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Berlin's Steady Recovery
Published Thursday, July 20, 2017

Editor’s Note: Over the course of the next two years, Business NH Magazine will highlight economic development in various cities and regions. The series launched in March with a spotlight on the City of Concord.

The City of Berlin. Courtesy of the Berlin Daily Sun.

Once a center for the nation’s pulp industry, NH’s most northern city is reinventing itself as a recreational gateway, tourist destination and welcoming host to a new array of industries.

Berlin remains far from the thriving mill town it was in 1930, when it was home to multiple lumber and paper businesses and boasted a population of 20,018. But its fortunes appear to be rising as it turns to diversification to charge the economy.

“Berlin is on the upswing,” says Mayor Paul Grenier. “The big thing is the city has finally accepted that it’s time to move away from the paper industry.”

In recent years, the place once known as “The City that Trees Built” has lured an iron works company and biomass power plant to its borders, and both a federal and a state prison have located within its limits. Plans are also proceeding for two 10-acre greenhouses to be constructed in town.

Meanwhile, the population has stabilized between 9,500 and 10,000, according to U.S. Census figures, and several projects to improve roads and beautify the downtown are either completed or in process. Berlin now has its own semi-pro hockey team, the Berlin River Drivers, founded in 2015, which this spring advanced to the finals in the Federal Hockey League before losing in Game 5.

Also driving economic growth is an unexpected vehicle—the ATV. Berlin has become an all-terrain-vehicle hub, drawing thousands to the city for events sponsored by the likes of Polaris. It has also developed ATV-friendly regulations that, for example, allow ATVs to be driven on city streets amid regular traffic.

ATV riders hit the trails at Jericho Mountain State Park. Courtesy of the NH Division of Parks and Recreation.

“We are the ATV capital of the eastern seaboard,” says Grenier. “That really was the jackpot. We never in our wildest dreams thought that the ATV and recreational vehicle economy would play such a role here since we’ve been an industrial community since the beginning of time.”

Those visiting ATVers, notes Pamela Laflamme, Berlin’s community development director, “become repeat customers and they come back and go camping and fishing and eat out. So it’s been a real boost to tourism in the region.”

Such economic drivers could never have been imagined by the industrialists who harnessed the power of the churning Androscoggin River to build Berlin into a national center for logging and wood companies in the mid-19th and early 20th centuries. At one time, the city had several pulp and paper mills—Berlin Mills, Riverside Mill, Forest Fibre Company, White Mountain Pulp & Paper Company, among others—and drew immigrants from Russia, Norway, Finland, Italy, Sweden, Ireland, Germany and nearby Quebec.

But following the stock market crash of 1929, labor unrest and an international monetary crisis, the mills began closing their doors in 1931, setting off a painfully slow and long decline and causing mass unemployment. Today, only one mill remains in nearby Gorham, and it employs fewer than 200, says Laflamme.

Berlin’s major employers in 2017 are in the health care sector, corrections and municipal government. Androscoggin Valley Hospital, recently named one of the Top 100 Critical Access Hospitals in the United States by iVantage Health Analytics and The Chartis Center for Rural Health, employs some 340, per a 2016 report by NH Employment Security’s Economic & Labor Market Information Bureau. Northern Human Services, which offers behavioral health services, provides 100 jobs, and Androscoggin Valley Home Care Services and Coos County Family Health Services employ 80 each.

Androscoggin Valley Hospital. Courtesy Photo.

The 750-bed Northern NH Correctional Facility, a state prison, opened its doors in 1999 and employs about 200, while the Federal Correctional Institution, opened in 2012, employs just under 300. The city was active in bringing both to the community. “Today the two corrections facilities have kept a whole generation of young people in town that would have left otherwise,” says Grenier. He adds that about 30 percent of the initial hires at the correctional facilities were from outside the city, though that has changed. “Younger people who want a job and qualify have great chances to be hired,” he says.

Roughly 255 people work for the city school system, and almost 150 people work for the city’s municipal services.

Meanwhile, a variety of new businesses have opened facilities in Berlin or are planning to. The most recent is Deflex Composite, a Quebec-based composites manufacturer, which announced in May that it is expanding operations to Berlin. It signed a lease to occupy 9,600 square feet at 22 Jericho Road and will hire three employees initially with plans to hire seven more by end of year, according to the Governor’s office. The company will be manufacturing bumpers for Volvo buses at the Berlin plant.

Capone Iron Corp., headquartered in Rowley, Mass., opened a satellite facility in the former Hexaport building in Berlin last year with the expectation that it will eventually hire at least 25 employees.

Left: Berlin Mayor Paul Grenier signs the beam on the new addition at Capone Iron while state Sen. Jeff Woodburn and Steve Kinney of Capone watch. Courtesy of the Berlin Daily Sun.

And, between 2013 and 2014, Burgess BioPower transformed a former pulp mill into a 75-megawatt energy production facility that uses wood chips and other low-grade biomass materials as fuel. Burgess plans to employ as many as 40.

North Country Growers is in the final permitting process to build two 10-acre greenhouses on East Milan Road that will supply tomatoes and salad greens to kitchens and supermarkets throughout New England and employ about 80.

Rendering of North Country Growers’ two greenhouses. Courtesy of The Berlin Daily Sun.

Richard Rosen, CEO of American Ag Energy, of which North Country Growers is a wholly-owned subsidiary, says a number of factors made Berlin the ideal spot. “The climate is very advantageous for what we do, with the cold summer temperatures, as we need to run the greenhouses all year long,” he says. A cold climate makes it easier to cool off the greenhouses’ natural gas heat and power systems.

“Second, the city of Berlin is run by some of the most qualified, competent people I’ve ever worked with in the United States, and that extends to people in the community,” Rosen adds.

“Third, they have natural gas. We are very clean, and we don’t want to use any source of energy that is not clean.” Rosen declined to provide a dollar figure for the project.

Aiding in the effort to boost economic development is Wireless Partners’ work to expand Verizon’s 4G LTE network in Coos County. The company recently added five cellular towers and has plans to construct another 11 in Phase II of the project. Though Berlin already had 4G LTE service, the expansion means businesses throughout the area will be able to access “high definition voice capability but also very high-speed internet,” says Wireless Partners’ CEO Bob Parsloe.

Wisely Berlin’s revitalization efforts are diversified. “With the demise of the mills, we turned to our rivers and mountains and, most importantly, our trails,” says Paula Kinney, executive director of the Androscoggin Valley Chamber of Commerce, headquartered in Berlin. She says the chamber is giving tourism a hard push right now, adding that “The way we’re marketing it is, ‘Your adventure starts here.’”

One focus of the targeted marketing is ATVers, whose growing presence has led city leaders to add an ATV element to longstanding events like RiverFire, an annual fall festival featuring hay rides, live music, hot air balloon rides and fires that appear to float on the Androscoggin River. The blazes actually burn on the historic boom piers, once used by logging companies to separate and guide trees being sent down the river.

Planners added a Zombie ATV Poker Run to the schedule. As a result, “Last year’s RiverFire broke all records,” says Kinney, who adds the event drew more than 5,000, at least 200 more than previous years. The city’s biggest ATV event is the annual Jericho ATV Festival, held the first weekend in August at Jericho Mountain State Park, the starting point for a 1,000-mile ATV trail system in the North Country. When it started eight years ago, attendance was about 800, says Kinney. The last two years have drawn 6,000 tourists as well as the attention of ATV manufacturer Polaris, which sponsors a customer appreciation party as part of the proceedings.

The mud pit at the Jericho ATV Festival. Courtesy of The Berlin Daily Sun.

So popular is the event, says Laflamme, that a developer is planning to build a 180-site RV campground near the park and, “Other businesspeople have bought property near the park and are working on projects they’re not ready to make public yet,” she adds.

The influx of visitors has also dovetailed with the city’s efforts to spiff up its image, especially downtown. “We’ve probably removed more than 300 units of old, dilapidated housing over the last 10 years,” says Laflamme. “We have realigned Route 110 out to Jericho State Park. We’re rebuilding Route 16 [Main Street] right now with $6 million in city bonds, starting last summer and continuing this summer.” Laflamme adds they’ve also done small things, like putting out flower pots and hosting a downtown Day of Caring, to create a better first impression when ATVers first visit the area.

The annual Day of Caring, during which volunteers perform cleanup duty, is run by the Berlin Main Street Program, an organization dedicated to helping downtown businesses and making the area more inviting, says program head Sylvia Poulin. She notes that visitors to the area no longer have to put up with one byproduct of the old mill days—the smell. “Not having the odor of the pulp mill, we can really push tourism now,” Poulin says.

The Community Bible Academy in Berlin volunteering at the 2016 Day of Caring. Courtesy of Berlin Main Street Program.

Though Berlin’s four hydroelectric dams limit recreation on parts of the river, three whitewater rafting companies in Berlin, Gorham and Milan brought about 10,000 people to the Androscoggin last year, says Kinney. The chamber also hosts an annual land-and-water event called Paddle-Mania to promote paddling on the river, culminating in a party at Heritage Park.

Notably, Berlin has received two grants, totaling just over $1 million, from the Northern Border Regional Commission and the state Transportation Alternative Program. The grants are to be used to build a river walk from the Service Credit Union Heritage Park, which hosts events as well as a museum celebrating the logging industry, to the 12th Street Bridge. The walk, about a mile long, will include granite benches, plants, street lighting and signage. Laflamme says work is slated to start summer 2018.

Just up the road is the refurbished Nansen Ski Jump (left, photo courtesy of the Berlin Daily Sun). It was the largest in the world when it was constructed in 1936, and it’s a standing testament to the Scandinavian immigrants who came to Berlin to work in the late 1880s. The ski jump was closed a century later in the 1980s, although the NH State Parks, the Friends of Nansen Ski Jump and energy drink maker Red Bull collaborated on a restoration completed earlier this year. Red Bull sponsored Olympian skier Sarah Hendrickson to jump off the ramp in March.

Berlin’s St. Kieran Community Center for the Arts, housed in a former Catholic Church, offers a performance series of 18 to 24 events per year that include musicians, comedians, a 20-member jazz group, a Franco-American Festival, artists in residence and more, says the center’s Executive Director Monique Lavertu. “I like to think that we’re having some kind of impact on the economy,” she adds. “We’re bringing in 2,500 people. Some of them aren’t from here. They’re filling our gas stations and our restaurants. They see how beautiful it is here, and they want to come back.”

Monique Lavertu, executive director of the St. Kieran Community Center for the Arts. Courtesy photo.

The Berlin and Coos County Historical Society is also actively drawing in visitors. In 2012, Walter Nadeau, VP of the Society, organized the Maynesboro Stud Memorial Ride, marking 100 years since W.R. Brown of the Brown Company mill started the Maynesboro Stud Farm to breed Arabian horses. More than 30 riders from as far away as North Carolina participated in the 50- and 25-mile endurance rides.

Riders in the Maynesboro Stud Memorial Ride. Courtesy of the Androscoggin Valley Chamber of Commerce.

Despite its efforts at attracting tourists, the city still faces challenges. There is no hotel, though talks are underway with a couple of developers, says Kinney. Most visitors stay in nearby Gorham, which has 402 hotel rooms that can house up to 804. There is also camping at three state parks and two private parks in the area.

Even with the city’s efforts to tear down dilapidated structures, “housing stock is old and multi-family,” says Grenier. Another challenge is that absentee landlords, who are not invested in maintaining their properties, own many of the buildings, he adds. That led the city to adopt an ordinance allowing police to cite landlords whose buildings they’ve visited on multiple occasions. Grenier adds, “It’s having some positive effects.”

The St. Kieran Community Center for the Arts is also having some “brick and mortar issues,” says Lavertu, adding she needs $500,000 for repairs. A 2015 grant provided $250,000 with the stipulation that the organization raise another $211,000. “We’re nowhere near that,” she laments.

Another hurdle is overall health. Recent county health rankings by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute placed Coos County, of which Berlin is a part, 10th out of the state’s 10 counties in terms of health outcomes, says Ken Gordon, CEO of Coos County Family Health Services.

“Much of that has to do with social determinants such as education, income, housing and access to food that’s affordable,” he says, explaining that health care providers, municipalities and other stake-holders are now seeking ways to provide walking paths, community centers where people can learn skills and programs to address the aging population to reverse those statistics. The agency also established a dental clinic on Main Street.

The Tri-County Community Action Program, a social service and advocacy agency, reports a shortage of volunteer drivers to provide rides for non-emergency medical appointments, according to CEO Robert G. Boschen Jr.

As a result, it is altering the frequency and availability of rides. “Berlin’s challenges are the same as for the entire North Country and other parts of rural New Hampshire— poverty, the opioid crisis and the need for jobs and the skills to meet them,” Boschen adds.

But this remains “an exciting time” for Berlin, says Laflamme. “Losing the mills didn’t happen overnight and coming out of that into a new story, none of that’s going to happen overnight either.”

Says Grenier, “Today, Berlin is a completely different community from what it was 10 years ago. This has been a great opportunity for us to reinvent ourselves. Not everybody wants to live in the rat race. At some point, somebody’s going to recognize that we have a superior quality of life, and they’re going to want to come here, either with young families or to retire. We still have a long way to go, but we’ve come a long way.”

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