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21/21: not just ATVs

October 07, 2009
BERLIN — The 21/21 initiative has been largely viewed through the prism of ATV recreation, but according to city economic development director Norman Charest, there's more to it than just four-wheelers and snow-machines.

"It's not a tourism project," Mr. Charest said. "It's going to use outdoor recreational experiences as a catalyst to create a new economic structure in the community. We're going to learn from that and hopefully have some success."

The initiative, which was adopted by the Berlin city council in September, is intended to facilitate community development, not just outdoor recreation, he said. The ATVs and the snow-machines are a means to an end. Motorized recreation is the type of outdoor recreation the city can develop quickly and easily, he said, but it is just one of the avenues the city should pursue in rebuilding the local economy.

Berlin residents have always ridden ATVs, Mr. Charest said, so it isn't hard to open that aspect of the city to the rest of the world.

"It's part of the culture," he said. "That makes it authentic, not contrived."

But from that recreation base, businesses will grow.

"I see a whole bunch of small businesses developing around outdoor recreation," he said, but the city has to be ready to make the changes to accommodate them. "Part of 21/21, part of what needs to happen, is starting to prepare the ground for what's coming."

What that means, Mr. Charest said, is the city has to prepare for a diverse economy with smaller scale companies. That will require changes, particularly in the way the city and local economic development agencies support growth.

"What we have to work with are tools from the old economy," he said, where businesses employed hundreds of people and controlled vast sums of money. "It's going to be people who need between $10,000 and $50,000," he said, while the current infrastructure is set up for people who need $500,000.

"Right now being an entrepreneur starting a business is like being on the ocean in a rowboat without any paddles," he said. The city needs to change that.

To do that, people in Berlin are going to have to get involved, he said. "We need to make every citizen of Berlin an ambassador. It's going to be their project."

Residents have to take more pride in their city, he said. They need to start joining boards, attending council meetings and volunteering with community organizations. It's time to change the conversation from one of grief about the mill to one about economic development, he said.

With that foundation, he said, the new economy will have a chance to flourish. Mr. Charest said success isn't inevitable, but Berlin has the assets to remake itself.

How it will do that remains to be seen. The 21/21 task force, which was part of the initiative voted in by the council, has yet to be formed. Mr. Charest said he is still working to create the body, and to define its goals, so it doesn't become a bureaucratic body incapable of action.

"I don't want this to become another organization that just needs to justify its existence," he said.

It will be dynamic, he said, not reliant on any one individual.

"One thing I'm trying to avoid is making this Norman's project," he said. "I don't have all the answers, that's why I need a task force."

The task force will meet mostly online, he said, to make it possible for people to stay involved even if they are traveling. It will be a 21st century board using 21st century techniques to solve 21st century problems, he said. And it won't be reliant on any one person for success.

But it will take time. Mr. Charest said the task force can only be created after much deliberate thought, which means it won't happen tomorrow. And once it starts working, the results won't be evident in a week. It may take five years, he said, it may take 10. The goal is to put Berlin on sound footing for the future, he said, and that will take time.

"I think Berlin can pull itself up," he said. "It's got a horrible reputation, but you only have to crack that nut once. It's not a leap of faith that we can pull this off. We've got what it takes."

Matin Lord Osman
Salmon Press
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