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.