James Pindell, center, of WMUR-TV interviewed Mayor Paul Grenier, left, who is seeking re-election to a third consecutive term as Berlin's mayor on Nov. 5, on Thursday morning while photographer Chris McDevitt of Concord who is using the ABC affiliate's new digital camera with LED lights captures the moment. Photo by Edith Tucker. (click for larger version)
October 30, 2013GORHAM — Mayor Paul Grenier held back-to-back interviews on Thursday morning in his bid for re-election to a third term.
He met first with this newspaper and then with reporter-political analyst James Pindell, host of WMUR-TV's "Political Scoop," at the just-renovated Dunkin' Donuts on Main Street.
Republican Mark Evans, a Republican who is a former City Councilor who serves on the Planning Board, is challenging the 1993 Berlin High School graduate in the Nov. 5 election.
When Grenier was asked how his role as one of the three Coös county commissioners has been a plus for his constituents, he replied that it has given him an even greater appreciation of Berlin's historic role as the county's economic driver. Berlin's biggest challenge, he said, is to once again be "a strong economic powerhouse" and the county's "economic hub," both of which will boost the whole of Coös.
The infrastructure that would allow Berlin to assume its traditional role is already in place, Grenier explained. But there has been adversity at every step of the way.
It was a fight to get the Burgess BioPower plant permitted, he recalled. And then, when it looked as though everything positive was starting to gain momentum, both Isaacson Steel and Car Freshener closed their doors.
But the City has pulled together, Grenier said proudly. Berlin has always been plagued with some pretty significant infighting, he said, but the City's woes have helped "folks understand that we have to work together.
The mayor said, "It's now a very, very rare Berlin City Council meeting where there are serious disagreements. There are some very hard-line conservatives and some policy liberals but we've been able to work things out and compromise, keeping the City's tax rate increase under 40 cents in all four years I've been mayor, with no increase one year."
Grenier reported that the City's school system is "the envy of the county," which likely will come as a surprise to the White Mountains Regional School District and possibly other SAUs.
Economic opportunities are coming in dribs and drabs, Grenier explained.
Not only is the Burgess BioPower plant scheduled to begin commercial operation by Dec. 15 with 35 direct employees on its payroll, but also the Gorham Paper & Tissue mill at Cascade, that's had some struggles, is beginning to hire more workers. Grenier said that he expects the venerable mill will very likely start up another machine and reach employment levels well of over 300, up from today's 210 or so.
Former DRED commissioner George Bald, who Grenier described as "the most professional person he has ever met," is now working to locate new companies on the remaining acreage at the Burgess site where low-cost electricity, heat, and steam will soon be available. Bald was hired by Cate Street Capital of Portsmouth, the mayor pointed out, to develop a business plan for this land and has talked to companies that have "already expressed a significant interest." He added, "Cate Street is willing to partner with companies that have capital requirements."
Grenier recalls the days of his youth when Berlin was a very close-knit, very Catholic city, pointing out that it has received some big "body blows" since those days and the City was plagued with excess housing in poor repair.
"We've demolished 55 derelict buildings taken for nonpayment of real estate taxes and also rehabilitated a number of others," he said. "Rents have gone up by $240 a month, and the school system was able to turn back $700,000 in unspent special education dollars as kids of transients have left the area."
Dealing with the City's poor housing stock has been the City's second-most important problem that needed to be addressed, after the top priority of permitting the power plant, Grenier said. Other current challenges include attracting and retaining younger residents. The average age in the City is 48 years old. "We need younger families; the City's population, not including the prison inmates, is only around 9,500 to 10,000, and it was not that long ago we were at the 17,000 mark," Grenier said.
Nonetheless, ATVs, Jericho Mountain State Park, and Ride the Trails have served to invigorate the City's quality of life, drawing in more recreation-minded residents and second-home owners, he said, carefully noting that the state park initiative was the brainchild of his predecessor, Mayor Bob Danderson.
"When you walk down Main Street now, Berlin natives have a little skip in their step," the mayor said. "The City has a very bright future."