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.

8 thoughts on “Comments and Conversations

  1. Yes, let’s do business with these guys.

    UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
    FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEW HAMPSHIRE
    WALDRON ENGINEERING AND
    CONSTRUCTION, INC.,
    Plaintiff,
    v.
    LAIDLAW BERLIN BIOPOWER, LLC,
    Defendant.
    ))))))))))))
    CIVIL ACTION NO. 10-CV-00130
    COMPLAINT AND DEMAND FOR JURY TRIAL
    Preliminary Statement
    This matter arises out of the design of a biomass energy power station in Berlin, New Hampshire (the “Project”). The Project is being developed by the defendant, Laidlaw Berlin Biopower, LLC (“Laidlaw”). On or about July 17, 2007, the plaintiff, Waldron Engineering & Construction, Inc. (“Waldron”) entered into a written agreement with Laidlaw (“Agreement”) to perform engineering services for the Project. A copy of the Parties’ July 17, 2007 Agreement is annexed hereto as Exhibit A. In accordance with its obligations under the Agreement, Waldron performed a significant amount of engineering work for Laidlaw over a period of 2-1/2 years. During that time, Laidlaw accepted the benefit of Waldron’s services and used Waldron’s work product to acquire land, apply for Project permits and obtain Project development financing. At no time did Laidlaw ever complain about Waldron’s services. Nevertheless, in or about February 2010, Laidlaw advised Waldron in writing that the Parties’ Agreement was “never formed” and that in its view; the matter was “closed”.

  2. There is no argument that Berlin is going to recover from the mill closing. As difficult as it may be to believe or see, Berlin is now on it’s way to recovery. That is not to say there isn’t more difficult work ahead. But many believe the worst is behind. Where opinions begin to differ is the impact a 70MW biomass plant would have on the direction and ultimate destination if you chose to follow that path.

    It’s all about potential. I agree that a 70 MW biomass plant in the middle of the city won’t necessarily prevent Berlin from an economic recovery. But I do believe it will prevent Berlin from reaching it’s full potential. That is what it comes down to. If the job is to make Berlin the best it can be for future generations, then doing it right means not compromising on Berlin’s future by putting heavy industry in your downtown.

    If you are ok with settling, then focus your attention elsewhere and don’t think about what you are giving up with a 70MW boiler in your downtown. It’s easy for Berlin residents to accept a 70 MW plant on the mill site because in a way it has always been there. Imagine for a minute trying to do that in middle of a community today? How many communities would jump at the opportunity to open a significant amount of land in the middle of its downtown verses having a 70 MW biomass plant? How many times does a community not only get to choose a new path, but also completely reinvent itself? How do you put a value on that? And by reinvent itself I do not mean combining a little bit of the past with a little bit of something else. I believe Berlin has the unique opportunity to completely reinvent itself. But that can only happen with a non-heavy industrial site in it’s downtown. Otherwise it is not called reinventing, but rather remodeling. Big difference.

    If one of the things Berlin would like to become is a tourist destination, start by asking yourself what kept Berlin from becoming a tourist destination when the mill was running? Will a 70 MW biomass plant in the downtown have the same impact as a pulp mill? No, but I do believe it will definitely take away some opportunities that would otherwise keep it from reaching it’s full potential. And who intentionally compromises their own future when they really don’t need to? Compromising the future, that is what biomass on the mill site does, plain and simple.

  3. Berlin Resident,

    That all sounds wonderful. Now since you seem to have all the answers… perhaps you can help me understand a few things. 1) what do you propose doing at the site (keep in mind it is polluted brownfield site)? 2) How do you propose paying for what you suggest doing? 3) How do you propose keeping other industry from coming in to develop on that site (assuming you are successful at keeping Laidlaw out? 4) What financial benefits do you envision this site producing for the town of Berlin if no biomass site is developed? A park may produce green, but not in a monitory sense.

    It is always nice to day dream, but when you start to ask real questions about what the town of Berlin would do with that site if Laidlaw wasn’t in the picture, it becomes apparent that there is no concrete solution. In fact, what did the town propose before Laidlaw came into the picture? Who proposed paying for it?

    The truth is, if laidlaw were to go away tomorrow, ten years from now one of two things would most likely have happened to that site. 1) it remains as it is today… stack and all. Unoccupied and producing zero to the community 2) Another industrial company takes it over, and may not be as willing to work with the town, or providing as large of a tax base or 25 million annually in the forrest and trucking industry.

    Please enlighten all of us of what you realistically see happening to the site…”realistic” being the key word in that sentence.

  4. Judging from your response Johnny, I come to the conclusion you may be beyond help. But I will try explaining a few things to you since it is apparent you have very little knowledge and understanding of the history of the site and the potential of the site.

    First of all being a brownfield site does not close all doors to redevelopment. The city was told by the EPA that the site could be reclaimed for just about any use it wanted. There are plenty of examples of brownfield and superfund sites that have been reclaimed all over the country. It is done every day and can be done in Berlin. As to who, what, where, when and how, well that is only a matter of opening up the discussion. Something that has yet to be done, but one that I am convinced will begin to take place as soon as Laidlaw is out of the picture in the not too distant future.

    The only dreaming going on is by those under the Laidlaw influence who believe Laidlaw will make them rich. They have so much money tied up in stock that they would never admit they made a bad investment. The only realistic thing is that they will lose the money they invested in Laidlaw and will have only themselves to blame for being so gullible.

    If the boiler had true potential to operate as a 70 MW biomass plant a real company would have jumped on it before Laidlaw. But since none of the real companies who looked at it thought it would work, that left the door open for a 2 bit slick talking wall street suit to come to town and say all the right things to convince people that they were here to save the day. The fact that Laidlaw, a company with no history of building, operating or owning a single biomass plant talked its way into Berlin only means that the people of Berlin have yet to recognize the difference between good and evil.

    But back to the topic Erik initiated, can Berlin continue to turn the corner despite a 70 MW biomass plant in the middle of the city? Yes, but it would never reach it’s full potential. Luckily for Berlin they won’t have to worry about that much longer.

  5. Jonny and Berlin Resident –

    Thanks for the comments, both sides have some truth. Berlin might have an easier time becoming a tourist destination without a biomass plant in the center of town, but then again resources for cleaning up the mill site are scarce. How much of a hindrance is the stack to that future if it stays dormant? I don’t know. It certainly doesn’t help.

    A completely new economy would leave out many current Berlin residents who only have experience at industrial jobs. Biomass offers these people a future in Berlin.

    There are legitimate concerns about industrial development in the downtown. Biomass plants aren’t considered “heavy industry,” as they don’t involve chemicals, but the facility would still dominate the city.

    I don’t see a right answer to this, but both viewpoints on Berlin’s future both miss something. Those who look forward to a new Berlin completely reborn are writing off many current residents, some of whom would only qualify for low wage jobs in a tourism-based economy. But those who look to the city’s natural resource-based past are ignoring the need for new industry. Developed nations impose restrictions on themselves that hamper natural resource extraction, and developing nations don’t. The result is lower cost for imported products, and the failure of domestic industries. Even 140 biomass jobs won’t change that, or 300 prison jobs. What is the vision for Berlin’s bright future? Enough biomass plants to employ the entire city?

    Berlin has to find a middle ground. The ranks of industrially-skilled unemployed and underemployed need opportunities, and right now biomass is it. The response that they need to retool and retrain in a community with few jobs for people without entrepreneurial experience continues to ring hollow for people scraping to feed their families. But there also has to be a concerted effort to find something else, something more modern, that can help stabilize the region’s economy. Maybe it’s tourism, maybe it’s hot water supported light industry. Whatever it is, it has to start happening soon.

    Laidlaw is not the problem; Berlin’s challenge exists regardless of their proposal. Laidlaw, in fact, provides one solution. CPD provides another. Is either the right one? Who knows. But Berlin needs a strategy for the future that doesn’t abandon the people living there now. Neither side’s arguments addresses both issues.

    Thanks for the discussion.

    Erik

  6. Very well said Erik. It seems to me that having the opportunity to help restart a struggling city with a state of the art renewable energy facility that brings the kinds of logging and trucking jobs that Berliners are skilled in, would be a welcomed play. I agree that the Laidlaw facility will not change everything for the positive, but it sure seems like a good start considering the lack of other options on the table. Berlin has an opportunity to be a leader in the green revolution, a movement that this country is just beginning to undertake and in my opinion will be taking for the next 30-50 years.

    I think that “Berlin Resident” still misses the point I was trying to make. Who would pay for the clean-up and redevelopment of the site if Laidlaw went away tomorrow? Didn’t the city and state have the chance to buy the site before Laidlaw came into the picture? Why didn’t they? I imagine it is because it was too pricey to clean up just on the “hopes” of private capital coming in to redevelop it for residential use. To go further, if that private capital did come in to redevelop the site for residential use, how many jobs does that create on a year in year out basis.

    To be completely frank, I think that the biggest opponents of this project just simply don’t give a damn about the majority of Berlin residents that need a jobs that fit their skill set. They are to worried about issues that to me seem on the more superficial side.

    Just my take…

    1. Jonny –

      And yet the biggest supporters of the project are unwilling to look at its challenges. Berlin will get to the next iteration of its economy, regardless of this one project, but people have to remember the city’s health should be their first priority. Both biomass projects cause concerns, whether it is limiting possible future expansion of the wastewater treatment site or changing the character of the city. Some people support these projects 100 percent, without leaving room for others to voice legitimate concerns.

      I don’t think opponents want to abandon current residents; they are working with very few assets to try to reach a new economic future in the region. They, like supporters, recognize the city’s needs, but they are looking further down the road. Given a choice I would prefer long-term planning over short-term gains, but when it is at the expense of a large portion of the residents it creates a real conundrum. Long-term planning is a real challenge in Berlin, where the real effort is on disaster management and control.

      Despite the harsh critiques people have made, I don’t believe either supporters or opponents have anything but the best intentions for Berlin. They have different visions for the future, possibly, but they all love the North Country. Every council meeting I’m reminded of that, when I watch people with sharply divergent perspectives work together. They all care, and they all have valid points. To write them off, from either direction, is a mistake.

      Thanks for commenting.

      Erik

  7. Eric,

    You are wrong. Laidlaw is the problem. This is not a good company and they certainly shouldn’t be running a 70 MW biomass plant in downtown Berlin.

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