I’m approaching one year of working in Berlin, and one thing I’ve noticed is transitions take time. The talk about what it takes to reinvigorate the city has been going on for far longer than I’ve been there, but the changes have been slow to come.
Or have they? The transition will not come with a splash, in a way that people will recognize and point to. It will come in fits and starts, with small-scale development followed by larger development.
SaVoir Flair and Rumorz, for example, are recent additions to Main Street. They are surviving, and as more development comes (read: federal prison) they will do even better. They are the first seeds; signs that could be missed or ignored by the careless. They are harbingers of better things.
The fire department just inspected Fagin’s Pub to allow them to reopen—another business opens its doors. There are positive things happening, but it is difficult to determine when changes are really happening. When are things truly improving, and when is it just window dressing?
Berlin has things to offer. I was speaking to the city’s contract development director today (who acknowledges his days as such are numbered) and he commented on the city’s potential. I would say the same is true of all of Coös County, of everything north of the notches. The only thing missing a realization by the rest of the Northeast of what is there.
I don’t know how it starts. I think its with one person. Or two people. Or five. I think if a half dozen people who have never seen northern New Hampshire’s beauty are exposed to it, at least one of them will decide to come back.
I love to rock climb and ice climb—both of those activities are there. My wife loves to ski—that’s available too. Fishing, canoeing, camping, hunting, whitewater rafting—it’s all there, just waiting to be discovered.
But how do you get those five people, those 10 people, up for the first time?
My idea for free housing for college graduates got shot down, but maybe people will like this: a bluegrass festival at Northern Forest Heritage Park.
Berlin is an incredible place, and it is in need of great art, great culture and great creativity. Those sorts of things draw people, and those people spend money. People in the North Country often equate tourism with North Conway, and all the outlets, strip malls and big box stores that characterize it. I grew up on the coast of Maine, however, where there are towns like Bar Harbor and Rockport, not just Freeport. Brunswick, Maine, is on the Androscoggin as well, and its old mill buildings have been turned into movie theaters and photography studios. I see that in Berlin in another dozen years, because the prices and the pristine location are prime for it.
But how do you get from A to B? And won’t people be scared away?
Easy, and no. People will be scared away, sure, but not the ones willing to invest. Just like entrepreneurs see opportunity where others don’t, some of the people introduced to Berlin will see the opportunity there. It has already happened and is still happening. Each non-native who lives there is an example of this. Tim Cayer, Katie Paine, Racheal Stuart, Tom McCue—these are all people who picked up to move to Berlin, not to move away. They may be the first drops of rain, but there are surely going to be more people out there like them. Berlin needs to find them. Every one of them saw Berlin’s flaws when they moved there, and it didn’t scare them away. There are more people out there who would feel the same way—they just haven’t had the opportunity to find out that they do.
So if one out of five, or one out of 10, 20 or 30, will look through Berlin’s rough exterior to appreciate it’s core, how do you get those individuals up there?
Events. Berlin, and all of Coös County, is essentially Vacationland. It may be on Maine’s license plates, but it is true in the Androscoggin Valley and elsewhere. Berlin residents must realize the astounding beauty that surrounds them. I know they’ve had it all their lives, but they must. Northern New Hampshire is the kind of place the rest of the world would love to spend their vacations, but as far as Boston knows New Hampshire stops in Jackson.
Berlin has mountains, rivers, woods and cliffs. It offers so much, and yet it is always so quiet. I look at the events that happen in the region over the course of the year, and I realize how insulated the community is. Riverfire, and Thunder in the Mountains, and the Northern Forest Rally Race, and Drive in to the 50s are all great, but they appeal to Berlin. This is a premier location for other things, events that appeal to larger audiences. Where are those events? Where are the things that might pull in people from around the region, not necessarily of the type the region is intimately familiar?
I want a bluegrass festival. Or a jazz festival. Or blues. They do it in Rockland; why not in Berlin?
Or multi-stage adventure race, that traverses the Killkenny range and rafts the Magalloway? A multi-stage bike race from Grand Hotel to Grand Hotel? Or an art show along the Androscoggin?
I know it seems far fetched, but people who are introduced to Berlin seem to love it. Those who have preconceived notions often aren’t willing to hear about it, but when they see it for themselves their minds change. Berlin, and all of Coös County, has to get better at changing those minds. It has to get people there, show them around, and let them make their own decisions. It won’t require a four-lane highway; it will require making something worth coming for. That’s the challenge, and it’s something the region can handle. Berlin, I think, as the only city in the county, should take a leading role in the effort. It should show just what can happen with some action.