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A conversation with Norman Charest

Berlin's Economic Development Director

Embattled economic development director Norman Charest. (Photo by Erik Eisele) (click for larger version)
June 11, 2009
BERLIN — At the last Berlin city council meeting, as well as at the budget hearing and in letters to the editor pages of the paper, people have been arguing about the economic development director the city contracts with through Tri-County CAP.

The most vocal critic of the position has been Lorraine Leclerc.

"I want this position terminated," she said at last week's city council meeting.

Norman Charest, the man filling the embattled position, has largely remained silent in the discussion. He sent in a letter to Daily Sun to rebutt Mrs. Leclerc's letter from the week before, but he has not engaged in any public meetings, despite strong criticism.

Mr. Charest is an employee of Tri-County CAP. The city pays Tri-County CAP $25,000 a year for a 20 hour per week economic development director.

"The city is paying for about 40 percent of my wages and expenses," he said, but gets about 90 percent of his time. "It's almost the same thing I'd be doing if I worked for the city 100 percent of the time,"

Mr. Charest said, explaining why the economic development position is difficult.

"I don't think the average person really gets it," he said. "I don't have any money I can give out, I don't have any grants. You become a counselor basically."

He said he works with local businesses to smooth out problems and try to address any issues they might have.

Right now, he said, he is dealing with a business owner who owns two businesses in Berlin. The owner told Mr. Charest he has to sell or close the businesses.

"I have been meeting for over a month now with the owner and prospective buyers to try to keep these businesses open," he said. "I develop relationships with the people who run those businesses. I'm the face of the city to them."

The city is getting a great deal, he said. "I don't have a working relationship with businesses outside Berlin. My concentration has been Berlin."

This has put him in hot water with Tri-County CAP, too, he said, because they want him to work regionally, not just in Berlin.

Mr. Charest said critics would like to see him bring businesses to Berlin, but "the notion that you're going to be able recruit businesses is probably obsolete."

"Businesses decide to go someplace for the damnedest reasons," he said. The most recent business owner he's talked to is from Pennsylvania and has been to Berlin twice: once to hunt, and once to fish. Berlin is isolated, with no major airport, seaport or highway, he said, so the city needs to leverage its natural resources to attract businesses. Not every business move is made for economic reasons, he said, and Berlin has to capitalize on that.

He said his vision for the area is based on tourism. Tourism is 30 percent of the economy for Cos County and four percent of Berlin's economy, he said.

But the tourism he'd like to see is not the tourism of North Conway or Littleton. He'd like to see outdoor motorized recreation opportunities developed around the area.

"It fits," he said. It is something Berlin can do to draw people here; it could be the economically illogical reason people would start a business in the city.

But first, he said, Berlin has to get over the loss of the mill.

"The spine of our economy has been yanked out," he said. "We need to figure out what we're going to do about that. This is a community that's still going through the process of grieving. We know how to be a mill town, we know how to be a blue-collar town, but we need to transform ourselves."

To transform the city, he said, "We need to give these companies a reason to come here."

Instead "we're all dancing around idiot details about $25,000," he said. "It's fiddling around while Rome is burning."

Mr. Charest said he doesn't understand why this argument has become so rancorous, and he doesn't know why Mrs. Leclerc is leading the charge.

"I don't know why she's never talked to me about it," he said.

One of Mrs. Leclerc's main criticisms has been that Mr. Charest goes to Florida for four months each winter.

Mr. Charest said he doesn't take any vacation time for the other eight months of the year, and when he is in Florida he is still working remotely.

"At least 95 percent of what I do is done online or over the phone," he said, so it doesn't really matter where he is. The relationships he develops over the other eight months of the year are strong enough that it doesn't matter, he said, and when issues have come up in the past he has had no problems dealing with them.

"I'm not saying it's 100 percent because it isn't," he said, but the distance isn't a real issue — lots of people telecommute in today's economy, he said.

The real issue, he said, is transforming the city's view of itself.

"I see more opportunity for people than I could shake a stick at," he said, but residents are so downtrodden by the mill closing they have a hard time seeing it. People living in Berlin have to realize the valuable thing they have, he said, and they need to package it and sell it to the rest of the state and the country.

"Until we do that," he said, "we're going to argue over trivial matters."

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