Election sets new course for Berlin

“We’ve got to think in 21st century terms,” says David Bertrand, Berlin’s mayor-elect. “We need economic development and jobs.”

Bertrand, a Berlin native and 20-year project manager for Isaacson Structural Steel, won the seat Nov. 6 in a 1,777-585 landslide vote over four-term incumbent Robert Danderson. The election also added five new members to the eight-member city council – a change in membership that Bertrand called “a golden opportunity to get some enthusiasm and new ideas.”

With the closure last year of the Fraser Paper pulp mill along with a declining population and an aging infrastructure, Berlin has faced challenging times.

A priority for Bertrand is the redevelopment of the pulp mill site. The cluster of mill buildings, which dominated the city’s landscape for over a century, were recently demolished, save for a remaining boiler building and stack. Laidlaw Energy Group’s proposed conversion of the building to a 50-megawatt wood-to-energy plant was one issue that spurred Bertrand to run.

“Whatever takes place on that property will have a profound effect on future generations,” he said. “It’s going to define the flavor of the city.”

Due to its location in the center of downtown, the biomass plant proposal was met with opposition, unlike other recent economic development projects — including construction of a federal prison and an ATV park – that also were initiated under Danderson.

First to express dismay was Katie Paine, who had recently relocated her marketing firm, KD Paine & Partners, to Berlin. In a May 2007 letter to Danderson, Paine threatened to move her company elsewhere.

“Do you really want to trade 40 jobs at a plant that will once again cover Berlin in smoke and ash and odor and fill the streets once again with trucks and traffic for 200 [proposed jobs at her company by 2010] that will be essentially carbon-neutral?” her letter inquired.

Others felt the same and thought residents should be consulted on the issue. However, the mayor and council refused a request for a public non-binding referendum. In response, Steve Griffin, senior vice president of Isaacson Structural Steel — one of the city’s largest employers — helped create the grassroots organization Citizens for a New Vision.

“We determined that the city couldn’t afford a hands-off policy for the redevelopment of that site,” Griffin said. “Our purpose is to help residents create a vision for the property. Once redevelopment begins, we’ll dissolve.”

He said he and Bertrand are seeking a “win-win situation” for the city and the property owner, North American Dismantling. “We need to begin discussions with them,” Griffin said.

Bertrand and Griffin also see the need to work with neighboring Gorham and other Coos County towns for economic stability and opportunity.

“We’ve got to look at things with a regional approach. If it makes sense, we need to regionalize our schools and consolidate departments,” Bertrand says.

“When I was growing up, there was an iron curtain between Berlin and Gorham,” said Griffin. “It’s time for that to come down.” Besides schools, public safety and public works also could benefit from a regional approach, he says.

At the ‘regional table’

Jeff Hayes, assistant director of the North Country Council regional planning commission, says he’s encouraged by the new interest in regional collaboration.

“Creating a united front is no small feat,” he said, “and Berlin has an opportunity to lead the county. In recent years, we’ve seen the city turn inward. But to be isolationist in a fast-moving economy doesn’t work.”

In fact, Berlin did not renew its North Country Council membership dues in 2007 — an unprecedented action, since membership in the council gives communities access to federal and state grants and planning assistance.

“Last year, we spent over $100,000 in grant money to perform brownfields environmental assessments on Berlin properties,” Hayes said. “Those abandoned properties are now being redeveloped. This year, we have $400,000 in brownfields money, and Berlin needs to be a member to participate in the program.”

Both Bertrand and Griffin have mentioned the need to rethink the North Country Council membership issue so Berlin can “sit at the regional table,” as Hayes puts it.

Federal grant money obtained by North Country Council is underwriting the Coos Action Plan, a county-wide collaboration that, with citizen input and technical resources, will create a five-year economic development roadmap. Forest products, the creative sector, tourism and alternative energy are some of the industries that will be explored.

“The action plan will be key to Berlin’s success,” said Griffin, one of the project’s leaders.

As for Hayes, he sees the economic answer for Berlin as a blend of old and new.

“Tourism, for example, isn’t a silver bullet that will solve the city’s economic problems. I see the answer in the middle — building on the industrial base and adding new types of businesses.”

Katie Paine agrees. A self-dubbed unofficial booster for Berlin, she sees a possible tech mecca where others see an aging mill town. “I call it Silicon Notch,” she says. “Entrepreneurs work hard, but they love to play. And everything they want is right here.”

“We have the opportunity to redefine ourselves,” agrees Griffin. “Not many communities have that opportunity.”