Efforts grow to diversify Coos economy

Coos County has lost hundreds of logging and paper mill jobs in the last three years, and many of its young people are leaving the region, but the economy is fast changing, and local and state leaders are urging patience, insisting that the future looks bright.

In two or three years, the region should have a fledgling renewable energy industry in place and enough Internet capacity to attract call centers and other firms that need first-rate communications, they say.

Until then, the region has been forced to cope. Gov. John Lynch said Coos County has lost 1,600 jobs since 2000.

“When a place that size loses even 30, 50 or a hundred jobs, it’s a real problem,” the governor said. “They have so few businesses to absorb all the workers.”

The governor is pushing legislation to give Coos County employers a $1,000 annual tax break for the first five years for each full-time job they create that pays twice the minimum wage. His goal is to retain existing firms and attract new ones.

Also on the horizon is a project of the nonprofit North Country Investment Corp., which has raised $2.2 million in just a year toward a $7 million wireless project that will serve 110,000 customers in Carroll, Coos and Grafton counties and northeastern Vermont.

NCIC president Jon Freeman has signed a memo of understanding with FairPoint Communications to cooperate with the private utility that recently bought the Verizon landline division. Together, they hope to reach as many customers as possible.

Meanwhile, Bretton Woods has launched a $1.1 billion, 10-year expansion that could create 800 jobs, and backers hope that will turn the resort into a golf and ski attraction that rivals Aspen.

“I like the way they’ve involved the surrounding communities in their planning,” Lynch said. “They’ve worked hard to make it part of the fabric of local life.”

Internet and energy

FairPoint has pledged to bring DSL Internet access to much of the North Country. Skeptics, including some Wall Street lenders, fear the heavily leveraged utility has bought into an obsolete technology, but policymakers are hoping the deal works out.

“I expect FairPoint to keep its promises to the Public Utilities Commission and the people of New Hampshire,” Governor Lynch said. “I have long thought that infrastructure would give us call centers, which don’t need to be near airports and cities.”

In Berlin, the region’s largest city, Laidlaw Energy expects to close on its purchase of the former Fraser Papers boiler. Michael Bartoszek, Laidlaw’s chief executive, said the boiler will fire a 65-megawatt biomass power plant that will employ 40 staff and provide work to hundreds of idle mill hands, loggers and truckers.

The waste heat will push steam through an existing tunnel to the Fraser Papers mill in Gorham that burns oil today. That resource will lower the mill’s operating costs and maybe save some existing jobs. Bartoszek, who said his wood supply is lined up, is negotiating with an unnamed party that will purchase the electricity.

Sometime later this spring, Noble Energy expects to file an application with the state Energy Facilities Site Evaluation Committee for a 99-megawatt wind farm in the northern part of Coos County.

Concord attorney Doug Patch, who represents Noble, said delays in mapping the wetlands this winter held up the regulatory paperwork. The project would employ 15 people directly, he said, and many more during construction.

According to Rep. Fred King, R-Colebrook, the developer has agreed to pay the county a welcome $495,000 in lieu of taxes at $5,000 per megawatt. King helped negotiate the tax deal.

Both energy firms believe the existing Public Service of New Hampshire transmission lines, thought to have 100 megawatts of remaining capacity, can handle the extra current after a relatively small private investment. Patch has told lawmakers Noble will spend between $10 million and $15 million to tighten the power lines. Bartoszek confirmed his company would spend a tiny part of its $100 million project cost on transmission improvements.

State House leaders had assumed all power-line upgrades would cost between $170 million and $210 million, based on a report four months ago by the PUC. That outlay would serve every project lined up in the queue of power-generation proposals in the North Country.

Bartoszek said it’s unlikely all of the projects will happen, and planners should use the PUC cost estimate as a long-term upper limit. He said both the Noble and Laidlaw projects are viable now because they will occupy opposite ends of a North Country power loop that starts and exits at Littleton.

“Based on our extensive analysis, the Noble project and ours can use the same loop,” he said. “For one thing, the wind doesn’t blow all the time. Noble would only use the grid 25 to 30 percent of the time. We do not need a major upgrade the ratepayers would bear the cost of.”

Tapping into tourism

The governor said he is committed to getting the rest of New England to underwrite the cost of added power lines to handle all of the potential wind and wood plants the region could support. That way, New Hampshire would foot 9 percent of the construction cost. But he knows that outcome will take time.

“We have to address the need on a regional basis,” Lynch said. “ISO New England is aware of the issue.”

According to Mark Dean of the New Hampshire Electric Cooperative, his firm has worked for two years on plans to build a 17- to 30-megawatt wind farm on a ridge line at The Balsams resort in Dixville Notch. Customers in the region would use up most of the power.

“The final size of the project depends on the transmission issues,” Dean said. “ISO New England has started a stakeholders’ process for a study.”

The transmission problem has already claimed one victim. Josh Levine of Tamarack Energy said it is giving up its options to buy 100 acres a mile north of downtown Groveton for a planned 70-megawatt biomass power plant. The site is much closer to the Noble wind project than Laidlaw’s plant will be.

“If Noble went forward and we were next in line, we’d have to spend $50 million to $70 million on transmission upgrades,” Levine said. “The transmission problem for us won’t be solved for another five to seven years. That’s fast-track.”

Jim Wagner, a former manager at Fraser Papers, now works for Freeman at NCIC. He helped bring a wood pellet plant to the Berlin Industrial Park, where Greenova LLC plans to break ground next month. It is expected to consume 400,000 tons of wood a year — another boon to the forest products sector.

“Greenova is getting its last permits,” Wagner said. “They’ll produce 180,000 to 200,000 tons of pellets a year.”

Beyond energy, the state’s new 7,200-acre all-terrain vehicle park in Berlin is expected to be a New England-wide tourist draw after all proposed trails are built.

“We’d like it to be multi-faceted for biking, hiking, fishing and camping too,” said Wagner.

Supporters of gambling tried to pass legislation in March to permit a casino in Berlin, and allow video slots at the four racetracks and at the grand hotels up north, but it was tabled.

The governor said he will closely scrutinize any gambling bill.

“All of us care about what happens to the North Country,” Lynch said. “I would want compelling evidence it does not negatively impact our quality of life. We cherish our quality of life in New Hampshire.”