on, with every municipality on board. The future of the Gorham mill, with it’s 200 plus jobs, is uncertain, and the region can ill afford to let the petty differences derail their future for the next century.

New Sheriff In Town

…well, mayor.
Mayor Grenier made good on his promise to create closer ties with Laidlaw—a number of representatives from the company were at the meeting tonight, as Mayor Grenier, Councilor Robert Danderson and Councilor Michael Rozak were sworn in. It will be an interesting new chapter in the book of Berlin.
I’m interested to see how the new council interacts. The staunch Laidlaw opponents ranks are pretty close to the staunch Laidlaw supporters, and it could result in some tough battles if the council does not resolve to put those differences aside.
Mayor Grenier did call for support of both the Laidlaw and the CPD project, and I noticed Robert Danderson’s name on one of the petitions requesting CPD be subject to SEC review. It will be interesting to see if these two recent allies butt heads on this issue and if Mayor Grenier is going to go to bat for CPD with the same vigor he has gone to bat for Laidlaw.

On Wednesday WREN comes to a BIDPA meeting, which should offer another conversation worth following. WREN could bring a creative spirit to Berlin many people say was extinguished by years of mill life, but it will require the city taking a chance on them, a chance they can barely afford. If they are able to foster a partnership, however, it could be a rich partnership for both parties.

I’m getting back into the swing of Berlin, and I’m realizing how much I missed it. Work is always nice to get away from for a while, but when work is in Berlin it’s even nice to get back to. I took a ride with the police chief and Commissioner Steve Griffin today, along with a reporter from the daily. Chief Morency and Commissioner Griffin were presenting a Berlin woman with a plaque commemorating her 38 years of service as a crossing guard. We arrived, and she, her daughter, and a close friends plied us with cupcakes, coffee, soda, crackers, cheese, mini-cupcakes, donuts and juice. I don’t even drink coffee but I took a cup just to make these wonderful women happy. I also grabbed some grapes at the insistence of my hostesses. I’m not part of the French culture that dominates Berlin, but when we left Chief Morency and Commissioner Griffin reminisced how the was exactly like every visit to their grandmothers’ house as a child. I couldn’t help but smile. I’ve been allowed into a community that has more heart than most people would know how to cope with. After a few weeks away, it is certainly nice to be back.

Stuck in the Snow

My job is weird and great. I was late to the police station today because I got caught behind a plow going over the notch, and now I’m kicking it outside White Mountain Community College poaching Internet, despite the fact they are closed for the holiday.
It’s guaranteed to be an interesting day in Berlin, with the council transition and all, but everything is closed, it’s 9 a.m., and the next real thing I’ve got to cover is at 6:30 p.m. Without an office it can be tough to figure out just what to do with myself, because I don’t even have a warm place to sip coffee.
Although I do sort of have an office—ask any WMCC student or employee and they can tell you where it is—it just is closed for the holiday.
So I guess my point is, get out and have some fun today while the weather and work allow it. I know a bunch of people out playing today, while I’m in a sweater and nice shirt typing against my steering wheel. Journalism is quirky and fantastic, but not for those easily riled.

And a quick update on Haiti: I have been trying to make connections, but it doesn’t look like I’m going right away. The ones I have made have not been sufficient for me to have confidence I could go safely. But I’m still working on it, and I may be able to make something happen in the coming weeks. Hopefully the scene there improves; it makes Somalia almost look like a vacation destination right now.

More Work Than Energy

Well, biomass undoubtedly going to stay a hot topic for while now, between the SEC rejecting Laidlaw’s initial application and the petition hearing on whether CPD should go through the same review process. It’s an interesting environment. I wonder if the fierce fighting could keep either project from coming to fruition. Seems possible.

I wanted to mention the massive turnout I saw last night at the city’s contractors meeting. Andre Caron, city housing coordinator, told me earlier in the day he was expecting between 20 and 25 contractors to attend a meeting about the Neighborhood Stabilization Program.
The city hall auditorium was packed when the meeting started at 6:30 p.m.; I counted around 150 people. More people came in late, so I don’t know how many were there in total, but Mr. Caron was running out of handouts.

The NSP is a stimulus program for Berlin: the $2.5 million, which has to be distributed by September 9, will be a massive influx into the local economy. Whether local contractors win the jobs (federal rules stipulate the city has to give the project to the low bidder) or out of town contractors do the work, they will spend money locally. It can bridge the gap until the federal prison opens, and hopefully until some other economic engine opens in the area (biomass, tourism, whatever). It will give people jobs, which is exactly what the area needs.

I do wonder about increasing the amount of low and moderate income housing for the city. Those types of properties seem well represented already. I know there has been talk of the “broken window effect” in many of the neighborhoods slated for renovation and rehabilitation. That’s the idea that when there are a few broken windows in a neighborhood it’s a clear indication that the rule of law is generally ignored there, and people tend to let everywhere nearby go. Malcolm Gladwell argues that’s what happened in NYC during the 1980s in The Tipping Point. I tend to agree more with the authors of Freakonomics, who don’t put much weight behind the theory, but I’m happy to see things get cleaned up. Will rehabbing the properties improve the neighborhoods if transients keep moving in for the cheap rent? Maybe. Increasing the number of units might lower the rents, increasing inflow of low income people. With good building management, however, it may not be unreasonable to new residents with open arms, regardless of their income level.
The condition of urban low income properties vary widely from city to city—some are ghettos and some are nice places to live. Berlin, though it is the woods of northern New Hampshire, has to treat its multi-units as if they were in Boston or New York. On the wall in the police station is a flyer on how to recognize gang colors and gang tattoos. It isn’t a joke, and it isn’t something simply rehabilitating buildings will solve.

Berlin does a poor job cleaning the on-street parking after a snowstorm, but does the job with very limited resources. The police commission was defending their budget to Councilor Mark Evans last week because they said they have to ensure the city stays safe. They too have very limited resources. Same with the fire department, and same with the schools. I spoke with a school official months ago who said the influx of low income students has been a real burden, but it isn’t something they can control. Anyone can move to Berlin that wants to, and the city is required to provide an adequate education. That can be a tough spot to be in, particularly around budget time.

What will the renovations and the demolitions do about these problems? It’s unclear, but it’s the best the city can hope for. It will improve property values, although that may just mean you pay more in property taxes. But if it can remove the air of blight from some of these neighborhoods, it might build more of a city people want to move to. It is hard, after spending any length of time in Berlin, not to recognize the positive side the city has to offer, but it takes only a drive through town to notice the negatives. This work will address many of those negatives, remove them and hopefully forever move past them. This is one more step in the right direction. Granted, I covered the shooting two months ago, and just last week someone was beat with a baseball bat, but these are not the cities defining characteristics. They stick out in Berlin, perhaps because of the broken windows. If the city were pretty it would be a little bit easier to ignore the ugliness. Deaths, thefts and assaults in Conway don’t keep people away, but in Berlin they fit the mold. If nothing else, maybe $2.5 million dollars can change the mold, so someone can see a positive Berlin on the first visit, instead of discovering it on the third.