The City That Just Won’t Quit

The spring was a little depressing, with both Rumorz and J.C. Penney announcing they would be closing. It hits hard when two faces on Main Street, one a new upstart and the other an old standard, move on. It had me back on my heels a bit, though Berlin is accustomed to such setbacks.

Today, however, I did the downtown tour, and I got to see another half-dozen reasons why Berlin with eventually survive. Three of them will be in next week’s paper, I hope, so I won’t ruin them, but suffice it to say they are there. One is the impending opening of Tea Birds. The paper is off the windows now, and it’s clear the owners have done a ton of work to get the building up to speed. Soon that’ll be one more busy storefront on Main Street.

WREN is moving into the old Gill Building, where SaVoir Flare is now, and they are moving to the larger space next door. That’s one more window filled and one taking up more real estate.

I keep hearing about “green shoots” in reference to the economic downturn. It may even apply to Berlin. For so long this region felt left behind by the economic success of the rest of the state and the country; now it may be catching up.

There are significant challenges still, however. City councilor Mark Evans showed me a letter from a realtor who said many of the people looking to move to the region for the federal prison were looking at property in surrounding communities. But if Berlin can sprout success in this economic climate, what will it do once millions of federal payroll dollars are headed its way?

The challenge now is to address the short-term budget problems the city faces to build a foundation for long-term success. Prison employees choose Berlin if the schools and housing prices are good. One of those variables is secure — there is certainly inexpensive property in Berlin. The other, however, is in a tough spot, and the budget guidelines set by the council may hurt the city more than help it.

No one wants to lay off 10 teachers. Every councilor knows that’s 10 good citizens the city risks loosing. But more importantly, those ten teachers hurt the student/teacher ratio and reduces the city’s appeal as a place to move. The short-term gain of a $1 million in reductions may result in a long-term loss if it keeps federal employees from settling here.

Every councilor needs to weigh these factors carefully. While they disagree on one project or another, they all agree they want Berlin to succeed. They also all agree that the city’s taxes are too high. Efforts to cut taxes in the short run, however, can raise them over the long-term. In the flurry to keep people here today it is important not to alienate those who might be here tomorrow.

But city government isn’t the city. I can’t imagine the city ever failing because the strength of conviction of its residents. Berlin pride will remain, I imagine, long after these discussions have been forgotten. Main Street is resurgent regardless of city officials, not because of them. The city, in many ways, just needs to stay out of the way. It’s amazing to see these efforts, which have kept the city moving despite decades of disappointing setbacks. It is convincing evidence that the city won’t ever quit. I am happy to sit by and watch to see what it can become.

More on Energy

Another North Country reporter, the unstoppable Edith Tucker, said the other day that she’s learned more about energy than she’d ever hoped working in Coös County. I agree.

I just got off the phone with Martin Murray, the spokesperson for PSNH. There are recent developments at the federal level that affect the Clean Power/PSNH discussion at the PUC, and I wanted PSNH’s opinion.

Mr. Murray and I have talked several times now, since a significant portion of my reporting has covered energy and PSNH. Each time, somewhere either in the middle or near the end, we start to dance around as I try to pin Mr. Murray into a corner on just how it is PSNH decides who to negotiate with. Mr. Murray wordsmiths knowingly past my best jabs, never giving more than he intends. He has put up with my incessant questions a number of times, which come from different directions but always with the same target. I rephrase and reword, but we keep going in circles. It is a merry-go-round I have come to expect, at least until the PUC rules on the topic.

I understand the CPD complaint to be that PSNH has to negotiate with the company in order to determine if they are achieving the least expensive option for rate payers. If they don’t negotiate with CPD, the logic goes, then how do they know CPD isn’t offering a lower price than the competition?

Mr. Murray’s explanation into the question doesn’t go so deep. Is PSNH required to negotiate with CPD? is the question, he said, and PSNH believes the answer is no.

I must admit, I’ve had a lot of conversations with both sides of this discussion, and I have looked at lots of documents. I am also not particularly familiar with the PUC’s process, or just how in deep they delve into the logic and the arguments that constitute the reasons behind their dockets. But the way I see it, on the surface, both companies are right, if there’s is the question you’re asking.

PSNH is not required to negotiate with CPD, according to the letter of the law. They are (or would have been) required to buy CPD’s power at the market rate under the federal PURPA guidelines, but that wasn’t what CPD was requesting. They wanted to negotiate, not invoke the federal standards.

So PSNH is right, if the PUC is looking at the argument at that level. There is nothing that says they have to negotiate with anyone; CPD is in no way special.

It’s hard to imagine, however, how PSNH can decide what offer to go with if they are unwilling to listen to the various offer. How do they know one power producer will generate power at a lower cost to the rate payer if they don’t at least entertain all offers?

But that’s digging deeper. I’m not sure if the PUC does that. CPD is asking the PUC to look beyond the letter of the law to the reasons behind it. PSNH is looking for a requirement to negotiate, and not finding one, they feel they have done no wrong. That may be where the complaint lands. Alternatively, CPD is looking at what it takes to achieve a least cost option and making a leap to negotiation as a requirement. Perhaps that is where the PUC will look.

Either is right, when the argument is framed in their language, and either is wrong if it isn’t. Where the PUC will land in this conversation is still unclear, but the generalizations “right” and “wrong” clearly do not apply.

I do see something else, however: a possible design for this recent moves in this dance. You’ll need the upcoming copy of the paper to get this, but I think I’ve stitched a bit of strategy together.

CPD’s complaint is now protected by a recent FERC ruling, so any decision the PUC makes will be enforceable regardless of the exemption granted PSNH (Confused? Check out this Wednesday’s Reporter.) But should CPD’s complaint fall on deaf ears they will no longer be protected by the FERC exemption. The exemption is in regards to this one pending complaint, not to CPD in general. Should CPD go back to PSNH and demand they buy CPD’s power under PURPA guidelines PSNH can point to the FERC waiver and deny the request. PSNH closed one avenue CPD could have taken to sell their power, even if it wasn’t the one CPD was going for. What looks like a loss for PSNH may actually be a win, as long as the PUC uses PSNH definitions for the complaint.

That is, of course, unless CPD is producing less than net 20 megawatts. Their proposal will generate between 17 and 22 megawatts, which cuts close to the FERC ruling cutoff. Then it becomes a matter of skirting the line, something CPD did at the SEC already with the 30 megawatt cutoff.

FERC may have given PSNH an insurance policy, at least in this one regard, but the question remains just how deep the PUC will go into the obligation and logic for negotiation, and who will be vindicated as a result. Either CPD and PSNH would win the argument if it was their rules the other were forced to follow. Now the PUC has to choose which version to abide by, and then the matter will be settled.

I don’t imagine, however, this was the last story I’ll write or the last post I’ll put up on the subject. More twists than a North Country road. My energy education, it seems, is still underway.

Mornings

Mornings in Coös County are the best. Mondays and Thursdays are my consistent early days in Berlin, with an 8 a.m. meeting police department for the weekly log. In winter my drive over the notch starts before sunrise, but now that the days have grown the sky is usually bright and unspoiled.

The city streets are always still, and all the parking spaces on Main Street are empty. It’s a gift to roll in and watch the city wake up. The mist burns off the river, shops unfurl their open flags, and cars start to roll out of driveways. Morning has always been my favorite time of day, and in the North Country it’s the way always remember it.

I have come up a few times at 6 a.m. or earlier to shoot photographs before dawn. The streets are always eerily quiet. I always wonder if people wonder what the heck I’m doing, as I pull over on the roadside and duck under fences, dragging my camera bag with my tripod under my arm. As of yet no officer has wound up tapping on my shoulder, so I’m guessing people either don’t notice or don’t care.

Between the area’s landscape, architecture and industrial infrastructure there are always ghosts poking out of the darkness. Trying to capture them in interesting light is a fantastic challenge. The mornings, of course, are the time to do it.

When I come up for work, as I’ve said before, it’s like I’m leaving one world for another. I leave a town largely devoid of community, where neighbor is a geographic distinction, not a reference to personal relationships. I come to a city and a region undiluted by fast-paced existence. There is no rat race here. People know each other, and they still attend community suppers and barbecues. Berlin still fosters community, builds it and wrestles with how to preserve it.

The premiere of On the River’s Edge this weekend exemplifies this quality. More than 400 free tickets to the local showing disappeared almost instantly, and the historical society sold more than 200 DVDs of the documentary. It was a remarkable show of local pride for a city constantly on guard against its own demise.

Berlin residents have a sense of pride, however, that grew out of the city’s reputation. They loved Berlin even when others ridiculed it for the smell of the mill and its remoteness. Today the mill is gone but the pride remains. Along with it, however, are the scars left by being the butt of too many jokes. The armpit of the state and Stinktown USA are no longer, but the affects remain.

But today the view of Mount Madison is crystal clear. The river runs clean, and the woods have more trails than loggers. Every morning I come north I marvel at the country Coös County residents live in, and I wonder how it can sustain itself so they can keep living there. The answer is there, I am sure of it, but the recipe hasn’t been discovered yet.

The mornings, however, convince me that recipe is worth searching for.

This morning, after police log, I was driving along Riverside Drive, when I looked over the river and saw a sea of white dots: seagulls, perched on the boom piers, huddled together during a rain shower. The sky and the river were almost black and the birds popped from the background. They were so numerous and so brilliant I had to turn around. I walked to the river’s edge with my camera and tried to capture the moment. Instead I got a few snapshots of birds too far away to make an impact. But they made their impact on me. They woke me once more to the many things northern New Hampshire has that other places lack. A river through town, for instance, that hasn’t been completely overrun with construction. A sense of wildness and life even in the downtown.

It’s hard to appreciate, I think, when you are there all the time. But try leaving and coming back and see what it is you first see. See if you notice the morning sun on the mountains turning the snow shades of gold, or the mist rising off the river in trails. See if you notice the muskrats in Tondreau Park searching for fresh grass, or the birds soaring around Mount Forist. Ordinary? Drab? Not for a moment, particularly in the mornings.

Gaining on a year

I’m two weeks away from being with the Reporter for a year. In that time I’ve met a US senator, sat through numerous city council sessions and watched a city change and grow. It introduced me to the North Country, the landscape and its people, which I’ve come to feel connected to because of their willingness to let me in.

I have also come to feel very strongly that this region is ripe for rebirth. It has so much to offer, so much potential, and I feel it isn’t destined to be trapped in the economic condition it is currently.

My wife and I got invited to the Coös Symposium. It will be interesting to visit and talk with other people interested in kick-starting something positive. I don’t really know what to expect, but it should be interesting no matter what.

I’m also working on a side project to raise the profile and the perspective of the region as a destination. I don’t know how it’ll go, but I’m hoping to turn my enthusiasm for the region into tangible economic benefits.

Working in a small city is tough, because the paper is both a critic and a champion of what happens. I am supposed to look over the decisions of the local government and municipality, but I’m also supposed to provide a positive view of the are. It’s a tough balance to strike in a city so small. The year of working has made me feel even more strongly that the time is right for a real push toward change, but at the same time I am trying to watch that change with a critical eye, ready to point out problems so residents can make informed decisions about their self-governance.

I know there are people who read LPJ just for the Laidlaw/CPD debate. That’s only a fraction of the future of this place. In the past year I’ve watched, heard and taken part in hundreds of discussions about the future of the region. There are more forces pushing for success right now than bonds tying the region to failure. Hopefully the last year of LPJ and the Reporter has made more of those positive developments and possibilities clear to residents, who sometimes have more trouble seeing the good than those from away do.

So although it’s a bit premature, thank you for a year, Berlin and Coös County; I don’t see us slowing down anytime soon.

Hopeful Signs and Pigeon Holes

I went up to Milan Village School to check in about their positive outcomes with state testing. They got off the schools in need of improvement list after years on it. Principal David Backler credited technology and good use of data with their success. You’ll be able to read more about the school’s success in next week’s Berlin Reporter.

He also said something else that was intriguing. He said he was preparing students to go to the best colleges in the country, but making sure to instill in them a connection with Milan and the surrounding region. They need to be successful, he said, but some of them hopefully will want to come home afterward to make their lives here.

It’s such a great idea, and I’m not sure it has been employed well enough. I know Berlin residents have a deep-seated pride for their city, but it almost seems in spite of where they come from rather than rooted in it. The Berlin type of pride seems to me more akin to people who leave New Jersey: they’ll fight you if you say something bad about it, but they sure don’t want to live there anymore.

Principal Backler made the point that this area has so much to offer, from hunting to hiking and skiing to snowmobiling. There is something for everyone, he said, and the kids need to be made aware of those opportunities.

Unfortunately, the region has been pigeon-holed. People look to Berlin as a place to go if you like ATVs and sleds, but not if you want cross-country ski trails and road biking. The mountains in Coös County are as spectacular as those in Carroll or Grafton (some would say more), and the opportunity for diverse recreation abounds.

But then I look at a study released a couple months ago by the UNH Carsey Institute that said Coös County youth aren’t engaged enough outside the classroom. They are left idle, the report said, particularly males, which leads to trouble.

Why? Why are kids in northern New Hampshire idle? There is so much here, so much to root them to this place, to make them want to come back, to occupy their time and lead them down the road toward becoming successful young adults. And it doesn’t cost a ton of money; compare buying hiking boots to the cost of a pair of hockey skates.

What the North Country has, most places can’t offer. The region hasn’t figured out how to connect itself to the those assets, and it has trouble connecting others as well.

Coös is selling what it knows, not what it has. It’s assets are greater than just ATV trails, wood and prisons, but those are the economic foundations the region is familiar with. I drive past mountains, trails, cliffs and rivers that if they were in North Conway would be swarmed every weekend. They are almost always empty. And what’s more, I see assets for rooting the region’s youth in their home while teaching them the skills to grow up and be creative, driven, inspired adults. Parents spend thousands to send their children on Outward Bound expeditions just across the border in Newry, Maine. Why is there no capitalization on the exact same assets here in Coös?

Because it’s been pigeon-holed. The region sees itself in one way, and it has hard time seeing anything else. The assets are there, waiting to be plucked. A few people are starting to use them to their advantage, like Principal Backler. He makes for hopeful signs, despite the pigeon holes.

Grand Adventure

If  Coös is selling adventure, it can deliver.

Recognize this view? It’s not from Mount Forist or Mount Jasper, but you can see Berlin in the distance. It’s from a 350 foot tall cliff—clean, steep and beautiful—that’s just part of the adventure available in the North Country.

I convinced my friend Bayard to come check it out with me to see what kind of Grand Adventure we could get into. Bayard is a climbing guide who lives in Madison. He is really strong (check out his blog to see what I mean), owns Cathedral Mountain Guides, is sponsored by Outdoor Research and well known within the Northeast climbing community. I had been telling him for months about this beautiful cliff in Coös, and the other day he agreed to go have a look.

The cliff is an hour and a half from the road, so we met early. At 7:30 a.m. we stood in my driveway sorting our gear for the day. I’d figured out how to get to the cliff a week or so before so I knew where we were going, but what we would need to climb once we got there was another matter. We opted to go light, taking the bare minimum of equipment to avoid carrying heavy loads for hours. We hoped we would find solid clean rock that would take protection, but really we had no idea. We packed up the car and headed off, the sun still low against the mountains.

We started walking on a logging road but soon turned onto a hiking trail. It was still early, and we were moving fast, happy to have the light packs. About the time we got our first view of the cliff the trail degraded into a bog, and we began hopping from moss hummock to moss hummock. We could still make out the outline of the trail, but we had to weave around it to keep our feet dry. The trail plunged into underbrush, and we crawled over downed trees and danced from rock to rock to avoid the marshy spots.

The marsh and the trail ended at a stream, and surveyors tape marked the next half mile. We groped from tree to tree looking for the next piece of flagging tape while bushes pulled at our legs. We kept barreling forward, hoping the climbing at the end would be worth it.

The tape ended in another bog, with a clear view of the cliff. I pulled out my compass and took a bearing. Bayard said he’d never gone through such shenanigans to climb at a cliff in New Hampshire before. We hopped across the bog, crossed another stream, and followed the compass for another 20 minutes to a field of boulders below the cliff.

The view from the base was spectacular—the cliff was covered corners, flakes, cracks, roofs. Climbers use features like these to get up steep walls, and this one was almost vertical. Luckily it looked like there would be just enough to move upward; it was going to be a good day.

We walked up to the center of the cliff, picked out a crack system in a corner and roped up. I got the first lead, so I pulled on my rock shoes, chalk bag, rack of gear and started up. The rock was sharp, with big crystals that bit into the back of my hands as I jammed. The crack was wider than I wanted but not wide enough to quit, so I grabbed hold of one side and walked my feet up the other, climbing toward the sky.

“Looks awesome,” Bayard yelled as I inched upward. One of my pieces of gear was behind a hollow-sounding flake, but it was the best thing I had. I leaned back and punched it to the next roof, where I found a good crack that took two pieces of rock protection.

The last 40 feet of the pitch eased up, with small holds on the right wall to grab hold of and a flake on the left for gear. I got to a ledge the size of a dinner table and built an anchor. “Off belay,” I yelled to Bayard below. He could barely hear me through the wind.

Bayard raced up to my anchor, removing the gear as he climbed. We exchanged brief smiles on the belay ledge, and then he kept going to the top of the cliff. He made short work of the second pitch, and soon I was climbing up to meet him.

Up top we found some old bolts and pitons, evidence someone else had come this way before. They were old, worn and covered with rust; it’d probably been a decade since they went in.

We could just see Mount Washington between Adams and Jefferson, the trio rising above the surrounding mountains. But we didn’t pause long to admire them; we still had work to do. We rappelled to the ground and traversed the base to see if there was another obvious line.

Bayard had his eye on one of the low roofs on the south end of the cliff. It looked like it had a perfect handcrack above it, and he wanted to take it all the way to the top. The roof itself looked hard, but things would probably ease up once you made it over it.

I led first, up a slab past two old bolts from the 1970s. I stopped just below the roof and set up a belay to bring Bayard up to me. He grabbed the gear and headed left, towards the handcrack at the lip of the roof.

He placed a piece in the corner and then felt for the edge. It was six feet to the lip. He rearranged his feet, trying to reach the crack, and pushed his palm into the roof for stability. He was placing gear blind so he couldn’t evaluate it; if it wasn’t good and he fell it could rip and send him into the slab below, hard. He backed his first piece up with a second and looked over at me. “One of them has to hold,” he said with a shrug, and launched out for the crack.

His feet cut and his hands groped holds. He curled in, rolling up like a hedgehog, with his feet inches from his elbows. A hand popped, and then another, and he shot downwards toward the slab. The rope came tight at my waist, pulling at my harness and yanking me into the air. Bayard hung inches above from the slab, suspended from his gear at the lip. “They held,” he said with a smile.

He stood up and shook his hands out like he was shaking water off them, and then he started climbing again. He grabbed the hold at the lip, this time with determination. He curled in again, like he cannon-balling into a pool, and stuck his feet to the roof. A hand shot out and grabbed the next hold up, then his other hand bounced up the edge of the crack. His left toe hooked up over the lip, and he pulled himself up into the crack.

(I would love to have a picture of this sequence, but I was engrossed in belaying. I’m sure he preferred me paying attention to his life rather than my camera.)

He climbed another 40 feet and built an anchor. He shouted down, “Off belay!”

I went through a similar sequence, falling once and then climbing over the lip second try. I met Bayard at the belay, and then continued on to the summit, leading the clean, beautiful handcrack above. We topped out at the same anchor as the first route and quickly rappelled to the ground.

It was getting late, and following the tape, much less the compass, would be a challenge in the dark. We loaded our packs, pulled on our boots, and turned our backs to the cliff. With the south needle sitting where the north had been we made our way back through the woods. At the hiking trail, after the tape and the bog, we sat down to drink some water and eat. The orange sunlight splashed over the cliff, the last view we got of the day.

We made it back to the car an hour later, exhausted. I pulled off my boots and put on my flipflops, while Bayard went barefoot in the passenger seat.

“Not a bad adventure,” Bayard said as I fired up the car. I hurt all over, from my hands to my feet to my back to my shoulders. I looked over at him and laughed. Yes, I had to concur, it was not a bad adventure at all.

Note: This is a taste of a side project I’m working on launching. I see Coös as the frontier of outdoor adventure; it simply hasn’t been tapped. I had a great day out there, and I think other people with similar interests will be doing the same thing someday soon. Hopefully it will be part of the new economic mix the region is looking for.

Also, in the second photo I took some errant twigs and branches out of the sky with Photoshop to give a clearer view of the cliff. It’s not something I would normally do on LPJ, and never in the paper, but here the goal is to make people understand the asset they have in their back yard. Hopefully it helped. In journalism such things are unacceptable, but this doesn’t fall into my journalism category. Regardless, I felt the need for full disclosure. Thus enduth my disclaimer.

Update: I found the history of the two bolts I passed on the first pitch of The Pikey. I spoke with Tad Pfeffer, who said he and Dwight Bradley climbed something matching the description of the first pitch of the route back in 1971. He said they climbed partway up but didn’t continue to the top of the cliff. We didn’t see any evidence anyone had climbed higher than the second bolt (which had webbing threaded through it in the style of a rappel anchor and was a little below our first belay), so I’m pretty confident we were the first climbers to do the route. I’ve changed the text in the photo from FRA (First Recorded Ascent) to FA (First Ascent) to reflect my research. I’m hoping to do many more FAs out there.

Damage Control Only

I was listening to the Exchange on NHPR on Monday, where they were talking about the state’s budget challenges. One of the guests, Steve Norton from the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies, commented that the state budget was essentially in crisis mode, trying to keep things moving until next year when they might be able to make some long-term decisions if the economic situation improved. This year, he said, was just stopgap measures to keep the ship afloat.

That, unfortunately, is where Berlin is as well, and its easy to see where it leads.

The school department laid off 10 teachers last week. They had to make the cuts in order to keep their budget flat, which the council requested/mandated. That’s 10 middle class, upstanding residents that will be out of work unless something changes.

The school department is a big employer in Berlin. Like the hospital, the prison and numerous other social service agencies around the city, it does not contribute to the tax base, but it contributes jobs. The city is in the position where it needs to slash funding for fire fighters, teachers and possibly police officers, but these cuts simply mean the city loses a few more upstanding residents.

Councilor Danderson often comments that the good people are leaving. What can the city do to stop it? Not eliminating their job would be one way, but then the expense falls on everyone else.

The goal of keeping the tax rate flat is important, as Berlin already taxes higher than most of the rest of the state. But when does keeping it flat become too much of a risk? When the city starts speeding up the very exodus it is trying to prevent it may just be time to start reevaluating.

Now I say this without being a property owner. Because New Hampshire doesn’t have an income or sales tax I largely escape the impact of the state’s taxes, and I completely escape the impact of Berlin’s. But the city can’t support vital services it needs, and because of it they lose twice. First, there are fewer teachers, so class size goes up, and second, those teachers move away to find work somewhere else. Heck, they may even lose a third time: the teacher sells the house they had bought and stop paying taxes on it. It may wind up just one more vacant building.

The council, however, doesn’t have much choice; no one wants to squeeze an extra $1 million out of Berlin residents. But somehow the city has to find a balance between fiscal prudence and maintaining adequate services. No one will move there if the fire department can’t respond or their kids get a poor education.

Up to now city departments survived with meager resources, and they have done the job well. But the accounts I’ve heard is that this year budgets are too tight to keep shaving the dollars off. Something has got to give. It’s either jobs or taxes, and no one wants to give up either. It’s a terrible choice, and I wouldn’t want to have to make it.

People need go to council meetings and voice their opinions. Is it worse to raise taxes or to lose services and people? They aren’t my taxes, so I can’t say, and they aren’t my services either. Where I live there aren’t city level services, so I have no idea what is a fair price for such things. The people who pay for and use the services need to tell the council how they feel, and what direction they want to see these two things go. Too often people comment on the budget only during the public hearing, when everything is set, finalized and printed. They make changes at this point, but only minor ones. If people want a major change in policy they have to speak up early.

But maybe they don’t. Maybe, like some people have said, Berlin should essentially become a town and forget about maintaining city-level services. The city has the population for it, maybe it would work. I’m not sure who would watch over the excess infrastructure, but that would be a problem for another day.

A city may be like a business, however: if you aren’t growing you’re failing. Berlin isn’t growing right now, and turning into a town or cutting jobs doesn’t help. They need growth, certainly, but the question is what decisions this budget cycle will best spur such growth, maintaining taxes and cutting services or raising taxes and maintaining services? What will do more good over the long-term? At this point, the city is writing a budget based on damage control. For a shot at a future, however, the city needs to take deliberate action. Hopefully they are fully invested, one way or the other.

Empty Square Windows

This is not about Berlin. Berlin has a lot of empty windows, but in some ways, those windows will be easier to fill than those just down the street.

Recognize this?

Rite Aid just moved out of Gorham, and this is what they left. I’m trying to imagine what tenant is going to move into this building, with it’s steeple and rounded corner. I can’t think of anyone, short of another Rite Aid.

How about this one?

Shaw’s was closed by the time I started working in Berlin, but I stopped by two years ago after a day of rock climbing. Now it’s a mass of a empty windows and floor space. Only a supermarket would suffice to fill it.

Here’s the problem with sprawl—when chains fail or stores close there is no one else that can fill their shoes. In Portland, Maine, where I went to college, this has become a problem. Out by the mall (actually in South Portland) there is an empty Circuit City building; just over the town line, in Scarborough, there is an empty Walmart building. It isn’t that the Walmart went out of business—right next door is the Super Walmart, which overshadowed the original store.

Imagine building a building that couldn’t be used for anything else. Imagine the shell of a city entirely made of chain stores.

You don’t have to go far to see it. Head down to North Conway, with the empty buildings spread around the US Route 16 and 302 intersection, and you’ll have a good picture of it. New developments were built as stores moved and expanded, and now the old buildings are standing vacant. The economic crisis didn’t help.

The tough part is how these big box shells pigeon-hole a place: it’s hard to think of them as anything but chain stores. There is a nice restaurant in North Conway, the Black Cap Grille (bad website, good food), in one of the new developments. It is a great place to eat, with good food and a nice atmosphere; unfortunately it looks like an Applebee’s from the outside, not a local restaurant. It’s in a space more likely to house a Payless shoe store. They did a great job transforming the warehouse-like interior into a nice place to eat, but they had to work hard to make the experience inviting.

A Gorham example: Mr. Pizza. The warehouse look doesn’t inspire confidence, no matter how the food tastes.

Places without these types of developments are in many ways so much better off. The empty buildings in Berlin are an eyesore, no doubt, but it’s not hard imagining almost every single one of them filled with just about anything. They are not, like the Rite Aid building in Gorham, so unique and quirky as to preclude a useful future. Since I’ve been there I’ve heard proposals for television stations, restaurants, casinos, theaters, retail stores, breweries and more in various properties around town, and every one of them seemed plausible. The type of development in Berlin has left it open to anything that can come its way.

Take the Gill building, which several local families rehabilitated. They stripped it to the shell and put in office space, retail space and apartments. The building that houses the daily paper is similar: it’s been rehabbed, and now supports several businesses of different stripes. Morin’s Shoe Store is in a beautiful building as well, and the old Berlin Reporter building is on its way up. Each could house just about anything; they aren’t locked in to what was there in the past.

The former Rite Aid building, which the Berlin Industrial Park and Development Authority now owns, is the closest thing Berlin has to Gorham’s Shaw’s. BIDPA has been working to renovate it, and included in that is a plan to change the facade to better fit in with the rest of Main Street. It isn’t something that will stick out for years to come, and it could easily become something besides a pharmacy.

There are a few distinct properties in the downtown. The courthouse, only recently vacated (aside from the housing coordinator and building inspector, two of the hardest working “departments” in the city) is a beautiful building that hopefully will be saved. It, like Saint Kieran’s and city hall, is a gem worthy of preserving. It has character, something the new courthouse lacks. (Of course the new courthouse is ADA compliant, safer for employees and the people using it, and has parking. Win some, lose some.)

There are warehouses out on Route 110, but they are just big. They are not so overdesigned as to only be able to provide space for one business. Try turning a Walmart into anything else. A Sam’s Club, maybe, but not a performance space.

Berlin is lucky. It missed much of the late 20th century development, with the McDonald-ization of restaurants and retail space. It’s development didn’t ever sprawl outward, in the way Gorham, North Conway and the I-93 corridor did. While in 1990 that might have seemed a liability, in 2010 it is an asset. Berlin has a jumpstart on smart development, with a walkable city and properties that can easily transition from one use to the next. There may be gaping holes on Main Street and around the city, but they aren’t gaping holes that are impossible to fill. The future of Berlin has yet to be written, but unlike many communities Berlin isn’t tied by the yoke of late 20th century car culture. It was built in the early 20th century; who knew that would put it on the forefront of development in the 21st?

Comments and Conversations

There was an interesting comment made on a post from last week that I thought was worth delving into. I wrote out a long reply, and I thought it was a good enough question/discussion to become a post. As I’ve said in the past, I appreciate contradicting opinions here, because they make me think. Berliner’s question made me think, and write, why it is I don’t come out staunchly against the Laidlaw proposal, aside from the obvious fact that my profession precludes it. I know this discussion always gets people fired up, but a lot has been happening lately, so it’s worth revisiting as the SEC review moves forward.

One more thing:

I want to thank Berliner for the question, both for its content and its tone. It was asked with respect, which often evaporates in this discussion, particularly online. My opinion may not match yours, and I may have flaws in my logic. Anyone can welcome to disagree with me, and I encourage opposing viewpoints. I don’t erase any comments (except the spam I’ve been getting lately since I moved from Blogger, not sure what that’s about), but I appreciate thoughtful discussion more than vitriolic rants. Please follow Berliner’s lead and disagree cordially; insults don’t change minds.

Berliner’s comment:

Erik,

I know you cannot admit this because it would upset your good friends (Grenier, Rozek & Danderson) but doesn’t your gut tell you that having a biomass plant in the middle of the City won’t be real conducive to tourism development efforts? Open your mind for a minute and think of the possibilities of this City without heavy industry in the downtown area. Doesn’t that seem like a wonderful opportunity to you? I know you don’t have children but if you did and if you lived on the East side of Berlin would you want your child to grow up in the shadow of a biomass plant? Do you like recreating in the woods or do you enjoy hiking through miles of clear cuts? If you try hard enough, I think you might begin to realize that the City of Berlin (and Coos County for that matter) is much better off without Laidlaw than it will be with it.

Now that I’m off my soap box I’d love to hear why you believe a biomass plant in downtown Berlin is such a great idea for this City. The Pros of the plant do not even come close to outweighing the Cons. There are only 2 benefits; 40 jobs and some added tax revenue. That is not enough for me to welcome Laidlaw to my community with open arms.

What do you say my friend? Do you have an opinion or are you simply convinced that Grenier in his infinite wisdom knows what is best for the City and therefore we should all capitulate to this car salesman while he tries to sell us a lemon?

Berliner

My reply:

Berliner —

Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

I see a bright future for Berlin with or without a biomass plant in the center of the city. Berlin’s future isn’t dependent on the success or failure of the Laidlaw proposal, or, for that matter, the Clean Power Development proposal. It is dependent on the city’s ability to diversify its economy after a century of relying on one industry. Today no single project can turn the city around, and no single project can bring it down.

Would 40 jobs help? Yes. Would 100 logging and trucking jobs help? Yes. Would cleaning up the mill site and transforming it into a productive space provide benefits? Yes. Will it be the key that turns Berlin’s future around? No.

Berlin’s future, in my mind, is a ship in mid-turn. Even if both biomass plants get built they won’t create as many jobs as the federal prison. A river-walk and cheap steam to the Cascade mill in two years won’t do as much to revitalize the city as the millions of dollars being spent to rehabilitate whole neighborhoods. The ATV park is one part of Berlin’s future, the college is another. Main Street retail shops and the state prison fill another niche. The future of Berlin is in the mix, not one industry, and that mix is still growing and developing. Someday soon Berlin may have a truly diverse economy, but the ship has to keep turning to make that happen.

A biomass plant won’t jeopardize this new path. A redeveloped mill site won’t close the prison. It won’t close the ATV park. It won’t stop the educational opportunities at WMCC, and it won’t reverse the rehabilitation the city’s neighborhoods are undergoing.

Are there legitimate concerns? Absolutely. If loggers strip the forest bare in order to feed the biomass plants it would threaten recreational tourism, a key portion of the city’s future. If either company is out to make a quick buck off Berlin instead of follow through on its commitment that would be a problem. But those concerns are not the same as to whether Berlin can survive with a biomass plant in its downtown.

Berlin can survive no matter what. Berlin residents have seen hard times, and better times are on the horizon. The biomass plants, should they be built or should they fail, are simply a bump along Berlin’s journey. They are one more possibility, one possible slice of Berlin’s future economic base.

The truth of it is I don’t exactly agree with either side. Mayor Grenier and Councilor Danderson seem to think this project will be Berlin’s savior. It won’t. But opponents seem to think it will be Berlin’s undoing. It won’t. It may or may not happen, and whether it does or not Berlin will have to continue to spread its economic tentacles for a sustainable future.

I understand the argument of both, but I agree with neither. The project won’t save the city, but it also won’t end all possibilities for other development. I know it’s in the center of town, but what do the Main Street people always say? A city’s face is it’s Main Street. Energy might be better spent supporting growth there than fighting development elsewhere.

Instead, energy has been squandered in this debate. People spend hours protesting this one project, while other projects, like Rumorz Boutique, fail. What if opponents of Laidlaw became vocal supports of Main Street? What would that do? What if supporters of Laidlaw became active opponents of slumlords? What would Berlin turn into then? I understand the ideological divide, but I lament the lost possibilities. Berlin will succeed or fail based on its overall economic diversity, which is far more encompassing than one project. A biomass plant on the mill site matters little in the long run.

If the SEC does their job the project will either be well-run or will never get off the ground—either works fine for me. Berlin’s future is based on more than just this one project, and this one project doesn’t have the ability to end the city’s rise.

Again, I do appreciate your comments and the thoughtful discussion.

Quick aside: I didn’t address Berliner’s question about kids playing around the stacks. I have never looked into questions of the safety of emissions from biomass plants. That would be an interesting conversation for the industry as a whole, not just Laidlaw, CPD. and Berlin I’ve heard some talk about it in discussions about the projects, but I don’t know about its impact overall. Hmm… I smell a story here.