Is the North Country ready, willing, and able to shift from a timber-based economy to a tourism-based economy?
This is the second episode of Word of Mouth's North Country series. Listen to the first installment, "Where Does the North Country Begin, And End, in N.H.?"
It was a late May morning in Berlin, the biggest city in the North Country. In 2018, the city was home to 10,200 people, just over a third of the population of Coos County. Passersby greeted each other on the street; the strawberries were blooming; and the breeze carried a faint resinous scent of pine mulch.
It's this last detail – the gentle fragrance of pine mulch, emanating from the biomass plant along the Androscoggin River – that signals a profound change in Berlin. Twenty years ago, Berlin did not smell like mulch. It smelled like sulfur, a byproduct of the pulp manufacturing.
On the site of what is now the biomass plant, once stood the Brown Company pulp mill, which employed thousands of workers over generations from the mid-1800s to the early 2000s. Its closing had ripple effects from very basic sensory experiences, like smell, to the loss of job security, shuttered businesses, and an overstock of housing, not to mention the deeper, psychological shift in identity.
After all, Berlin’s tagline is: the city that trees built.
As always on Word of Mouth, this story started with a question submitted by a listener. This one came from Rick Van de Poll in Sandwich.
How willing, ready, and able are folks in the North Country to shift to a timber-based economy to a more diverse tourist-based economy?
Maybe this feels like a familiar story.
Pam LaFlamme, Berlin’s community development director, grew up in Milan on what she calls “a gentleman’s farm.”
“You know, one cow, one pig, a few chickens,” she said. “It was lovely! I really did have a really good childhood growing up here.”
A milltown often has a specific layout, a recognizable footprint. In Berlin's case, the city grew around the Andscroggin River.
“The river is really what kind of brought everybody here. There is a drop in height on the river from just north of us to just south of us of about two hundred feet or so. That drop provided a great asset to harness electricity and power, to power sawmills along the river. So that's really what started the whole thing,” explained Laflamme.
Workers and their families often lived in neighborhoods near the mill, in houses designed for intergenerational living.
“It was the grandparents on the first floor, the parents on the second floor, and maybe their kids and new families would hit the third floor,” said Laflamme.
Many neighborhoods were organized by immigrant groups, including the Norwegian neighborhood, Irish Acres, and those that attended the Russian Orthodox church. The mill managers lived up on the hill, where “the view is just incredible” said Laflamme.
“You really do see the breadth of the community. You see Mount Washington, you see the mill complex, you see the river, you see all the homes," said Laflamme.
"People used to kind of joke about the fact that you know it was the mill owners looking down over all their employees. And so that's kind of a hierarchy and that may be true or may be not true, but it was really the best view of the Presidentials down the valley,” said Laflamme.
“Well, that's how Berlin was. When someone got in the mill they worked there till they retired, their kids got in the mill... a lot of families were just mill people,” said Maureen Patry, owner of Maureen’s Boutique on Main Street and Vintage Junky on Glen Ave. “I’ve been here thirty-seven years in business. Born here and raised here, lived here all my life."
Patry started her clothing shop in the eighties, right out of high school, with help from her dad. She convinced him that Berlin needed a store that offered better clothing options for younger women.
“Back in the day, it was gunny sacks, like a prairie look, kind of like high-necked lacey stuff, back in the '80s. The baggy jeans were in, and prairie skirts were in,” said Patry. “It was a lot busier. To me, it was. There was a lot of stores. Main Street was full, all the way from one end to the other.”
“We're down to only a few stores, a lot of empty buildings," said Patry. "We went through a time of a lot of fires, so there are some vacant lots, grass now where there were buildings that burnt. We could use more businesses but I find it at this time there's not a lot of places to start a business because some of the buildings that are here are really deteriorated.”
Patry’s family has lived in Berlin for generations. Her father, Ted Lacasse, owned a construction company for almost fifty years. When he was a teenager, he hauled gravel to help build a laboratory on Mount Washington. Patry’s kids live in town: her son is a firefighter, her daughter works at the boutique, and her twelve year-old granddaughter, Carly, often walks into town to help out after school.
“My mother has a big house. She has a barn and we have barn dances with the kids in the summer. We have backyard barbecues, get-togethers at my son's house. He has a big yard and the kids can play. Or in the spring we do the maple syrup, so we all get together there and have a maple weekend,” she said.
The quieter pace of life, sense of safety and of everyone knowing each other, and family are big parts of what keeps Patry in Berlin. This sense of community and social resiliency is commonly shared throughout the North Country. Most Coos residents trust their neighbors, and plan to live in the county for at least the next five years, according to a 2017 UNH study.
So, historically, Berlin is a community and a company town, but it hasn’t been a North Country tourist destination.
“Because we had the mill and it had… the sulfur smell,” said Patry. “Most people think of Berlin, 'oh, that's a place that smells bad.' So, really it wasn't for tourism. They go through Berlin and head more to Colebrook or the Balsams back in the day, that was the tourist destination, I think."
“We like to talk about how the outdoor recreation economy is a new wave for New Hampshire, but it’s really not,” said Sally Manikian, a Shelburne resident.
Manikian is the New Hampshire and Vermont representative of the Conservation Fund, a national organization focused on both conservation and rural economic development. Before her work in rural economic development, Manikian first came to the North Country to work for the Appalachian Mountain Club, and then as a reporter.
“I’m New Hampshire born and raised, and I've made Coos my adopted community. I found I connected with and identified with the communities north of the Notch... a little bit grittier, a little bit smaller,” said Manikian.
Six miles south of Berlin, Gorham had a paper mill, not a pulp mill, which meant less of smell. It was also located right on the Grand Trunk Railroad, the funnel for tourists visiting New Hampshire’s mountains and Grand Hotels. Today, Gorham looks a lot different than Berlin: it’s got the hotels, the restaurants, and the businesses welcoming Appalachian Trail hikers.
At a state level, in 2017, the travel industry netted $5.5 billion in direct travel spending, according to a study prepared for the New Hampshire Division of Travel and Tourism Development. Depending on how you measure it, tourism is one of the top three industries in New Hampshire, along with manufacturing and tech and healthcare.
But what does this mean for jobs in the North Country?
Manikian pointed to a list of the highest-employing industries compiled in the North Country Council's 2018 Comprehensive Development Strategy, which included Coos, Grafton, and Carroll counties.
After healthcare and government, the third highest employer is retail trade, and fourth, accommodation and food service, both service industries associated with tourism.
But there’s a big difference in what people can generally earn in service industries compared to manufacturing or healthcare.
The average annual earnings per worker in accomodation and food services, for example, was $25,829. On the same chart, the average annual earnings in manufacturing – fifth on the list, and the type of job that the North Country lost with the disappearance of the mills – was $70,043.
Not everyone in the Berlin mill would have been making that much, but in the early 2000s, hourly workers received benefits like a company healthcare plan and paid vacation, which is not true of a lot of typical service positions.
Manikian said she lived on around $22,000 when she first moved to the North Country in the 2000s.
“I had educational debt. I think it's nothing near what people experience now!” said Manikian. “But I wanted to visit my family in the southern part of the state and I couldn't put gas in my car. I knew I couldn't make the trip down.”
But Manikian explained that she had advantages, too. Her overall draws were pretty low, and she was living in housing provided by her employer, for example. If she'd asked, her mother would have lent her money. Even though her $22,000 salary wasn’t enough, Manikian had a cushion – a safety net.
“I had a fair amount of wealth privilege and educational privilege and also just had grown up in an environment where I was told I could do anything that I wanted… I also had that confidence that things were just gonna work out,” she explained.
Without that, she said, a $25,000 service industry salary “isn’t enough. You're vulnerable. So, if this is a component of our economy, it can't be the only one. And I think we know this, regionally: the tourist economy is not a silver bullet.”
“When the mill closes… it just means so many things to different people, and it's hard to talk about it openly because people want to rush to solutions, like: how do we continue to employ people who live here? How do we attract people to move here?” said Manikian. " “It just means so much. It's a cultural symbol. It’s a tangible thing that can point to the reasons why the city was founded: to process trees. And that's just such a huge core of identity. But then underpinning a lot of that is this sort of community grieving and confusion about what the symbol is, moving forward.”
In a sense, our original question – whether or not the North Country is ready to transition from a timber-based economy to a tourist based economy – suggests that tourism is new to the North Country, which is not exactly the case. Around the same time the Brown Company founded the Berlin pulp mill, New Hampshire’s tradition of Grand Hotels also emerged.
These were hotels like the Omni Mount Washington Resort, The Mountain View Grand, and the Wentworth. In its heyday in the late 1800s and early 1900s, families would escape the city air in Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and D.C. by the Grand Trunk Railroad, often enjoying the relatively pristine New Hampshire landscape for the entire summer.
The Balsams lies north of Berlin, a winding 40-mile journey up the Androscoggin River and over a mountain pass. The resort comes into view almost immediately after cresting the Notch, a cluster of red terra cotta roofs across Lake Gloriette.
Hannah Campbell is the marketing coordinator for the Balsams redevelopment team, and served as our tour guide for the day. She grew up just south of Colebrook, but left to attend the Air Force Academy in Colorado and work as a logistics officer in England.
“[I] moved back here in 2016 and was lucky enough to find a home on this project,” said Campbell.
In fact, she worked at the Balsams as a teenager in the ski and outdoor recreations programs. She’s one of those young people that a lot of people in the North Country want to attract – but finding a job like this position at the Balsams, is not easy.
The original inn was built in 1865, and by the time the resort closed in 2011, the Balsams included a 400-room hotel, golf course, ski resort, mountain bike trails, and a smattering of lakes. It operated for almost 150 years in the unincorporated town of Dixville Notch, which is also famous for its first-in-the-nation midnight voting tradition. Over the years, ownership of the Balsams passed to the late Neil Tillotson (whose foundation, full disclosure, provided funding for this reporting).
Tillotson added more of a “four-season experience” to the resort, Campbell explained, including an expanded ski area. He also built a rubber factory just behind the hotel, which operated for decades, manufacturing latex gloves and balloons, and helped offset some of the costs of running the resort.
“It’s funny to think about. We had people come back and say, ‘I went to the balloon store as a kid!’” said Campbell.
But since 2011, the seven-story Hampshire House has stood dark and empty. The Balsams often draws comparisons to the hotel in The Shining.
Campbell fired up the generator to show us upstairs to the remodeled suites.
“This is all as it was when the hotel closed, so this, right here, is a lot like taking a step back in time. It’s funny – I have memories of being in here as a kid, as a teenager working. And it hasn’t changed." said Campbell as we walked up the stairs, carpeted in a pattern of evergreen needles and balsam cones, a color palette of green, brown, and beige.
Upstairs, we toured two suites that have been remodeled as examples of what the hotel could be. They’re all plush neutrals, wallpapered in a grey peacock, and offer a quietly stunning view of the lake and mountains. When the hotel is completed, rooms will be available on a nightly basis, like a regular hotel, but they’re also available for a deeded fractional ownership, a cousin of the timeshare. Prices will vary, but for 100 days a year, the remodeled one-bedroom was priced at $79,900; the two bedroom, $289,900.
“How was the Balsams to work for? It was really, really, really good. You hear about workplaces where it feels like family, and I would say this was sort of the epitome of it that I’ve seen,” said Jonathan Dodge, owner of the Spoke ‘n’ Word Bicycle Repair Advice in Colebrook.
Dodge worked at the Balsams starting in 2004 until it closed in 2011. He ran their bike shop and the cross country ski center.
“It was really good. I can't foresee myself having wanted to leave. I think that's why you had people there at our annual Christmas parties where people were getting 35-, 40-, 45-year awards because they had nowhere else they'd rather be either,” Dodge recalled. “People just seem to have a genuine care for one another. People knew what your child was studying in college. They knew what year they were in the military. They knew your anniversary. They were probably at your wedding, frankly.”
Dodge was careful with his opinions on the redevelopment of the Balsams: it isn’t his property, he said, so he doesn’t get to make the decisions around its future. Still, he had thoughts.
“I know that the workforce around here would like to see it come alive. I'd like for the school children to have a ski program again. There are certainly things I would like to see come back about it. What will it look like though? We don't know. Certainly the gentlemen in charge right now have some grand ideas that would be exciting to see happen,” said Dodge.
Les Otten is one of these gentlemen in charge of the project. Otten, lead developer of the new Balsams, is perhaps most well known for his ownership of Sunday River, a ski resort in Maine. Standing by the old hotel on that late May Saturday, Otten reflected on Henry Hale, the owner of the Balsams at the turn of the 20th century.
“Just the forethought and the engineering… they talk about Disney having his vision. Hale, in the early 1900s–before there was electricity up here–there was electricity at the Balsams. So they had power, hot and cold running water, and natural air conditioning," said Otten. "In the mid-1800s, they grew all the food here. They ran the resort 75 days a year, and they employed people 365 days for the 75 days a year the guests were here in the summertime."
"Frank Sinatra used to come here. Babe Ruth had his own barber chair that he had his hair cut in when he was here. That kind of stuff, just doesn't... you can’t walk down the street and find a piece of property that has that kind of legacy. So it's fun to know you’re in a place that has history,” explained Otten.
But it’s not going to be the same Balsams. It basically couldn’t be.
The development plans for the new Balsams are ambitious: building renovations, a substantial expansion of the ski area, and the addition of a gondola, sauna and spa.
Otten has stated that the Balsams would employ 400 people to start, up to a potential of 1500.
“Before we got started, we did a labor forecast for our area, and we were delighted to find out that it was predicted we wouldn't have any trouble finding labor,” said Otten. “Now I know that sort of jumps in the face of what is conventional wisdom, but there are people who are resort workers all across the United States and in many cases they need to go different places, to go from summer season to winter season. And what really gives us a great advantage is the fact that we’re really year-round.”
Otten also pointed to the housing market: the availability of relatively cheap houses after the mills closed and displacement of the workforce.
“If you ask me, can I go to downtown Colebrook and find 400 people? Absolutely not. They're not here. But the indications we have, very strongly, is that people will move back to the region,” said Otten. So, it’s extremely easy for somebody to sort of sit across the fireplace and zing a shot at you and say you're never gonna find... there’s nobody there! Where you gonna find your people? Oh, you’re right! But what the region needs is a reason for people to move in!”
The future of the new Balsams is not certain, and funding the project is an ongoing challenge – the resort is actually listed for sale with CBRE, a commercial real estate firm, in attempt to attract more investors.
But whatever happens with the Balsams, this tension between balancing history and nostalgia with growth is widespread.
“I definitely think the Balsams is a great project, so I'm really hoping that it takes hold. It would be great for the far north and Colebrook area. But I think that's a piece. It's not the end-all-be-all,” said Jim Cochran, director of the Enriched Learning Center in Berlin, a special education alternative school with courses on everything from computer science to outdoor adventures.
In the summer, the business transitions into a rafting company, which allows Cochran to employ the same staff year-round. Plus, he dabbles in the housing market. He buys old houses and renovates them, sometimes for his staff to rent, but also for short-term tourist rentals listed on Airbnb.
Cochran said he talks to seasonal workers employed around Berlin or in the White Mountains – for instance, at the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) lodges on the border of Franconia and Pinkham Notches. These workers have to make a decision about where they’re going to live for the summer: north or south of the notches?
“I was asking staff: how do you determine where you're going to live? Is it the cost of living? What are the things that would impact young people, say, working at the AMC? Or young professionals, maybe not with a family, and somewhat limited income,” he explained. "There [were] a number of factors that came up, from coffee shops to green space to… you know, price is a piece of it, but not everything.”
Cochran says he does observe some workers choosing to live north of the Notch, in Gorham.
“But how do we keep that moving? How do we keep that moving north? How do we keep young people or [bring] young people back that also have business ideas or that want to make it something more than just their seasonal job… and renting a house with four other individuals. I mean, that's important. But I look at it more like: how do we impact the economy?" asked Cochran.
Cochran is pointing to the difference between enjoying a fun couple of summers in the White Mountains versus investing in a home or raising a family in the North Country.
“I think we’re still going through this process of transformation,” said Laflamme, Berlin’s Community Development Director. “I don’t think we’re completely transformed from this community that once was manufacturing and now is tourism.”
In early 2019, the city hired Camoin Associates, an economic development consulting firm based in Saratoga Springs, New York. This spring, they held a series of meetings with local stakeholders, including business owner Maureen Patry. The idea was to find a consultant with experience working with rural communities within the Northern Forest, which stretches across Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York.
“There are so many communities across northern New England and northern New York that are all experiencing pretty much the same thing as us,” said Laflamme. “You know, the mill was the center of their economy. The mill is now gone. They have these natural resource amenities. How do we market them and how do we promote them and how do we become different enough so that someone drives thirty miles this way instead of thirty miles that way?”
How should Berlin develop a strategy for the future? Should the larger region focus on attracting professionals who can work remotely by increasing access to high speed internet? Should the city build a hotel? What about ATVs?
Laflamme says they’re looking for data-driven answers from the strategy report.
“If it does come back and says, based on all the data and what we're looking at in your community, focusing on ATVs is the right thing to do. You should build a hotel... then that's what we're going to do, I guess,” said Laflamme. “But I can't really imagine that it's a good idea, especially after living through the closure of the mill and the decline of manufacturing, that it's ever good to put all your proverbial eggs in one basket. But tourism is definitely a component of it.”
The milltown story can be a familiar one, and one that's a little tired: much like this story, which begins with a picture the idea of a bustling town, followed by the closure of the mill and shuttered businesses, and a population searching for a new identity.
“It is kind of like Groundhog's Day sometimes,” said Laflamme, laughing. “But it's getting less and less... so, Berlin has a population that is older and aging, and so those kind of memories have diminished somewhat. And there are a lot of people who have moved to the area who are not from here and don't have that same connection with our history, so they're looking at Berlin how it is now."
Keeping that cultural memory alive is important, Laflamme said, but some of these new ideas are exciting because "they're not predicated on a nostalgia kind of perspective."
On a late spring day in Berlin, the vacant lots and boarded-up storefronts were still prevalent, but the streets weren't empty. It was a community service day, and people were cleaning up the street and planting gardens. It was the day before prom, so high schoolers were coming into Patry’s shop to get their tans for the big dance. A fitness store on Main Street also offered a selection of cannabidiol (CBD) products. The shop was owned by a couple that had moved from San Diego a few years back. At the library, a young mother was browsing the children’s room with her two kids. The family had moved to the area for her husband’s job at the prison.
In Gorham, 76-year-old Glenn Alden moved to the area to get a fresh start after the 2008 recession.
“You have to go to someplace like Austria to find a place as beautiful as this. We’ve got the mountains, we've got the beautiful outdoors, and people want to be here! They come here on weekends. And I live here. It’s such a wonderful feeling. I’ve never been happier," said Alden.
Alden rents out two rooms in his house on Airbnb. He said he was getting so many bookings, he had to block out weekends just to get some time off.
“I had to raise my prices because I had no time for anything but hosting, and doing the laundry and making the beds and whatnot. So I raised my prices... it didn’t matter,” said Alden. “I would actually like to get another place. I see it as [having] that much potential to it.”
“But I think that for some people it's hard to picture. What does it look like next?” said Cochran from the Enriched Learning Center. “You go to the other side and it's the Mount Washington Valley. Everything about that side, their tourism, everything, is based on that mountain. And then when you come to this side, that is not as an identifying piece to this culture.”
He continued, “I think obviously the Androscoggin River and the logging was what was the identifying factor here for years and years and years, for generations. That was the symbol. Trees and logs. So I think transitioning it to whatever it may look like next... is it just the whole landscape? Is it the North Country? The Great North Woods? I think you have to have an open mind, and it might not always be the best option or it might not always be the one that you would pick right away. But I think we can’t be one dimensional."
On the next episode of North Country series: the story of ATVs. Listen on NHPR on Saturday, July 6 at 11am.