Bounty of Berlin

I started a post about all the jobs things I’ve been going to lately, but then I got sidetracked. I was writing it at one of the meetings, and I figured I had better pay attention—I might want to write down what some of the speakers were saying.

That didn’t actually happen, although it was a meeting worth reporting on. But it did get sidetracked, and then I moved on to this: the Bounty of Berlin.

It’s from SaVoir Flare, one of the newer Main Street stores with attitude. The owner, Elizabeth Ruediger, has great taste and sass. She sees Main Street’s potential, and she’s trying to make it happen. Today, while talking about the possibilities in the downtown, she kept using that line: the Bounty of Berlin.

The impact is in how different the line is from people’s perceptions of Berlin. People who live less than an hour away don’t give Berlin a second thought. Why not? Because they have written it off. Mrs. Ruediger’s suggestion is to get what the city offers into people’s faces. I couldn’t agree more.

At the meeting I was at this morning a representative from the state Department of Resources and Economic Development told the crowd the majority of their spending on advertising about the state is spent outside the state. They advertise New Hampshire in Philadelphia, New York and Europe, he said, not in Manchester, Nashua and Conway. When is Berlin going to start doing the same thing? When is the city going to start taking its future into its own hands?

“Bounty” is right. One July 1 the WREN farmers’ market will open, bringing more “bounty” to the city. Soon BIDPA is going to pour $400,000 into a park next to their building on Main Street. The flower boxes line the sidewalks and fill the vacancies left by the two buildings the city cleaned up. Berlin looks beautiful in the summer; it’s time to get people there.

I know there are empty buildings and storefronts. Very soon JC Penney will join them. But the city has to work with what it has, and with Tony’s Pizza open, the Tea Bird’s Cafe sign up (as well as NCIA’s), WREN and SaVoir Flare in and running and Rumorz still open for business things are on the upswing. Now is the time to get behind things, time to really get them going. Now is the moment to capitalize on the fantastic layout of the city, it’s walkability, the treasure that is Tondreau Park, the beautiful architecture and all that makes Berlin special. This may be the best moment the city has to start something new, so it better not let things pass it by.

Just remember: “bounty.” The attitude needs to change inside the city, but it needs to change outside as well. “The Bounty of Berlin” should be the new catchphrase for everyone who talks about the city. It’s time to change some minds. It’s time to keep this ball rolling.

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Father’s Day

I went to visit my family last weekend for Father’s Day, and I planned a little adventure with my dad I heard about on NPR while driving home from work on Friday. Check it out:

It took 30 balloons, a digital camera that shoots video and a kite string. My dad taught science for a few years and loves tech projects so I knew he’d love it. It was a fun adventure and video project, much better than buying him a tie or tools.

Going Deeper…

I was doing some research into PSNH’s new PUC docket, and I realized something I knew all along: no one is willing to go deep. Or maybe no one has the capacity to go deep. Or the resources. I did my CPD/PSNH story for NHPR last week, and several people commented it didn’t get deep enough. I totally agree. Unfortunately NHPR doesn’t have the resources to devote half an hour to such a story. (I’m not sure NHPR listeners have the patience to listen to a half-hour version of it either.)

But there is always more. As I wrote the script I knew there was more, and as the news editor cut it down and revised it to fit the time slot I knew I was going to get to say less.

But what’s the solution? PSNH already gives significantly to NHPR, and so do New Hampshire residents (read: rate payers). Interest groups are contributing what they can. Which one should we ask to give more to allow for more depth in reporting that affects them? And what implications would that have on the stories? (The host read a PSNH underwriting tag about 10 minutes before my story aired on Wednesday night. I had to laugh when I heard it—nice coincidence.)

Norm said something on here about the model for democracy being broken. I don’t agree; I agree with the Winston Churchill quote more: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

The same can be said for journalism. It isn’t perfect. In fact, someone at the IGA on Monday told me they can’t believe how bad the paper is (they were talking about the daily). I wish I knew a better answer. I wish there was a way to allow people to take part in democracy, to get engaged in the debates, that didn’t neglect the depth.

I’ve been trying to figure out how I could change that in Berlin. The fact is being a reporter is more than a full-time job; news doesn’t happen on the 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule. But running after the day’s or the week’s news doesn’t allow for enough context, enough depth, to tell people what they really need to know. It takes those parts that get edited out to really understand what’s going on.

So how do you revive what lays on the cutting room floor? I’m not sure. As a staff of one, freelancing and reporting via cell phone and Internet, it’s tough to see where their is room for expansion. I see the need, but not the market. How do you make it profitable for a paper like the Reporter to reopen an office in Berlin, expand the staff and increase coverage. How do you pay for a three thousand word story about the ins and outs of energy? How do you make that argument to a publisher, who is running the paper as a business, not a philanthropic endeavor?

I don’t know, but I see the need. I recognize the criticism my story got as valid, but I have to take it as criticism of a broken system. I would have loved to add the details, but there simply wasn’t time. How do you make time? That’s the real question.

Or Tonight…

If you were listening to NHPR last night and didn’t hear my PSNH/CPD piece, it isn’t because you weren’t listening intently.

I had a computer meltdown and then a server issue that nearly caused me to throw my computer out the window. The large audio files I was using (new recorder) overwhelmed my editing program, and the final mix had large gaps in the sound. I raced to patch it together in time for All Things Considered last night, but it wasn’t happening.

So it’ll be on tonight. Luckily the only time reference in the story is to Friday, so one day late doesn’t matter.

It’s a shame though—with the limited time I had to tell the story I wasn’t able to get into the meat as much as I would like. It’s the same issue as the paper: stories are money, and companies and organizations only have so much money.

I have the sound, however, to tell the story a little more completely, although it may come out a little closer to 10 minutes (for NHPR it was three). I am thinking about mixing it together and throwing it up here, with more depth.

Anyway, it will be on tonight around 5:45, and then again tomorrow morning. I hope I didn’t mess anyone up by giving them the information a day early. But believe me, no one was more distraught than I.

Budgeting Berlin

The council passed a budget last night that laid off six city employees, all of them teachers. The police department, fire department and public works department all avoided layoffs.

It was a close finish to the most important part of the council’s year. If the council’s goals are the same next year they will face an even more challenging scenario, but they pulled it off this year.

A representative from one of the city employee’s unions told me last night they could have found an additional $300,000 in savings, but after the council rejected the teachers’ proposal no one else wanted to be next. That might be ingredient that enables the city to keep the tax rate flat next year.

$200,000 made it in to take down dilapidated properties the city got through tax deeding, and $200,000 more for street repair. While those are minuscule amounts compared to what the city needs the council is clearly committed to upgrading the city’s aging infrastructure, though it has limited resources.

So if you live in Berlin, your taxes shouldn’t go up and your services shouldn’t go way down. The battles may have left some bad blood (a firefighter spoke last night with some strong words for the council) and class sizes are going to go up, but the fire department isn’t getting any smaller.

Now the city just has to expand its tax base. Easier said than done.

On another note, if you’re looking for an update on the CPD/PSNH dispute listen to NHPR tonight. My story about how some people feel PSNH is deciding Berlin’s future through its control of the energy markets should air around 5:45 p.m. It will have the latest on the easement issue. I talked to a number of councilors about this, but I tried to restrict the voices to those of people in the middle, instead of ardent CPD supporters or opponents. I only had four minutes to explain years, but I think it came out well. Let me know what you think.

A PPA and more

It’s official: PSNH has reached an agreement with Laidlaw Berlin Biopower to buy their power. The PUC still has to approve the PPA to ensure it is in the best interests of the rate payers, but this is a big step toward getting financing for a major generation project for any private developer.

At the same time there are some new roadblocks to CPD’s project, which will be in next week’s paper (Tuesday night meetings vs. weekly paper schedule). Again it involves PSNH. Energy, it again seems, will be a big part of the coming Reporter.

I’m also seeing if I can do an NHPR story on CPD and Laidlaw.

At the end of Wednesday night’s meeting there was a short debate about the mayor’s position on the two plants, as well as those of several other councilors, which didn’t make it into my council story last week. I had to follow up on a major story I’d done two weeks before, and by the end of it I didn’t have room for a new version of on an old argument. Not that the argument is unimportant, but I simply didn’t have room.

In fact, a lot happened on Monday night that didn’t make it into either paper. That’s how it always happens. There just isn’t enough space dedicated to news to capture all that goes on at those meetings. Those decisions are made by publishers, but reporters, editors and citizens have to live with it.

It makes me wonder about all mediated messages. It’s impossible to follow all that’s going on, but it is imperative residents stay informed. The media doesn’t have room for all of it, but unfortunately in Berlin there is seldom any other account of events. When Mayor Grenier asked for public comment on Monday night at the start and end of the meeting the only person in the audience was Bobby Haggart. There funny looks from councilors who recognized the absurdity of the moment.

Thus my version of what happened, and that of the daily’s reporter (both inevitably incomplete), make up the story of Monday night’s meeting. The councilors also have their opinions of the discussion, but their views reflect their politics. Residents don’t have access to a complete, unbiased view of the meeting. A few more first hand accounts would be phenomenal.

(Some people would say the meeting minutes provide this, but I assure you they are incomplete; not in content, perhaps, but in emotion. The debates often involve backstory and personnel interactions that the secretary doesn’t write down. It’s like reading a script versus watching a movie—one doesn’t compare to the other.)

People come out for issues, but not to ensure their city is run to their liking. For day to day decisions, often only the reporters (and Mr. Haggart) are watching. And there just isn’t enough newsprint available to capture it all.

Do you ever notice the daily has three stories on Wednesday about what happened on Monday? They could do more, too, if they had a bigger news hole. It’s amazing how much goes on in the evenings at city hall, and how few residents are engaged.

But then again, maybe the silence is approval. The budget hearing last month was much quieter than I’d expected, considering teachers, cops, public works employees and firefighters are all getting laid off. Maybe Berlin is OK with that. Maybe even thought the papers can’t get the word out people are confident the politicians are doing a fine job. Aside from the occasional street name change perhaps everyone is happy.

That seems like a stretch. I’ve talked to many people who don’t like what’s going on there, but then I never see them at public comment times. Everyone who cares about the city must know the papers do not have the space to answer all the pressing questions, and residents have to take a keen interest if they want to see Berlin thrive. The best stories develop largely through interactions with residents and seeing what people care, often at these meetings. Media doesn’t act alone. It takes engaged citizens to generate engaging reporting. And it isn’t enough to just read the stories. People need to show up.

Egg…

So I went to a couple businesses locally to see how the ATV trail did on opening weekend and over the long weekend, and I realized I misconstrued something in my last post. Every outdoor recreation-focused business in Berlin is in the same chicken or the egg situation, not just those doing “green” activities.

Even the “low hanging fruit” in Berlin is in need of infrastructure. The businesses that cater to ATV riders and snowmobiles are fighting to raise awareness of the opportunities and to expand the number of participants in their markets. Their challenge, like those of every other outdoor-centric business, is that Coös County isn’t known for recreation. They need that reputation to grow in order to be successful.

They are further along, however, with an event coming up and some regional press, but they are early in the process. Everything else is even further behind, but in the last post I made it sound like ATVing was already a sure bet in Berlin. It’s not. It’s still growing and hoping to become an established industry.

But it is growing. It has a future. Now the rest of “outdoor recreation” needs to catch up.