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.

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