Clash reveals rift over Coos development

Divvying up the money from the huge federal stimulus package is creating a political pig scramble across the state, with government, political and community leaders competing for dollars for their pet projects. Nowhere has the struggle been more divisive, or more desperately needed, than in Coos County, the state’s least populated, poorest and most northern county, where a clash among officials is threatening the very existence of the county’s economic development arm.

The Coos County commissioners voted last month to slash $48,000 from the Coos Economic Development Corp.’s $109,000 budget because the CEDC didn’t advocate that an upgrade of the electric transmission lines that connect to the New England electric grid be included in a regional stimulus wish list. (The $135 million upgrade is deemed essential for several high-profile proposed energy production projects in the region.) The legislative delegation has since restored the funds, but the commissioners are unmoved and insist the fight is not over.

County Commissioner Paul Grenier of Berlin blasted CEDC leadership for failing to promote an issue that he said is vital to the region. He equated the stand to a “crime against the residents of Coos County.”

Peter Riviere, executive director of the CEDC, said the criticism “stunned him” because nine of the 15 projects that are on the wish list came from the organization’s year-old collaborative Coos County Action Plan.

He also noted that one of the leading advocates for the transmission line, Sen. John Gallus of Berlin, was at the meeting and didn’t push for the proposal to be included either.

‘Appalachia of N.H.’

The feud seems to have roots in a broader, more historical conflict about the region’s identity and over which economic development approach will have the most immediate results.

Despite its rugged natural beauty, Coos County has been battered for generations by persistent poverty, an aging and declining population and, over the last decade, the demise of the long-dominant paper industry.

“We hit bottom when the mills closed,” said Paul Robitaille, a Gorham selectman and social service agency director.

Since 2006, 650 decent-paying manufacturing jobs have been lost in the region. Many more ancillary jobs and businesses have disappeared as well. All of this has left the area with several vacant mills, high unemployment, a depleted tax base and few opportunities.

It’s the “Appalachia of New Hampshire,” said Fred King of Colebrook, the county treasurer and a former state senator.

Still, the North Country is a resilient place, where people readily admit that it is a great place to live, but a hard place to make a living. It is common for people to work several jobs and have various practical skills, like providing for their own heat and some of their own food from a good harvest and successful hunt.

In response to the mill closures, the state and federal governments and a strong network of volunteer community and business leaders have pulled together various strategies to assist and retrain laid-off workers, develop a long-range economic development plan that focuses on several key areas, including energy production and distribution, the wood industry, tourism, health care and developing a “creative economy.”

While the rest of the state enjoyed the excesses of an expanding economy fueled by easy credit and a burgeoning real estate market, the North Country region was trying to survive the closure of mills in Berlin, Groveton and nearby Gilman, Vt. (Gorham’s Cascades mill still operates.) Slow and steady progress has been made to strengthen the shaky economy, including attracting two prisons to Berlin, a change of ownership of the two of the grand hotels from local owners to large, resourceful corporations with big development plans and public-private investments in high-speed Internet access.

‘The context has changed’

There is little disagreement that Coos County’s future will include the production of electricity.

“Paper is out and energy is in,” said Peter Powell of Lancaster, chairman of the CEDC and a veteran business leader.

Three production options seem to dominate the debate: burning wood at either small, community-serving district heating facilities or large-scale biomass plants or wind farms. The latter two require an upgrade of the transmission lines that would take locally produced power to distant markets. This is the crux of the dispute between the county commissioners – which support both wind farms and biomass — and the local economic development group, which supports district heat.

Powell urges caution about putting all of the region’s energy eggs in one basket and allowing a few big users to deplete the limited wood resources.

The CEDC is promoting the development of seven small district heating projects that, they say, would provide more benefits to the local area, including lower energy costs through area heating districts and use the limited wood resources more wisely.

Powell pointed to a fiber sustainability report commissioned by the state Division of Forests and Lands that indicates the region’s forests may not be able to meet the long-term needs of larger wood-burning energy proposals, such as Laidlaw BioPower, which plans to spend $100 million to convert the former Berlin pulp mill into a 66-megawatt bio-mass plant.

The fiber report, Powell said, is the source of the rift between them and the commissioners. The data, Riviere said, raised questions about biomass and the transmission line.

“As the ball moves, you have to move with it,” he said, “The context has changed.”

King, who is more aligned with the wind power cause than biomass — Granite Reliable Power is proposing a $247 million wind farm that includes 33 wind-turbines on ridgelines near Dixville Notch — didn’t appreciate the lumping of the two together. “What does the fiber study have to do with wind power?” he asked, “You don’t have to have a truckload of wood to run wind power.”

The pro-development forces in the county have embraced a simple strategy that there is no such thing as a bad job, a belief that King shares — “a job is a job,” he said.

But this overtly aggressive posturing doesn’t sit well with everyone. New Hampshire, Powell said, has a penchant for selling itself on a low-cost basis, and this attracts businesses that don’t value their employees or contribute to the community.

“When you are constantly in a state of desperation, you make yourself available to be taken advantage of,” he said. Yet he and others believe that Coos County has a lot of promise and possibilities, and in some ways, they are ahead of the curve in terms of planning.