The economy of Berlin, NH has been collapsing for decades. Twenty years ago, it was a thriving place, with a population of 20,000, people who worked at mills and factories. Today, the population is 10,000. The factories are gone. Converse found it cheaper to manufacture sneakers in third world countries – like so many other American manufacturers. As business after business left town, Berlin put all of its economic eggs in the basket of the paper mill. Every year Berlin officials would make noise about Berlin as a tourist destination; blithely ignoring the reality that tourists weren’t coming to spend their dollars in a smelly mill town. Berlin was so accustomed to relying on the mill economy that elected officials couldn’t seem to develop a plan to diversify the economy, even as it became obvious that the mill wasn’t going to be around forever. The Berlin mill closed for the last time in May of this year.
A state prison was built in Berlin a few years ago, built to alleviate the crowding in other prisons around the state. In a state that funds very little in the way of social services, jails and prisons are increasingly the way in which we deal with addicts and the mentally ill. The prison was touted as being an economic boon to the area – though that hasn’t really been the case. The state prison has been neither boon nor bust – more neutral in effect than anything.
Ever eager to rely on a sole industry for survival, the elected officials in Berlin decided that a high security federal prison would be the answer to the problems of the city, and began to actually court the construction of such a facility. The people of Berlin voted against a federal prison. That voted was declared to be “non-binding” – and another vote was held, after an expensive PR campaign. This time, the vote was in favor of a prison. Governor Lynch, Senators Gregg and Sununu, and Congressman Bass have all worked to ensure that this prison would be built, as have local and state elected officials. When the mill closed, they all went into high gear – promoting the prison as the saving grace of the city.
Looking toward the future hasn’t been encouraged in the dialogue thus far. Turning Berlin into a prison town will stigmatize the area. Tourism will not flourish. As folks plan summer vacations they tend to think of visiting national parks, and recreation areas, not maximum security prisons with horrendous lighting, razor wire, and electric fences. The construction companies will import their own union labor, and procure materials through bid contracts – not local suppliers. Some low paying jobs might be available to local laborers. That leaves 250 mill workers still unemployed. The imported workers would bring their families – thereby inflating the cost of local housing, and adding children to the local schools – which impacts the already strained local budgets.
The federal prison is tax exempt. There will be no real estate taxes, no property taxes on the 450 acres. The city of Berlin will be absorbing the cost of improving the infrastructure needs – notably increasing the sewer capacity, which may require a new gravity system, and new pump station. Roads and bridges will need to be strengthened, all at taxpayer expense. The facility would generate approximately 2.7 tons of waste per day – about 81 tons per month going into the landfill, which will impact the life of the landfill considerably.
The favored site for the prison will destroy 242 acres of wetlands, and impact the wildlife significantly – which will impact the tourist economy of surrounding towns and areas. It will displace the Nansen Ski Touring Club. The prison will be at a higher altitude than the state prison, with lights on poles that will be 150 ft. high. The light pollution will interfere with the migratory habits of nocturnal wildlife and birds that live in the area. The combined light pollution of the two prisons will eradicate any view of the night sky, and be visible all over the north country.
But – the jobs! This is all about the jobs, right? The Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBOP) is anticipating 350 jobs. Most would be filled by current FBOP employees. There would be 60 jobs for local folks in the three northern counties. That’s 20 jobs for Grafton, 20 for Carroll, and 20 for Coos County. That still leaves 250 mill workers unemployed. No one over the age of 37 is hired as a corrections officer, and corrections officers must have a bachelor’s degree. The new hires earn $25,000 a year, which may be problematic when the housing costs increase.
There will be increased demand on law enforcement, courts, health, and medical services. These costs will be borne by taxpayers. Maximum security prisons are filled with violent criminals. Some of them will be followed by their families. Some will be gang members, who will be followed by gang support systems. The prisoners will be released into the community, but won’t necessarily stay there. What goes up must come down. Gang and other criminal activity will be exported into the greater Conway area as well.
To summarize – a maximum strength federal prison may be built in Berlin/Milan. It won’t pay taxes. It will create a need for increased infrastructure, which will be at the cost of local taxpayers. The contractors will come from away, and drive up housing and education costs. There will be increased demand on law enforcement, courts, health, medical, and counseling services. Gangs will be present, as well as families of violent criminals. This is a pork project that will cost US taxpayers $179 million to build, even as the FBOP is closing other facilities. BUT – on the plus side, there will be 20 new jobs in Coos County. This is a quick fix that will only exacerbate the long term economic problems of the city of Berlin and surrounding towns.
The Informed Citizens for a Better North Country is a group that has formed in opposition to the prison. Check out their website at www.nofederalprison.org
No one is listening to these folks – their federal and state elected officials are ignoring them completely. Their state senator, in fact, is brokering the land deal. The FBOP comment period is open until September 15. This prison has potential to negatively impact the Mt. Washington Valley. Send the FBOP your thoughts on the subject at:
Federal Bureau of Prisons
320 First Street NW
Washington, DC 20534