Thanks for 40 years, Mike

This week has been very busy, likely indicative of what the entire budget season will be like. I went to two budget hearings, and then I headed to Concord for the pre-hearing for Laidlaw’s SEC review. While I was in my car on the way down my editor called to tell me that Mike Gaydo, the sports reporter for the Reporter for the last four decades, died the night before.

There are people out there who read the paper just for his stories. He wrote more than the paper could handle, covering every team in the region. His dedication will be missed. If you have any memories or reflections of Mike feel free to post them in the comments. The Reporter misses you already, Mike, as does Berlin, I’m sure.

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Not Enough Space

The entire city of Berlin should have come to the council meeting tonight. It didn’t clear up as much as it should have, but it posed so many interesting discussions I could write an entire paper out of it.

George Sansoucy, the utility appraiser that assesses the city’s big, hard to assess properties, gave an hour and a half presentation. That alone could have been four stories (I had 400 to 500 words, and I had to squeeze everything else in too). It’s too bad there weren’t more people there to hear it.

He recommended the city get a payment in lieu of taxes, or a PILT, from the utility companies proposing projects in the city. His rational was that it provides a consistent revenue, and that the city could get good revenues for years, even after the assets have sunk in value. The city may start out getting a little less, but in thirty years the city winds up getting more than they would from the assessed value of a worn out biomass plant. Long term planning; that sounds exactly like what Berlin ought to be doing.

He also said there is no hope for district heating unless oil goes up three fold, but some of his comments about plant efficiency didn’t make much sense. Bill Gabler, from Clean Power, was there, and they were geeking out on technical specks (in addition to being an assessor, Mr. Sansoucy is a professional engineer) but their figures weren’t lining up. There was talk of efficiency, and how some plants are efficient at 60 percent, and others at 20 percent, but the engineers in the room couldn’t agree. So while that conversation was interesting it certainly wasn’t helpful in determining the possibility of such development.

And then there was the race, which isn’t even going to make it into the paper. After the fire department troubles hiring an assistant fire chief and Mr. Sansoucy, I didn’t have room to spare, but it appears a reality show is coming to Berlin to run a road rally, thanks to the efforts of representative Paul Ingersol. You can check out the organization here. The council had a few questions, but they seemed enthusiastic, because the event would get people into the city.

I was just having a discussion about how the city and the county need events, both on LPJ and recently in Berlin. This is perfect, but it needs more. Berlin has multiple petro-fueled events, from an ATV rally to a motorcycle rally to a rally race to an old car show. Sometimes I wonder if the North Country is trying to prop up some Emir in Kuwait. The events are key, but somebody has to start proposing something different. Or, to put it better, let’s have all these events, but let’s also try branching out. What about a film festival? Or multi-stage bicycle race? These aren’t things Berlin is familiar with, but maybe the city needs to look beyond the low-hanging fruit.

But I digress. The police department also stopped by to talk about replacing a telephone line to a radio tower that connects their dispatch center with their patrol cars. They pay $500 a month for the connection, which has gone out three times since December. It is antiquated, the police chief said, and the department needs council approval to shift funds around their capital improvement budget to pay for an upgrade. Again, that won’t make it in the paper because of space issues.

I look at the agenda each Monday and tell my editor how long I think my story will be for the council meeting. I am invariably wrong. There is always more going on at council than I can cover, and I often only get small parts and pieces. It’s a shame, but luckily residents have multiple sources from with to get their news.

But recently I’ve begun to doubt the ability of any paper, mine or otherwise, to truly do justice to these meetings. There is just too much going on for me to cover in 500, or even 5,000 words. I try my best, but there is no substitute for being there.

The turnout, however, is always low. I spoke to one man this weekend who is often there, and he said he doesn’t think the council values resident input. I disagree. I’ve seen councilors change their minds after hearing strong words during the public comments. What Berlin needs is engaged citizens, particularly those willing to share their views with their representatives.

It becomes like a soap opera, or maybe like “Desperate Housewives,” when you go week to week, and I don’t mean that pejoratively. I have grown to know and like the characters, to enjoy their personal quirks and to watch their interactions. They are nine people struggling together and against one another to right the listing ship that is Berlin. To pop in on one episode might seem boring, and some days things never pick up, but overall Monday nights are entertaining as well as informative at city hall. It surprises me that people would prefer to watch television, when real drama that affects them is going on so nearby.

So this is my impassioned plea: give it a few shots. Make it out to council, and not just for one episode. I know people who read LPJ care about politics, the city, and raising the bar on the debate, but most Monday nights no one is there. If even just for a few weeks the auditorium was packed, what a difference it would make.

Incidentally, that makes for the best sunshine. The press’ first obligation is to the people, but here is an opportunity for the people to bypass the media. Even if I could always get it right I don’t have room for it all. Instead, just show up. If you miss a week, grab the paper, and I’ll fill you in on what you missed. But unless you know the characters, the plot twists and the progression, my explanation will never be enough. It takes more investment than that. So come on out and enjoy your public officials. You are their bosses, come make sure they’re doing what you require.

Spring into Action

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.

North Country Fun

Here’s a photo of my free time fun in the North Country. Check out my friend Anne’s blog, who took photos of the adventure. The North Country has all types of outdoor recreation potential, more than just powersports. I don’t put a lot of my outdoor play up on LPJ, but since it’s in the North Country I figured Coös County ought to know it has world class terrain. There’s a lot more of it too, waiting to be discovered.

Budget Woes

By the way, while I’m giving quick updates, the city manager handed out the preliminary budget at Monday’s council meeting. It again tries to maintain a level budget for the third year. This year, however, it includes some cuts in services.

Two I’ll be looking more into are the elimination of $25,000 for a contract economic development director with Tri-County CAP, and the reduction of the fire department by two personnel. And the projections still don’t keep the budget completely flat. The school and police departments did not submit to council’s request for a flat budget, but even without their increases the tax rate will require a small increase.

But June is a long way away, and there are a number of discussions that will take place before then. So stay tuned, and check out the Reporter in coming weeks for more coverage of the 2011 budget.

I spent last night snuggled up in bed with a three ring binder full of line items. My job rocks.

PUC Steps In

Well, the paper comes out today, and this isn’t in it: the PUC has decided to investigate the CPD complaint about PSNH. They granted petitions to intervene to the city of Berlin, Jon Edwards, and Eastern Construction Management. This will likely increase my trips to Concord even more.

I’ll have a full story on the decision in next week’s paper.

Slow Motion Train Wreck

Like most things, my words can’t do actual events justice. I’ve now seen a number of things at council I’m thankful I didn’t miss. This is a brief account of the most recent one.

The city Housing Coordinator Andre Caron is a “rock star.” He has been instrumental in removing dilapidated properties from Berlin streets, he has been aggressive in going after federal and state funds, and partnered with Joe Martin, the code enforcement officer, he has been making noticeable changes throughout the city. Phenomenal changes, in fact, the kind of changes Berlin has to increase exponentially to build a viable future.

At the council meeting on Monday Councilor Michael Rozak brought out a list of properties TKB Properties, the city’s private partner in the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, bought on the East Side since the program began. He had a number of concerns: about the targeted approach of the company, about the properties they were buying, and about the mortgage amounts. I had put my notebook away because it was the end of the night and the next item was adjournment, so I missed direct quotes of his comments, but suffice to say he didn’t sound impressed with the NSP. He said TKB seemed like it had something else going on here, beyond just rehabilitating properties.

It was a direct attack on the NSP, with a spreadsheet and allegations of cooking books. Mr. Caron’s face got pretty red as Councilor Rozak spoke, and it was clear he didn’t like what he was hearing.

And then Councilor Remillard stepped in.

Councilor Remillard is what I would call the swing-vote on the council. She does not seem to be standing on one side of the fence or the other on most issues: she was the only councilor who voted on the city seal willing to revisit the discussion, and she doesn’t seem vehemently in favor of Laidlaw or opposed. She is as close to a middle ground member as the council has, I suppose, and I’ve become accustomed to her rather accommodating manner.

But on Monday she acted with passion, something I don’t think I’ve ever seen her do. She  jumped to Mr. Caron’s defense, listing off the benefits of the work he has done and what this project will do for the city. The renovated buildings will bring up the values of every property in the neighborhood, she said, and no one else would touch these eyesores without federal assistance. The idea that this is anything but a positive is wrong, she said, and any moves that could possibly derail the effort would be against the city’s interest. She championed his efforts for five minutes, and she scolded Councilor Rozak for bringing these issues up in such a way that could possibly scare the public. It seemed he found the issue she is passionate about.

Mr. Caron said he was supposed to sign the paperwork for the program tomorrow, but after comments from the mayor and several councilors he was concerned the program didn’t have their support.

I sat at the press table with the reporter for the daily paper and we kept looking at each other. I’ve been reporting on this program for a year, and she’s been doing it for even longer. This program is a godsend for Berlin, and if the city could get four more programs like it it wouldn’t be too much.

The city received $4.3 million, mostly to rehabilitate properties no one wants. The renovations will occur in targeted areas, and they will take place through a public/private partnership with TKB Properties. Eventually these properties will go back on the tax roles, somewhere most of them haven’t been for years. I’ve been writing and writing about this, and after every story I am blown away by how much Mr. Caron has been able to leverage for the city.

Mr. Caron was visibly agitated as he responded to the pointed questions, but luckily there were more voices in support of his efforts than in opposition. The mayor, Councilor Rozak and Councilor Ryan Landry pushed him, but Councilors Robert Danderson, David Poulin and Tom McCue sang his praises and defended the program. The rock star quote is direct from Councilor Poulin.

But it was Councilor Remillard who made the real impression. She wasn’t going to stand by to watch the council dismantle the NSP. She was ready to fight, and she stepped up the moment it looked like Mr. Caron’s years of work were about to evaporate. She made a plea that rallied the council, and though there were only three people in the audience (Mr. Caron being one of them, and Bobby Haggart being another) she turned the tide of rhetoric from opposition to support for Mr. Caron. Before she spoke it was like watching a train wreck. I could see Mr. Caron getting flustered, and it seemed his work was about to get ripped apart.

The crash, however, was narrowly averted. Thank  you, Conductor Remillard.