The Length of the Story

I have a hard time expressing everything I see, everything I hear, everything I think is of value. It is almost a physical impossibility to get it all across.

Think about it: my job is to go around and talk to people all week, to find out what is going on in Berlin, and to put it down on paper. How many conversations do I have? And how many come to nothing? Lots, that’s the answer for both.

There is so much there. It is unlike anywhere else I’ve been. There is a sense I get every time I drive north on Route 16 that I’m traveling back in time to an era when neighborhoods where connected. It’s an entirely unfair feeling, since lots of people in Berlin are transient or recent emigres, but it’s what I feel nonetheless.

And every random five minute conversation tells me something more about the city. Every time I stop by the police station is see a small town going through growing pains, and I don’t know how to get that across.

Growing pains—a funny way to refer to it in a city that has lost more than half its population. But that’s what it is. Prior to the pulp mill closing, people didn’t move to Berlin. It was largely left alone to flourish, and only the resilient Berliners had what it took to live beneath the stacks.

But today, with the smell gone and the jobs gone with it, there are lots of reasons to move there. Most of them wind up in people’s pocket at the end of the month, saved from what they would have had to pay in a rental unit downstate.

Berlin is attracting an influx from away, and it isn’t the kind every resident wants. But what kind is the kind every resident wants?

I’ve heard people talk about how the smell from the mill used to be called “tourist repellent.” I grew up on the coast of Maine, so I can understand that sentiment, but I wonder how that impacts today’s environment. I have heard people express their support for ATVers visiting the area, but what happens when a different style of tourist discovers the city?

Berlin is blue-collar, and that’s largely how it wants to stay. The people flocking there now, mostly to take up residence in the slums, are not welcomed by residents. What about the other end of the spectrum? I know that isn’t currently Berlin’s problem, but I do wonder how people would like BMWs, Audis and Volvos clogging the city streets instead of ATVs and lifted four-by-fours.

Those are the things I can’t get across. Those are the feelings, the details, that tell me so much about Berlin, that make it dear to me. It is working class, maybe to the point there is too much class struggle in residents’ identities. But how does that impact them in the 21st century, when the Great North Woods no longer shelter them and no longer provide the economic engine they once did?

I am looking for a way to tell that story. That’s the one that needs to get out.

Busy Weekend

I just got back from the ATV festival, which certainly brought a crowd to the region. Estimates ranged, but I heard as many as 700 people yesterday, 900 today. I’m not sure if that’s accurate, but there were certainly a lot of people enjoying the trails, the mud pit, the demo rides and the helicopter tours.

I also stopped by Mayor Grenier’s house to get an update on the Fraser mill. He’s hoping a plan will move forward that can save the 240 jobs, though the project has hit a snag. I’ve been hearing a lot of rumors that suggest it’s dead in the water, but no definitive proof one way or the other. It’s a big deal, 240 jobs, and hopefully something good will be announced soon.

I saw a post on Facebook this morning about how the farmers’ market is the only bright spot in Berlin’s otherwise bleak economic picture. It was from a local merchant, who said she’d seen too many $0 days. She implored residents to shop local, to support Main Street businesses so they don’t all go the way of JC Penney. That heartfelt plea is ubiquitous, but it seems to fall on deaf ears. Walmart never has a lack of customers, even when Main Street does. But it is encouraging what impact an event like market can have. It livens the downtown and brings people out in a way no other Berlin event I’ve seen does. Too many events are after closing time, so people can’t go in and support local merchants.

But what a distance a little ingenuity goes. How much could WREN have spent on this project? I’m sure not much. And yet it has an impact. Thank goodness they took the plunge, but why does it take a group from away to make these things happen. There is creativity and spirit in Berlin. The city just has to figure out how to put it to work.

I’m about to launch into a bit of writing for this week’s paper, but I wanted to post some images from the weekend. I went to the coast of Maine to visit my wife’s family, and when we left we happened upon a fantastic sunset.

Not bad, although it’s no sunset in the mountains.


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.

One Less Trail

The Bureau of Trails announced last week they will not turn a section the Presidential Rail Trial, or PRT, into an ATV trail for now. The announcement caused an audible sigh of relief in Randolph, where residents organized to protest the proposal. The proposal didn’t include opening up the PRT beyond Jimtown Road in Gorham, but Randolph residents said they were concerned riders would continue beyond the legal boundary. Many said they already do.
The clear divisions about this issue, depending on where people live, make for an interesting picture of the challenges that will face the North Country in the future.
In November Berlin opened city streets to ATVs, and there was a lot of celebration that this effort finally bore fruit. A few months later Randolph residents celebrated with a similar enthusiasm, but their’s was because they succeeded in keeping the trails closed to ATVs. What a difference 10 miles makes.
Residents consider the North Country a region, but in the typical New Hampshire sense—not united enough to impinge anyone’s freedoms. Protecting all those individual freedoms, however, has it’s communal costs, which the region has experienced for decades.

I used to work at an ambulance service as an EMT. The bulk of the community we covered was two towns geographically comparable to Berlin and Gorham. There was a distinct distrust between the two towns I could never understand, to the point where fire departments were reluctant to call each other for aid. The ambulance and school systems were integrated, but not the fire or water department, and I could never understand why. I was 19 or 20 at the time, but even then it seemed more was wasted than gained in such a rivalry. Memories that went back further than mine seemed convinced this was the only way to do things; I was never so sure.
Someone told me Berlin/Gorham is in many ways more attached to Maine than New Hampshire. The mountains formed a barrier, they said, and the river acted as a highway when the communities were young. The Lewiston Sun Journal used to report heavily on what happened in Berlin/Gorham some time ago, backing up that claim. It makes sense: as you go north from Brunswick along the Androscoggin you hit mill town after mill town. Berlin would have been one more along the line.
I grew up in Maine and went to college there, though I’ve lived in the Conway area for the last seven years. The differences between the two states are pretty stark, and so understanding which had more influence on the region is critical to understand how to attack the problems facing it. New Hampshire is about the individual. Live free or die does not imply disparate communities banding together, impinging upon their individual freedoms, for the common good. The mill mentality, however, and the isolation Berlin has endured for a century, have always stuck me as much more willing to pull together for the good of the community. Someone told me in an isolated region like Berlin you don’t have the privileged of ignoring your neighbor, so you learn how to get along.
But how far does that extend? Driving from Lancaster to Errol makes it hard to consider Coös County a cohesive unit. The distances aren’t huge, but the terrain is, and all of the sudden lumping solutions into one big initiative becomes daunting.
But the alternative is for many communities to fend for themselves. Groveton and Errol don’t have many of the assets the Berlin/Gorham corridor has; what will become of them if such efforts are abandoned?
But what is most troubling is the inability for communities minutes apart to reach a consensus on what they are going to do to survive. Berlin, Gorham, Randolph, Shelburne, Milan and Dummer are a region unto themselves. They are the Androscoggin Valley, and what ensures the survival of one ensures the survival of them all. The socioeconomic disparities may convince some people they can divest themselves of this connection, but as Randolph residents are learning with the closure of the Gorham Rite Aid and Shaws, even if their community isn’t in decline the ramifications of the valley as a whole affects them. For wealthy residents it means they have to travel to Berlin or Lancaster to fulfill their prescriptions; for poorer residents it might mean they lose their job.

Berlin, Gorham, Randolph, Shelburne, Milan and Dummer don’t have to agree on everything. ATVs are clearly more divisive in some communities than others, and it wouldn’t be in anyone’s best interests to shove a solution down an adjacent community’s throat. But the Androscoggin Valley has to unify enough to approach the problems it faces head on, with every municipality on board. The future of the Gorham mill, with it’s 200 plus jobs, is uncertain, and the region can ill afford to let the petty differences derail their future for the next century.

Good Press

I was driving around today and heard the newscast on NHPR mention the ATV trail opening tomorrow. In fact, I heard them mention it two different times. Residents of Berlin notice when statewide media report the fires that happen all too often in town. It’s worth pointing out when they are covering the good things as well. While it is usually WMUR people mention when they talk about this phenomenon, they aren’t the only media outlet in the state. Berlin needs to fight the image battle in whatever way they can.

Weather looks good for tomorrow. I’ll be up to cover the opening ceremonies. Hopefully some other media outlets will as well.

Update: I just took a look online, it looks like the story made it out on the AP wire. That’s a good sign people will show up. Heck with statewide media, that’s nationwide.

And I’ve noticed the war has broken out on here about CPD, PSNH and Laidlaw. Wow. Impressive. I’m still waiting to get the official transcript to get a clearer picture of what happened on Tuesday, but I’ve had a few good conversations about the issue. I don’t really worry, however about what people think any of it means. In the end the PUC will likely decide exactly what it means.
I received some vitriolic responses to my posting the report I got. As I’ve said before LPJ isn’t the news outlet I work for. I don’t print rumors in the paper. (I did, however, put Rumorz in the paper.) On LPJ I post whatever I like, including things I haven’t researched. In any such post I’ll point that out, but if you go through and read my posts and think its all news it’s you who has experienced a failure in judgment. In fact I’ve never claimed this site to be a replacement for the paper; it’s something I do for fun people interested in Berlin frequent to supplement their experience with the city. If you don’t like it feel free to direct your browser elsewhere. If you enjoy the discussion, feel free to contribute.
The debate about this one issue is so funny to me. The same day I posted the PUC comments I posted about a building collapsing on Mason Street. I thought it might have been part of the housing initiative effort. I tweeted congratulations to Andre Caron for taking down another one. I was wrong. The building collapsed due to a clogged roof drain, and it was torn down unexpectedly on the fire chiefs orders. I updated the information as I learned it, and no one complained I was shirking my journalistic duties.
Then I post a report I got about the hearings, clearly including the fact that the report is unsubstantiated in the post. Almost immediately get a comment from Laidlaw CEO Michael Bartoszek commenting about my “bad journalism.”
Bad journalism? Really? Which one of my stories in the Reporter was biased? I once was accused of bias because of the questions I asked someone I was interviewing. Really? Bias? Which one of my stories in the Reporter was biased? I don’t think people making these accusations understand what they are talking about when it comes to bias and bad journalism—I’d have to put it in the paper for those terms to apply.

I imagine Mr. Bartoszek is trying to protect his company’s reputation among investors, which commonly check out LPJ. I fully encourage him to tell his side of the story, either on here or anywhere else. And maybe if everyone understands the roll of this site it will relieve me of having to address accusations of bias or bad journalism. If you are coming to LPJ for the news you’re in the wrong spot—check out the Berlin Reporter if that’s what you’re looking for. If you are interested in hearing one more perspective on a dynamic city in the midst of change, that’s what this site is about. I have never billed it as a news site, or as a replacement for either the Reporter or the daily paper. If you want to add to the conversation, I’d love to hear your view. If you want to bitch about my trust fund (Huge. Really.) grow up and learn to read a newspaper.

By the way, I do have an opinion about events in Berlin. It would be impossible to spend as much time there as I do and not. I am not convinced biomass in the center of the city would kill it’s viability as a recreation destination. In fact, I think Berlin could cash in on green energy to improve its image, whether that is on the fringe of the city or in the center.
I don’t know if there is enough wood to support the two plants, but I don’t know there isn’t. Many experts aren’t sure, so I don’t write off the project because of that.
I think CPD does a good job of holding the city’s hand through a process that is often confusing and complex. Bill Gabler comes to Berlin almost daily and is happy to explain what CPD is doing every step of the way. Laidlaw could learn a lot from CPD’s approach. In northern New Hampshire having a face attached to a company goes a long way. Lou Bravakis seems like a great guy, and if he were in the community to the same extent as Mr. Gabler it would alleviate a lot of residents’ concerns.
Laidlaw could remove many of the hurdles in front of them if it wished. They could remove them because they erected them.
I am not, like many people who post comments here, dead set against the project. I think if Laidlaw were to approach Berlin with a bit more transparency, with a better recognition that this is a serious issue for a small city used to getting screwed by industrial interests, they could bring many opponents to their side.
It’s like Laidlaw doesn’t recognize Berlin has been scarred in the past. The city is like an abused child, both angry and scared by people approaching it and likely to lash out. It takes deliberate, cautious movements to move forward in Berlin and not raise the ire of residents. CPD has done that well. Laidlaw could follow suit.
They could easily fix their PR problem with a little heavy hand-holding, instead of another press release. Explain what happened in Ellicottville. Show up to city council meetings. Agree to provide a small percentage each year for community giving (it will likely reduce your taxes anyway). Talk about wood and workers and location like they are something other than statistics. In Berlin that mill site is precious. Some people hate it, others love it, but for everyone it is central to their identity. The people of Berlin, as Councilor Ryan Landry said, are more comfortable when that stack is puffing smoke. Don’t try to elbow your way in, Laidlaw; show people what you’re doing so they have confidence in you.
I don’t think Laidlaw recognizes how closely their project treads to the soul of the city. If they did maybe from the start they would have taken a different approach. Of course they want to make money, but I imagine they also want to be part of the community they are located in. They haven’t done a good job integrating thus far, but I believe that can change. All it would take is a little effort.

Berlin in the News

And no, it has nothing to do with fires. Or the election, Laidlaw, CPD or anything else particularly controversial.

Here’s the ATV story I did for NHPR. I put it to some photos I had, though only one of them is actually from reporting the story. Blogger doesn’t just let me upload MP3s to the site, so I had to make it a movie. Enjoy!

Update: Here’s a link to the story on NHPR. The transcript mixes up east and west, but I caught it while recording it and got it right for the story.

Update: Here’s the video organizers shot of taking the trail through town. It’s about four and a half miles, and it takes about 15 minutes. It will open Saturday.


I got my script approved for my Berlin ATV story. Going to record it tomorrow and send it to them. It should play sometime near the end of the week. Working to fill the rest of the state in on what’s going down up in Berlin.

So donate to NHPR—maybe a small part of that donation will come back to me.

Update: Just finished mixing the final audio and uploading to NHPR’s server. I’ll try to keep people posted as to when it airs, but often I get a call half an hour before hand telling me to listen in. Usually they play around 5:45 p.m. and then 7:15 a.m the next day. I would expect it either today, tomorrow or Friday, so make sure to listen.

After it plays I’ll be sure to include a link here for anyone who misses it.

Update: The story aired tonight at 5:45-ish. Let me know if you heard it. I caught it, and a friend who owns a house in Berlin gave me a call about it. It will also be on tomorrow morning. I’ll do a fresh post with the story shortly and a link, but I don’t want to try to overshadow the debate video with good press about Berlin. I pitched it with a Berlin versus it’s past perspective, so there isn’t a lot of controversy about the trail in the story. The fact is at all the public hearings and discussions about the trail I only heard one person opposed to it. So I think it’s a pretty accurate reflection of the situation. I hope you get to hear it.

Gorham vs. Berlin vs. Randolph

I skipped the Berlin city council this evening to attend a public hearing in Gorham about expanding ATV trail usage to include some of the rails to trails land in Gorham, creating a corridor to Success. The conversation got heated at times as Randolph residents and several Gorham residents voiced their opposition to ATVs sharing the multi-use trails.
I couldn’t help but laugh watching the two camps, with divisions that go far beyond their preferred method of motorized or non-motorized recreation. It was a civics lesson but also an economics lesson. It was also a discussion Berlin should be watching.
Advocates for the plan want Jericho to connect to Success via Gorham, because they see potential for economic benefit in Gorham. They are betting a direct trail from Gorham will keep the ATVers sleeping and eating in Gorham, even if the Berlin allows ATVs on city streets.
If the infrastructure is already in Gorham and that trail opens, what will be the incentive to open a hotel or restaurant in Berlin? What will be the incentive to stay or eat in Berlin? Maybe there will be so many ATVers that the region will have to build excess capacity, but if not Gorham certainly has less to do to make itself the next ATV destination: it merely has to open a trail. Berlin has to build a tourist infrastructure, and that could take years instead of days.
But then there are the Randolph residents. I didn’t see one under 40, and they were not ATV riders. They talked about hiking and biking and snowshoeing and skiing, about how wonderful it is to hear the snow melt off trees on a winter’s day, and about how much they detest ATVs and snowmobiles noise. They were worried the trail might one day continue west from Gorham along the rail to trail property on U.S. Route 2, and they have been circulating emails for more than a week discussing how they can protect against such development. They have contacted representatives and senators and the executive council, and they have been amassing supporting organizations to their corner.
They were a different people talking a different language.
It goes back to the conversation I was having before, about seeing the other person’s perspective. The ATVers in the room didn’t have any appreciation for the fact that ATVs are annoying to people who don’t ride ATVs, and the non-ATVers didn’t have any appreciation for the fact that ATVers have a right to ride. Everyone just complained about the other side, while I tried not to laugh. (I feel comfortable laughing in Berlin council meetings—I know everyone there pretty well now—but this was Gorham, where I don’t know anyone.)

Berlin has something unique on this front: a lack of naysayers. In the months I’ve been covering the ATV issue I’ve heard one person speak out against it. In Gorham tonight there were 25 people that spoke against it, and 50 people came to the meeting. The room only had seats for 40, so people were standing against the walls and crammed in the doorway. It is a different issue in Gorham than it is in Berlin—the contingent of hikers and cyclists is larger there, and their perspective might make this a fight. One woman put it well, saying ATVing and other sports don’t go together well. They don’t have to be separated, she said, but it helps. In Berlin, it isn’t much work to separate the two, because there aren’t people doing other things. In Gorham, it’s much more an issue, and something that will likely inspire more debate. Randolph is like Berlin, but only the other side of the issue, so again there isn’t really a fight.

Berlin and Gorham may soon be competing for the ATV dollars, and Gorham has a head start. The ATV park may be in Berlin, but there aren’t lots of places there to spend your money if you come up for the weekend, and that will take time to change. In the meantime Gorham might take the thunder out of Berlin’s efforts to become the ATV capital of the state, simply by opening a trail.

One final thought: some people (including Chris Gamache from the Bureau of Trails) spoke of regionalization. I’ve heard that term a lot lately, from talking about schools to local government to economic development. But then, back at each town hall and city council chambers, I hear councilors and selectmen talking about how they want the businesses in their town to benefit, that they don’t care about the community down the road. The Grand Hotels, Grand Adventures initiative argues the region doesn’t have a critical mass to draw people in any one town, but as a region they do. But the region isn’t a region; it’s like Afghanistan or Africa—carved out of a map by people disconnected from its past, its future, its economy and its people. Gorham doesn’t like to be associated with Berlin, and Berlin resents Gorham’s success. No one there talks to Lancaster or Errol, and Colebrook is off by itself. Grand Hotels, Grand Adventures is an effort to make this appear a cohesive unit outside Coös County, but there is no effort to make it a cohesive unit within Coös County. It would be a shame if Gorham scoops the ATVers away from Berlin, if for no other reason than it will heighten the animosity between the two. The two communities will continue fighting each other, instead of cooperating to make each other stronger.
Mayor David Bertrand said in an interview today the current council thinks outside the box, something past Berlin city councils haven’t done. But when it comes to regionalism, this council is in step with past councils. Provincialism runs deep, and it seems to be a box the region can’t find its way out of. In a city and a region searching for useful answers to complex questions, it’s a shame to see so much animosity directed at people stuck in the same boat.