Facebook Questions

I posted video of the wall on Main Street coming down yesterday to the Berlin Reporter’s Facebook page. I thought people would be happy to see it coming down, but the comments were mixed. One person said they should start at one end of Main Street and continue to the other, and then go down Western Avenue.
I spent yesterday going in and talking to several of the store owners on Main Street about the Roger Brooks visit last week, and every one of them was positive about the outlook. They came out of that meeting with a real optimism. They didn’t share any of the Facebook community’s hard-edged views.
Berlin’s biggest battle is convincing the world it isn’t a dead city. It doesn’t need to work to draw people in, because if the stigma is gone they will come on their own. The Reporter’s Facebook page has fans from around the country—I would imagine they are Berliners who fled years ago. It’s interesting to see how their opinions about the community compare with mine. Theirs is a long view of Berlin’s history without the most recent context, and mine is the recent events without the baggage. The more time I spend there the more I find Berlin values its heritage and its history, even to the point it hurts the economy.
Roger Brooks made a comment that communities can’t hang their hats on their history when it comes to tourism. Berlin built an entire park to its past. Northern Forest Heritage Park is a symbol of pride but not a big tourist attraction.
Councilor David Poulin offered to buy all the paper featuring the city seal at the council meeting on Monday. Some people see the council’s decision to change it as an affront to the city’s history. In a place where everyone examines the past with such scrutiny, it’s hard to plot a course forward with confidence.

It is hard for people to move past what they know. Norm Charest is often saying the city needs to be looking for the next economy. But the city also has to keep from loosing what is valuable. Berlin isn’t the type of city where people become lost in the crowd. People greet each other by name, and they remember what street you live on and whether you were born there. As someone said to me yesterday, who is the most-loved person in Berlin? Bobbie Haggart. That kind of community is something residents don’t ever what to lose, and for good reason.
That is the image of the city Berlin needs to get out there. That is the city people need to be reminded of. It happened before, when the building collapsed on Mason and Pleasant Streets, that I noticed the perspective the rest of the state views Berlin through. I’m not sure how to fight that, but you have to.

I’m starting to understand why residents get so frustrated with the rest of the state. I posted that video yesterday thinking it was good news, which is how most people from Berlin feel, but the outside perspective twists that around and turns it against the city.
Berlin needs an action plan—a way to combat that negative perspective. Complaining about it doesn’t change anything, so the city needs to figure out what does. Maybe an NHPR underwriting campaign that says, “Berlin, New Hampshire: It’s not what you think.” Maybe Stacia Roberge’s idea about sending out odorless car fresheners labeled “Berlin, NH.”

The problem isn’t Berlin, it’s the Berlin in their heads. The Berlin I go to cares about community and the people in it. It is the type of place where people look out for one another. It is the kind of place people should love. That idea, however, hasn’t permeated the state. It is still recoiling from the old Berlin. I wonder just what the steps are to change that, and how the city can take the first one.

Just Grand

Roger Brooks has been in town talking about what Coös County needs to do to become a destination community. I sat in on the meeting at WMCC and was entertained and impressed. I did get the impression if he told some members of the community to jump off the Tondreau Peninsula, they would, but his ideas had merit.
One I liked in particular was the idea of a recessed piazza with sprinklers. In the summer it would be an attraction for families, and therefore businesses. It could also double as a performance venue or a space for art shows. And in the winter you could flood it and make a skating rink, he said, a la Rockefeller Center.
It could take the space of one of the vacant spaces in town. It could be a great addition to the community.
I was sitting right in front of several members of Berlin city staff at the meeting, and they were skeptical of some of the ideas floated by people. The encouraging thing was that Mr. Brooks shot down those ideas. His experience paralleled the experience of Berlin city staff. It seems everyone who knows how to run a city is on the same page.
He talked about making Berlin the urban center of Coös County. Other communities have their niches, he said, but none has the ability to be an urban center like Berlin.
So what would you like to see there? A music venue? Coffee shop? Performance space? I liked Robbie Munce’s wireless downtown.
It takes five years, at least, to transform a downtown, Mr. Brooks said. Good thing Berlin has already started.

By the way, I assume everyone knows, the wall is coming down brick by brick at 92 Main St. The city is on the rise.

Berlin, Berlin and Istanbul

A lot of my time in Berlin is spent in the car since the Reporter has no dedicated office here. As a result I listen to a lot of NHPR. Today the news was consistently about Berlin, Germany, and the fall of the Berlin wall. The wall fell twenty years ago today (I was eight), but it still affects the people who lived through the transition.
I can’t remember the exact quote, but the NPR newscaster paraphrased Secretary of State Hillary Clinton saying Berlin has to remember its past while pursuing a new future.
The debates that have raged lately in Berlin, N.H., have carried the same rhetoric. I spoke to Paul Grenier last night about the election, and he said one of the things motivated him most was the council’s decision to change the city seal. He said in the past that the seal was a tie to the city’s heritage, and the council disrespected that heritage when they voted to change it.
David Bertrand argued the council was not disrespecting the city’s past but instead was looking to the city’s future. The stack on the city seal was a reminder of the old Berlin, and this administration is one looking to create the new Berlin.
Remember your past while pursuing a new future. What does that mean? How carefully do you have to tread on the past to keep from desecrating it? What should be the litmus test for “progress,” and how much of a loss of heritage is acceptable?
There is bound to be change. On another program today, I heard a story about in Istanbul how middle class people are displacing the poor. They are moving into the city and taking over neighborhoods, pushing out people who have lived there all their lives. The picture of progress is good for some, but for others represents the loss of the community they knew.
Berlin is launching into a balancing act. It needs to embrace change, because the economic base the city relied on for a century isn’t coming back, and it also needs to remember its heritage to a sufficient degree that residents don’t get offended. History can become a problem when too much pride is attached to it, but at the same time it shouldn’t be dropped without consideration. Add to this that many residents are reluctant to face the challenging times they live in, as evidenced by the recent election, and elected officials will have to tread carefully.
Mr. Grenier drew an ominous picture of the Berlin economy, one that I think ignores many positives, but the picture connected with many residents. They, like him, may pine for when the mill was spewing yellow dust on the city and there were more jobs that there were working adults. Those residents may be tough to bring into a discussion about the changing economy, and they may not be open to changing the image of a city they grew up in.
How do you preserve a community that is wasting away? What changes do you make? The people who stay behind might be the most stubborn ones; how do you get them on board with those changes?
These questions, I think, are why the election went the way it did. The current council was proactive, and they worked with a long-range plan in mind. There isn’t much they could do about the world economy, but they suffered the consequences nonetheless.
They got caught off kilter on this tenuous path of heritage, future and change, at least according to the voters. I’m not sure what sticking to the path looks like, because my heritage is much different than Berlin’s. I am interested to see what the new council brings to the table, and how the electorate responds to their attempt to walk the line. They gave Mr. Bertrand two years to fulfill his promises, and when they weren’t to voters’ expectations they tossed him out. Mr. Grenier needs to deliver jobs in his two years, or he’ll face the same fate. Two years is not a lot of time to affect change in municipal government; I’ll be interested the see how he does.

Berlin is like a thousand communities around the country and around the world, all trying to find the right path forward. I hear fiery election rhetoric and read the online mudslinging and I get pessimistic, but then I take a ride into the city. I talk to people on the streets and in the businesses, and I watch the progress every day. It brings back my confidence for the future. Berlin too alive to pin down. It has too much passion and too many people who care to continue to wane. I realize the debates online and in city hall are between people for whom the city drives them. They will continue to boil over, and in so doing they will restore life to Berlin. That ride into the city is a rejuvenating experience for me, a validating one. It reminds me of why I love to report from Berlin, and what I know its future can be. I know not everyone sees it, but its there. Just walk downtown and you’ll see.

Bringing It In

Last weekend Brad White, the owner of International Mountain Climbing School in North Conway, guided a rock climbing client on Mount Forist, perhaps the first use of city’s resource in such a way. They climbed three routes, and it was the first time the client had ever been to Berlin. Mr. White told me she loved the entire experience.
Mr. White went to Mount Forist after hearing from an employee how good the climbing was up there, and that employee heard about it from me.
Mr. White approached me on Friday to ask if I knew who owned Mount Forist and whether there would be a problem if he put new routes on the cliff. I told him I thought it would be fine, since several city councils have expressed interest in making the cliff a climbing destination, and since I’d climbed up there with out any problems. If anything arose, I said, he’d at least have some supporters in his corner. He said good, because he’d like to go up there to establish more climbs.

It’s a good story, right? Something positive for the city? Climbing as a tool for opening up Berlin to new blood, a new industry inline with 21/21.

Maybe, but I see it as something more: it is a call to action for the city. It’s time to stop relying on random outsiders (me) to talk up Berlin, and it’s time for the city to take its future into its own hands.
Berlin has changed in the decade since the mill closed. I was never here to see it before, but lots of people were. Those people are still perpetuating an image of the city from that time.
Mr. White has been climbing in the area for 20 years, and he has owned IMCS for 10. He said he thinks Mount Forist will make a perfect beginner cliff, something that’s lacking around New England. He wants to develop it, guide on it, expose new people to the area. He wants to do what 21/21 wants to do, and he’s a guy with the connections to do it. Why did it take this long to get him up to Berlin? Because there is no indication in North Conway, just an hour away, that Berlin is any different than it was a decade ago. And if it takes 10 years to change opinions an hour away, I hate to think how long it’ll take to change people’s minds in Boston.

What about a bunch of posters at rest stops that say, Berlin, New Hampshire: It’s not what you think, with a photo of the river south of East Mason Street at sunrise? Or a view of the snow-covered mountains? Or of a climber on Mount Forist? Or a canoe on the Androscoggin? Would it really be so hard to make people question what they think they know about the city? Isn’t it obvious those opinions keep people away?

I’ve heard enough griping about how WMUR and other statewide media portray Berlin. “They don’t cover us unless we have a fire,” someone told me the other day. So? Is the city really a slave to some ABC affiliate? Is there really no other way to reach people?
What does it take to change a mind? I don’t know, but it will never happen unless someone challenging the inaccurate assumption.

There is a documentary project about Berlin in the works, and a few movies being aired in different places about the city, but the city lacks a concerted effort to change people’s minds. Who is going to trumpet the good in the city? Who will make it their full-time job? Changing those opinions takes work, but for 21/21 to work it has to happen.

The local outdoor communities are the next low-hanging fruit. There are hundreds of climbers every weekend who come to North Conway. Many are beginners who stand in line for the same crowded routes they climbed last weekend. Every one of them could be exposed to the new Berlin, but it will take an effort the city isn’t accustomed to.
First, you need the climbs to be there. That takes the New Hampshire climbing community shedding its bias against Berlin, and coming up to develop new routes. Will they shed that bias without a push from the city? Maybe. But I’ve heard Berlin is trying to be more proactive, instead of waiting for things to happen to it as it did in the past. Here is a great opportunity to prove it — figure out how to get those people up there putting in more routes. (Want suggestions? Just ask.)
Then, once the cliff is developed, go on neclimbs.com and start posting pictures of people on the rock, the routes and the beautiful view of Success and the Mahoosucs from the cliff. Appeal to the climbing community with a new, well-developed cliff and they will come.
And then wait for the season to change. I can’t tell you now if Mount Forist is worth ice climbing, but I can come January. Then do the same thing on neice.com.

I don’t have a solution for Berlin’s troubles, but that’s because there isn’t one. One solution was the 20th century model for doing things in Berlin, with one employer supporting the entire economy. Now the city is looking for strength in diversity. ATVs seem to be taking off. I am offering a lead on how to revitalize the area through outdoor recreation. These are the makings of the broad-based economy Berlin has been looking for. Who is going to follow up on this lead? Who is going to make it happen? Change some minds. Remake Berlin.

Berlin, New Hampshire: It’s not what you think.

Crazy Video

I found this on Twitter, and I thought it was incredible. Crazy, but incredible.

It was rejected by the World Wildlife Fund. It certainly gets the message across.

I’ve got an actual LPJ post to write this afternoon/evening, but I’ve got to get some work done first. I just thought this was crazy.

Update: NY Times did some reporting on the video and its history.

Strained Responses

Marketing, people, I’m talking about marketing!
I know there are people who are passionate about Laidlaw, one way or the other. I agree it is a big issue, and both Berlin papers have done a miserable job reporting on it. I intend to change that. I want to find out more about the company, about its history, about North American Dismantling, and about every aspect of biomass as it affects the citizens of Berlin.
Will bringing Laidlaw to the area solve all Berlin’s problems? No. Will keeping Laidlaw from opening in the area solve all Berlin’s problems? No.
Stop trying to make the story of Berlin the story of Laidlaw. It isn’t; it is only one part. I intend to use this blog to discuss all the issues I see as pertenant. Anyone who would like to join in the discussion is welcome.
Nancy Clark, owner of the Glen Group, a marketing company in North Conway hired to market the North Country, said she doesn’t see the boiler as that big an issue, whether it’s making electricity or rusting away. There are bigger issues to deal with than this. Even if North American Dismantling conspired with Laidlaw to sell them the boiler so PSNH can buy a biomass plant in five years that isn’t the biggest issue in Berlin. It isn’t the thing that will cause the city to fail or allow it to succeed.
Norm Charest said Berlin doesn’t have anything to market. He said the blight has to go before it is worth it. I completely disagree. I think Mr. Charest is afflicted with the same disease everyone else that has stared at the boiler too long suffers from: blindness. Or call it a lack of vision. There are business people moving here. They see opportunity. Burned out buildings will keep some people away — people looking for a sure thing. But that doesn’t mean they will keep everyone away.
People in search of a guaranteed investment will not come to Berlin. The city can’t offer a 10 percent rate of return. But people like Curt Burke are willing to invest millions of dollars in the area. Is he crazy? Or does he see something?
Coupled with Tim Cayer, Katie Paine, and Tom Bendah, that makes a spark. As Berlin knows, it only takes a spark to start a fire.
People are moving to the area. I have been profiling businesses for more than a month of people from here and from away who want to live in Berlin. It can draw. Why does even Mr. Charest refuse to see that?
I worry when the economic development director has lost faith in the city. But in this case I don’t worry for Berlin. The city does not have its plans in order to attract people. It is not doing a good job at marketing. But people are coming. The efforts of the state, which have failed Berlin for years, appear to be one of the few efforts citizens can count on. And yet people come.
Dick Huot, manager of Northern Forest Heritage Park, got a Maine television program to profile St. Kieran Community Center for the Arts, Northern Forest Heritage Park, Gorham Moose Tours and Jericho Mountain State Park. Where are other efforts like this? If the opinion is the area is too blighted and burned out to market, than this would be folly. Guess what? It isn’t folly. It is exactly what the city should be doing, the economic development director should be doing, and every private business in the area should be doing. The chamber of commerce, of which Mr. Huot is a member, should be working as hard as possible to get these images of the city out there.
Take a look at this video. Is it really so hard to imagine these pictures can’t bring people to the area? Is there really so much blight this sort of effort is futile?
I don’t think so, and so I don’t want to see a valid discussion about marketing turned into a debate about biomass.
Want to talk about Laidlaw? Fine, but don’t try to drown out other pertinent discussions with your personal obsession, at least not on this blog. I, as the local newspaper reporter, am working to improve every aspect of Berlin and the surrounding towns. That means I will be covering dozens of issues, and one issue cannot take all the oxygen out of the room, extinguishing all other conversation. So please, open up a little, and care about more in Berlin than just one issue. It does not all come back to Laidlaw. It used to all come back to the mill. Those days are over; help me determine what comes next.

And one more thing: instead of asking, “What is the state going to do to market the area?” when I say, “You can read about it in next week’s Berlin Reporter,” pick up a copy of the paper. Don’t ask me to tell you what I’m reporting on for free. You can buy 40 hours worth of my work for 50 cents — that’s cheap enough.

More on Marketing: Relying on the State

New Hampshire Department of Resources and Economic Development has hired a North Conway company, the Glen Group, to do marketing for the North Country. Part of the plan is to throw an event at Jericho Mountain State Park. Mayor David Bertrand said previous councils relied on the state to market Berlin, and the results didn’t do much for Berlin. Is this one more example of the same?
Chris Gamache from New Hampshire Trails said if a campground wasn’t completed by the time of the event next July they would route people down the railroad bed to Moose Brook State Park in Gorham. Councilor Ryan Landry spoke up and said the council would rather keep the people in Berlin. But Berlin’s hopes aren’t the issue at the top of the state’s list. Councilor Landry said he wanted to keep people in the city; is DRED and NH Trails working to further those goals, or to promote the state park for the state park’s sake?
The city needs to continue working on its own to change people’s minds. Mayor Bertrand was correct: the city in the past relied too heavily on the state. They don’t want to do that again this time.
I’ll be talking with the Glen Group, Chris Gamache and DRED to find out more about this proposition; look for it in next week’s Berlin Reporter. Hopefully the city will not rely on these organizations’ efforts alone. The city recognized the 21/21 initiative as something they should embrace to move forward, but when it came to marketing the talk got fuzzy. Who in the city is going to make sure that doesn’t once again fall to the wayside? If everything changes and the city is renewed, but no one comes because no one knows every business will fail before people’s perception of the city changes. The marketing has to start now, so people will come so the businesses can survive and grow.

Tonight’s Meeting

On the agenda for tonight at Berlin City Council: Economic Development/Promoting Berlin Discussion.
Councilors will be discussing what the city can do to better promote itself. I hope that is a discussion that continues throughout the city. It isn’t something that should just be happening at city hall; the ramifications continue down Main Street, out Route 110, and throughout Coös County.
Hopefully that discussion will spark more of them, and marketing can become the thing residents rally around.

I was discussing marketing today with someone, trying to get some background on Laidlaw, and they pointed out that, from a marketing perspective, an abandoned stack in the middle of town is probably worse than a biomass facility. Who will come up with the money to tear down that stack if it isn’t used? I’m meeting with Mayor David Bertrand in half an hour to ask that question. Laidlaw has become an issue that divides this city, when it needs more than ever to be united. I’d like to find some answers to those questions, to poke holes in all sides of the debate. I can’t see the city spending money to demolish the stack, so how will it ever get better? A tweeter told me Dover declared their stack historic and stuck cell phone antennas on it. Honestly, its the only idea I’ve heard, so right now it sounds like a good one.
I’m coming into this debate, as I said last night, like the last one to a busted up party. But I still think there is a discussion worth having that does not see eye to eye with either side.
Is Laidlaw good? In the sense that it would provide jobs and do something with that stack, yes. Is the company bad, as some insist? I don’t know. I will be looking into that in the near future.
But what about Berlin? What does it do? A couple weeks ago Councilor Ryan Landry said if Laidlaw doesn’t build there someone else will. Likely true. Will it turn off tourists? Councilor Tim Cayer is working to bring ATVers here with a hunk of junk on the mill site. Are they turning away because of the stack? The ones I spoke to at Jericho didn’t care, but of course they are the ones that came. It is hard to determine what the real ramifications of the city’s decisions will be.

I guess that’s my question: If not a biomass facility, then what? Forget Laidlaw. Who will take down that relic? Who is going to pay for it? What is the better alternative?

The city is getting serious about its image, it seems. What will that image be? Councilor David Poulin had the great idea to get the stacks off the city seal. Who is proposing getting the stacks out of the city? How are they going to do it? Who is going to pay for it? Isn’t Clean Power building stacks instead of erasing them? What is this fascination with the old mill site and where has it gotten the city? It’s like an ex-wife the city can’t get over, can’t seem to escape the memories of.

I intend to find some answers, but I’m interested in your response. Laidlaw is just a symptom. I’ll find out about it, but that still doesn’t deal with the pink elephant in the room. Or is it a gray boiler? Whatever.

Even Google Is Against It

I love Google. I use Gmail, Google Maps, Google Docs, Google Calendar, Blogger, all sorts of Google applications. But then, every once in a while I find a reason to hate Google.
Google has a company policy to never be evil, so hopefully they don’t turn into a 21st century Microsoft. I can appreciate that. But then how come when I type Berlin NH into Google Maps, the tag that comes up under Explore this area is a couple photos and Arson charges in Berlin? This is the type of thing that makes me consider Google evil. Come on Google! I’m saying the city needs a marketing campaign, but it’s damn hard to argue with Google, a search engine so ubiquitous its become a verb. This is not the type of coverage the city needs.
I know, it isn’t really Google’s fault, because the map was made by the Union Leader. But wouldn’t it be so much nicer to have a map made by the recreation department, or the city marketer, showing the city’s parks and recreation spots? How about its swimming holes? Or its historic buildings? Its churches? They wouldn’t erase the word arson from showing up on the side of the Google search, but they would at least put the word in context. Berlin isn’t all burned out buildings, but look to Google and that’s what it appears. Who wants to do something about that? Thus far, the answer is no one. That makes it hard to point the blame at Google.