Officials begin response to Berlin mill shutdown

Governor John Lynch, Berlin Mayor Bob Danderson and other state and local officials worked much of Wednesday mustering an emergency response for 252 workers who will lose their jobs May 6 when Fraser Papers shuts down its pulp mill in Berlin.

Both the governor and mayor agreed with several recent studies of the North Country economy that all say it needs to be diversified, moving from its dependence on the timber industry.

The Berlin shutdown follows the recent loss of 108 jobs at the nearby Groveton Paper Board plant.

On Wednesday, the governor briefed the Executive Council and brainstormed with state agency heads about the situation in Berlin. He will meet Friday with mill workers and management and start looking for possible federal aid to help address the situation.

“This is a very serious situation,” the governor said. “Those 250 jobs are very significant for Berlin and the region.”

Danderson was confident the mills would pay all their property taxes. He wasn’t so sure about the fate of the 250 workers after the closing.

“That could be a problem,” he said. “Each is the head of a household. It’s 1,000 people, counting their families. Ten percent of the city is directly affected.”

The mayor talked with mill employees Wednesday and held a long conference call with a dozen North Country planners, economic development leaders, town and city officials and business heads. Their immediate concern is helping people find new jobs in a hurry.

The group will push to add 500 beds to the State Prison in the city, continue to work on building a new state park for all-terrain vehicles, and move the widening of Route 110 higher up on the 10-year highway plan.

Danderson did say, “We want to keep the paper mill competitive and find out if Fraser intends to sell the plant or disassemble it. Will it still function as a pulp mill? What about power plant development?”

He urged the federal government to choose a prison site in Berlin soon so construction on that job-producing project also can begin.

Danderson also said he will ask the city manager to find out if Jaffrey-based New England Wood Pellets might speed up its tentative plans to build a proposed plant in the North Country. The plant would turn wood chips into fuel for wood stoves, furnaces and power plants.

Company founder Steve Walker, at a trade show in Salt Lake City Wednesday, was unavailable for comment.

Three months ago, Walker said he was set to open a series of new plants and said he would take notice if a North Country paper plant shut and the subsequent loss drove down the price of wood.

“Steve didn’t want to compete for fiber with the paper industry,” the mayor said. “That’s not a problem now. If they came, it would help loggers.”

State Rep. Gene Chandler, R-Bartlett, chairs the House Capital Budget Committee that helped kill a $100,000 bill to build a halfway house in Berlin and authorize $300,000 to engineer the enlargement of the main prison. He said it would be faster to bring back the request next year during a normal budget year.

“We aren’t opposed to the prison project,” Chandler said, “but we’d like them to look at a design/build approach.”

Chandler suggested the region’s towns and planning commissions unite to push changes to the 10-year highway plan that might spur development in the slumping region. Transportation Commissioner Carol Murray said the widening of a mile of Route 110 is scheduled for fiscal year 2009. That work includes raising the railroad overpass that forces trucks to detour upon entering town.

“These are tough, tough times in the Androscoggin Valley,” she said. “A construction project like that could be a huge economic engine. They’ll hire locals. You can’t export jobs like that overseas.”

Danderson said state road projects require a local funding match. “It’s hard coming up with our 20 percent in a short period,” he said.

Governor Lynch said that another possible economic development tool is included in a House bill that would let communities bond the cost of building their own high-speed Internet systems where the private sector hasn’t done it.

“We need sophisticated infrastructure up there to attract industry,” he said. “If rural areas of India, China and Japan can be fully wireless, the North Country can too. We need a plan in place, then we’ll look at how to finance it.”

As for possible redevelopment of the Berlin pulp mill, Environmental Services Commissioner Mike Nolin said he’s 99 percent sure there’s nothing at the mill site that would prevent cleaning it up for another use.

“All these old mill sites have issues,” he said. “But I’ve spent some time there. It could be remediated.”

Rep. Ed Gionet, R-Lincoln, sponsored legislation last year that would allow a gambling resort to open in the North Country.

“We’d have that revenue and some good jobs for these people,” he said. “It wouldn’t have cost taxpayers anything. I feel bad for those people up there.”

Sen. John Gallus, R-Berlin, noted that the region has been in an economic decline for three decades, adding: “This is a traumatic time for the Berlin Pulp Mill employees, and I pledge to do whatever I can to help them.” — CHRIS DORNIN/GOLDEN DOME NEWS

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