Solitary Shacks on the Ice

Winter is back. I had to pull a tree off U.S. Route 16 on my way to Errol today, and a van was off the road in Milan. The slop on the road is likely to increase over the next few days too.

My energy is split between town meeting day coverage and Laidlaw developments. The SEC hearings are likely going to dominate the coverage for the next eight months at least. If things go longer (as they can if the committee wishes) I’ll have to look at renting an apartment in Concord. That’s a monster drive, and I have a feeling I’ll be doing it quite a bit soon.

I did a fair bit of driving today, between Glen, Berlin, Errol and back. I’ve got a bit more scheduled as well before this day is over. But the only parts of it that have more than two lanes are a short stretch up to Pinkham Notch and Route 16 north of U.S. Route 2 into Berlin. I have heard the constant commentary that if Berlin were on a major thoroughfare, such as a spur from Interstate 93, the economic conditions would be different. Undoubtedly so, but I would certainly be less interested in driving around for hours. The character of the area, which local residents care about more than their property taxes, would be devastated if that happened.

I realized it the last time I went to Concord for the CPD pre-hearing—every town is slathered in sprawl. The highway attracts it, and while it is development, I am skeptical it is the type Berlin needs.

The Gorham Wal-Mart provided jobs and taxes, but people also blame it for driving the Shaw’s Supermarket out of business. Now residents make a 45 minute trek for a real grocery store. And while finding tenants to fill a storefront on Main Street may be tough, it’s a breeze compared to filling the empty Shaw’s plaza.

Berlin is different, and it needs to stay that way. There is an Irving gas station, a Rite Aid pharmacy, a Dunkin’ Donuts and a Family Dollar; other than that, all the development is local. Further south the local hardware stores have been driven to bankruptcy by Lowe’s and Home Depot. Not in Berlin: Caron Building Center and White Mountain Lumber are still in business. Chain gas stations are the rule, not the exception in the rest of the country; in Berlin you can still buy from Munce’s. And what’s critical is that these companies are owned by families with roots in the community. They are willing to invest here, even when times are tough.

It is important to determine how Berlin and the rest of Coös County want to develop.

“If we want to have commercial development in the community it’s going to have to come from within,” Mayor Paul Grenier said at Monday’s council meeting. He was speaking in reference to the Binette family’s efforts to renovate the Bartlett school and turn it into dormitories, but the sentiment is true beyond this one case.

Would resident celebrate the opening of a Lowe’s? They would bring jobs, but at what cost? Berlin is in a tough spot—it needs development, but only of a certain kind. The economy is fragile in Coös County, but it hasn’t been eliminated. The prospect of development has to be balanced with the specter of routing what business have survived.

Two of the candidates running for the open Gorham selectman seat said they would like to see increased development on the Berlin/Gorham Road. That is a mixed blessing, and it could mean Berlin suffers. It might also mean Gorham suffers. The Wal-Mart in Gorham has doubtlessly affected area businesses. The impact is mixed because lower prices that are good for consumers hurt competitors. But such large developments requires a long range view, and a view that looks beyond one town.

When I travel around the north county I am struck by how spectacular the landscape is, how rooted the communities are, and how passionate the resident are. But I am also surprise at how disconnected it all seems. For a “region,” Lancaster seems a long way from Berlin. Randolph is a light-years away from Pittsburg. But these issues are Coös’, not just one towns. Pave a highway to Berlin? It’ll destroy not just Berlin, but every community it crosses. Line the streets of Coös with big box stores and McRestaurants and it will extinguish the untapped draw sits just below the region’s surface.

The region needs to think like a region, act like a region, and respond like a region. Whether it is branding, economic development or education, the North Country communities are on footing too tenuous to disregard one another. While efforts to herd cats pale compared to New Hampshirites, the region can’t affort to all pull in different directions. I think of the dispute between the commissioners and the branding initiative—personalities and egos almost derailed efforts to build a new future. The region has assets, which, when all joined together, are capable of standing on their own. But the infrastructure isn’t there yet for any community to go it alone. In the end, people have to admit this is a region, and one community’s rash decisions can’t be allowed to pave under the assets everyone in Coös County is counting on for their future. One economic base for the region has already disappeared. No one wants to see another one go before it has even had its heyday.

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More Site Updates

I got a new photo management system  on here, and a new way to display MP3s. I also did additional revisions to the colors and layout that hopefully no one will notice. It’s all coming together nicely, and now I just need to upload more content.

With town meeting day coming up (not a big deal in Berlin, but in Gorham, Milan, Shelburne, Dummer and Errol, it matters) I’ve been minorly swamped. Plus all the SEC activity has kept me on my toes. I do feel, however, that LPJ needs to be maintained, and so I put in a few hours tonight. I know it wasn’t work on what’s most popular—the blog—but it has to be done sometimes.

Last bit of cleanup that has to happen: the header. The boom pier image is good, but it needs cleaning up. After that I can concentrate on getting more photos, videos and audio pieces up.

Just a brief update. Tomorrow I’m planning on braving the weather over the notch. We’ll see how that goes.

Preamble to Gamble

There will be a meeting about what expanded gambling would mean to the community on Saturday, March 6. It will be all day at White Mountains Community College. It requires an RSVP, so make sure to download the flyer and let them know if you intend to go. These are the types of community conversations worth having before making a decision in either direction, so I hope to see a lot of people there. (I’ll be there covering it as long as I don’t get dragged into work. I guide ice climbing when I can in winter, and Saturdays are usually the busiest days. The old trust fund is running low, after all.)

Click below to download a PDF of the flyer with all the information:

Casino Flyer

Positivity Projects and Researching Stories

I’ve been deep in Northern New Hampshire lately. Deep enough I almost got lost.

I love covering Berlin and the surrounding communities. It is such a switch from working in other communities, where people barely recognize you the third time you meet them and pedestrians walk down the street with a thousand mile stare.

Coös County deserves better—that’s what a candidate for Gorham selectman told me the other day. I agree, but I’m not sure there is someone to blame for its failings. The industry that supported the community went into decline 40 years ago, and what’s left is the shell that is there now.

But it isn’t just a shell. Berlin and Coös are down, but they aren’t out. My reporting has worked to do two things: inform residents about critical issues and highlight the positive. But there are so many critical issues sometimes it overwhelms my reporting. As I’ve said before, there ought to be a dozen reporters covering just Berlin/Gorham, and then maybe all the news that’s fit to print would get out there.

I’m looking into a side project that might get a bit more of that positive coverage out there. It sounds great to me if I can get it together, and it would create a bit more of the type of stories people always say are missing from the paper. (Honestly, they aren’t missing, but people notice the negative stories and glance over the positive ones. Oh well.)

The future of Berlin, and maybe the region in its entirety, are at a crossroads. What happens if the Fraser mill shuts down? If Groveton doesn’t find something to subsist on? If the economy continues to decline throughout the region? What happens then?

I don’t see that as Coös’ future, however. There are more good developments around the region than bad ones, and the attitude is changing to one of progress. I will admit there are divides in how to move forward, but there is no one who doesn’t look at the current situation and see it as untenable. So what’s next? How can the region stop talking and start moving.

I first thought Roger Brooks was selling a monorail in Springfield (check your Simpson’s trivia if you missed the reference). After listening to him, however, it is clear he knows what he’s talking about. He said the business community needs to take its future into its own hands instead of relying on politicians to do something. After watching the pitched battle that was Berlin’s municipal election, and as I prepare for town meeting day, I couldn’t agree more. Coös residents have to create their own solutions, not just complain about their problems.

And they are. Steve Binette and his family are buying the former Bartlett School to turn into student housing. Talk about members of the community pitching in to resurrect the city. This is exactly the effort the city needs.

I’m working on a project of a similar scale. It will lock me into the region for quite a while, if it happens, and point my energy more directly at changing people’s minds about the county. It would be aimed outside the region, however, rather than in.

If you’re concerned that means I might be leaving the Reporter don’t worry; I have no intention of giving up my fabulous job. I have yet to figure out how this will all work (if it can), but I love the reporting I am currently doing. Think of the project as an expanded, targeted LPJ blog, but with only the good and none of the bad. Normally I would call such a thing Public Relations (shutter), but when the goal is community revitalization and development I can relax the rhetoric. It would basically be finding all the stories I can that are the gems of Coös County, and pooling them in one place. I’m not sure how it will work, but it’s an interesting idea.

In the meantime, there is a lot of political maneuvering and such going on, particularly in reference to energy. There are stories there that aren’t positive or negative but certainly need to be told. I don’t intend to slack off my reporting of those issues. The PSNH/FERC story was a great find, one for which I got several compliments, but that type of reporting is HARD TO SUPPORT. There aren’t the resources around the North Country to consistently do it. Heck, there aren’t the resources around the state or even country to consistently do it. I like that type of research, but I also have to cover every other thing going on in the community, and it takes time. The daily paper runs into the same problems. When it comes to the failures in reporting around the region it isn’t the fault of the reporters; it has more to do with the economic model newspapers are predicated on. Paper just isn’t made in the U.S. anymore, and newspapers just can’t sustain a real staff anymore. Luckily the reporters around Berlin care as much as they do, and they have the support they do from their editors, because otherwise the outlook would be incredibly bleak. Until there is a new model discovered/created/invented it isn’t going to get much better. For now, however, I know the people doing the work up there are doing the best they can with inadequate resources. Sounds like the rest of the region, huh? But like everything else up there, what people get for the money spent is pretty remarkable. Berlin and Coös County aren’t broken; they have a future yet. The papers, both the daily and the Reporter, are going to be more than part of that future—they will be critical drivers of it.

More PSNH, PUC, CPD

and now… FERC!

So I’ve got an exciting piece on PSNH and their efforts at the federal level that CPD claims are intended to circumvent their responsibilities in purchasing power from small independent producers.

It’s all gray area and well worth the read. It gets pretty deep into the nuances of electricity regulation in the US, but it could wind up being rather important to Berlin.

How can a 29 megawatt plant be less than a 20 megawatt plant? When it only generates 17 megawatts. Does that make it a 17 megawatt plant? CPD says yes (sort of), PSNH says no—now let’s see what the Federal Energy Regulatory Committee says.

This was a tough piece, and just the kind I like. It took some digging, and as far as I’ve seen it hasn’t been out anywhere. Both CPD and PSNH were surprised to be talking to me about it and weren’t exactly prepared. It isn’t enough to shake any big apples loose, but it’s the sort of thing the region needs to follow. Informed voters might care about this one.

So what news matters most to you? What is there not enough coverage of? I was talking with some friends about reporting in the region, and we were trying to decide what was lacking most. I said in depth coverage of energy issues would be ideal, from a group with the skill and the knowledge to do it. From transmission issues to taxation, wind farms to biomass—all these issues are going to grow over the coming decades. The two local papers work hard, but they are also covering ice golf stories and the latest Tri-County CAP generous donation drive, with only three reporters between the two of them. What falls through the cracks?

Lots, I’d say, and I imagine most LPJ readers would agree with me. But what is the most important?

I’ve been sick for the entire week, and I’m still trying to pull out of it. I did a fair bit of my work last week, but I’ve still got a story or two to finish before I can go to bed, but I wanted to get the word out that there was something cool worth reading in this week’s paper.

I wish these stories were here every week. I don’t think they aren’t in Berlin; I think the skill to tease them out takes time to develop. I’ve been able to pull together a few of them, but it isn’t a weekly thing. Berlin needs more of this, but to get more of it it needs more reporters. That means a staff that hasn’t been with either paper for years. If there were some other way to get reporters up there to spend time digging around it’d be a gift.

Think about this—imagine you run a 24 hour convenience store, and it’s only you and a partner. Now remember, you need to be there all the time to cover anything that should happen. How do you think that would work?

Doesn’t sound like it’d work great, but that’s what the daily is working with—two reporters. My paper has one, so I’ve got all shifts. Inevitably things fall through the cracks.

With a city as dynamic as Berlin, really it needs more. It isn’t LL Bean, with tons of area to cover, but even a 7-11 requires more than two or three people to ensure the counter is covered all the time.

But the newspaper business isn’t growing, it’s shrinking, and the counter is empty more and more. It’s too bad, because when someones steals a soda, a candy bar, or even the register, it’s hard to stop when you’re alone. In fact sometimes no one even realizes it happened.

I’m ranting. Time to get back to writing for money, not pleasure. Support quality journalism—it makes you pay for your candy bar. And happy Valentine’s Day.

More than just a meeting

So I’m assuming everyone has seen that the public hearing for Laidlaw’s proposal is scheduled for mid-March. I’m getting geared up for lots of driving to Concord and back over the next several months. As I understand it there is a 240 day time-frame for this hearing, but at any time the SEC can hit pause to get all the information they want. That has resulted in some drawn out hearings in the past. I’m hoping things go a little quicker in this one; it’s a long way from Glen to Concord. Either way I guess I’m going to rack up the mileage reimbursements.

I’ve been sick for much of the last week with whatever has been going around. It’s basically taken away my voice, which makes it hard to do my job. I’m supposed to talk to people to find out what’s going on, but I can’t really say anything. And now I’ve got a black eye too from catching a chunk of ice in the face. I’m up in town today, going around talking to people, and I’ve already received a number of looks and had to explain myself several times. It’s not the most flattering look, believe me.

I’m going to something really exciting today: a meeting with a number of people from around the region working to create a new voice in the North Country. Normally when I go to meetings I’m not there to share my opinion; I just go to cover them, not to chime in. This one is different, and it could have a great benefit for the region. I’m really psyched to be taking part and maybe make something happen in the region.

I’ll keep you posted on it as things develop. In the meantime, if you see me, don’t be alarmed—I look a little worse for wear and my voice is raspy, but it’s a work day and I’ve got to get things done.

Not Alone

Berlin isn’t the only community trying to figure out how to move forward from an industrial past; check out this report from NPR‘s Morning Edition. There is some discussion about what other towns have done with former industrial sites, but they are all considerably larger than Berlin. The problem of mill sites occurrings nationwide, as does the split in residents’ opinions on the best way to deal with it.

At least the stack in Berlin isn’t 800 feet tall. The mayor’s perspective in El Paso reminds me of the city seal argument in Berlin.

Let me know of your thoughts on El Paso’s challenge. Maybe Berlin can learn from their struggles.