Feburary 15, 2004 - The Boston Globe (MA)
Prisons Bring Mill City's Release
As Paper Industry Struggles, Future Of Berlin, NH, Lies In Corrections
By Diane Allen, Globe Correspondent
BERLIN, NH -- Eddy L'Heureux was born and raised in this staunch French Canadian community, where the tall smoke stacks rival the White Mountains. Like so many other young men who grew up here, L'Heureux followed in his father's footsteps and went to work at the paper mill after graduating from high school.
But when L'Heureux's son, Peter, started talking about what he might do for a living, L'Heureux suggested he consider another career path.
"I had a feeling that the industry was dying," L'Heureux said. "I should have followed my own advice."
After 26 years in the paper-making business-almost 20 years shy of the tenure his own father enjoyed before retiring-L'Heureux was laid off. He was eventually called back, but by then he had decided it was time for change.
So last year, L'Heureux became a correctional officer at Berlin's state prison for men-just like his son, who began working at the prison in 2000.
New Hampshire's northernmost city has long relied on paper mills for its economic lifeblood. But since the 1990 Census, the Coos County city has lost 12.6 percent of its population, dropping to 10,331 in 2000. The troubled mills suffered a shutdown in 2001, and had not returned to their former strength when they were forced to lay off people just before this past holiday season.
Many residents believe the future of Berlin, 15 miles north of Mount Washington and as close to Boston as it is to Montreal, lies in prisons.
The city already is home to the $30 million, medium-security Northern New Hampshire Correctional Facility that opened more than three years ago in the Androscoggin River Valley. Now most of the community is embracing the construction of a new $154.5 million federal correctional facility scheduled to open in 2008.
In a county with the highest unemployment rate in the state, the infusion of 300 more jobs from the second prison means many residents will no longer have to leave home to find work. And those who move here-about 40 percent of the new hires are expected to arrive from outside Coos County-could help revitalize an aging community. In Berlin alone, more than 9 percent of families are considered living below the poverty level.
"I want Berlin to grow. You've got to let it grow," said Renee Stewart, 26, a saleswoman at Aubuchon Hardware, where Berlin's state prison bought waffle irons for its culinary program. "It's jobs, even for people here when they're building [a prison] . . . Even for the small shop owners. We're going to have more people to shop there."
The actual site for the Berlin medium-security federal prison, which will be second only to the Seabrook nuclear power plant as the state's most ambitious public works project, has not been determined. But one possible location is near the current 500-bed state prison with its 217 positions.
But not everyone in Berlin is crazy about a second prison.
In the first nonbinding referendum on the issue in November 2001, the idea lost by 90 votes. But a grass-roots petition drive brought about a second referendum in May 2002 and a vote that was 2-to-1 in favor of the federal facility.
The fact that only Berlin residents were asked to weigh in on the new prison has been a sore spot for Cheryl Croteau, 46, a hair stylist who lives in nearby Milan but works in Berlin. "I don't want it. It's in my backyard," Croteau said. "I'm not crazy about the night sky with the other one. The light pollution, that's what bothers me. I live in Milan and have no say."
Croteau also didn't like how the first prison handled its grand opening in 2001. Something about it scared her daughter, Jodie, now 12. But when Croteau tried to take Jodie on a tour, hoping to reassure her, Croteau was told the child was too young to visit.
"She kept her window locked all summer," Croteau said. "She would not open it."
Alan Turmel, a truck driver who grew up in Berlin, also has a beef with the way the state prison was promoted. "These jobs were supposed to go to Berlin people," said Turmel, 48. "I put in for a job in the warehouse and didn't even get an interview . . .
"When they built it, the community was supposed to benefit first from jobs.
The only benefit it brought was construction-short term."
Northern New Hampshire Correctional Facility figures, however, show 75 people who lived in Berlin before the prison opened now work there. That compares with 28 from adjacent Gorham and 21 from Milan.
Regardless of the numbers, for some Berlin area residents, the prison opened its doors just in time. Thirteen of the current security staffers once worked at a mill.
For L'Heureux, shifting from a millwright to a correctional officer meant earning a comparable salary. L'Heureux now makes $15 an hour at the state prison, about $3 an hour less than he earned at the mill. But, he said, his paycheck comes out about the same since his health benefits are covered at the prison along with paid sick days.
Brenda Adam, another correctional officer, has seen her income more than double since she left her factory job for prison work with better benefits. "For a female, it's excellent pay," she said.
But because L'Heureux and Adam are both older than 37 -- the cutoff age for entering the federal correctional system-neither would be able to apply for a job at the new prison if they were not already correctional officers.
That age limitation impacts mill workers, whose average age is 50.
Berlin Mayor Bob Danderson, who lobbied for the federal prison, acknowledged the new facility is not a cure for all the city's problems. But he does think it will help provide careers for younger people and bolster the local economy with newcomers.
"One of our biggest problems in Berlin is the excess of housing," Danderson said. "One of the things [the influx] will do is raise the value of existing properties and create a market for new properties."
Danderson envisions the new workers, many of whom city leaders hope will have dual-income households, will need services once they arrive. He hopes their spending power will eventually create jobs that older millworkers might need later if the mills run into trouble again. Berlin has almost five times as many people 65 and older as it does under the age of 5.
Mark Hodgdon, a hardware store salesman, said he has already seen a ripple effect from the state prison. "Paint sales went way up. Plumbing, electrical all went up," he said. "People had to remodel all these old houses."
People like Hodgdon understand the prospect of well-paying, stable jobs.
"Now they have a choice whether or not they want to stick around," said Hodgdon, 36. "It's a career job. It's not flipping burgers or working in a factory. At least, for them, they can settle down and be close to their family."
Mark Belander, an office manager for New Hampshire Employment Security, is thrilled about the promise of more opportunity. Schools are beginning to put up fliers promoting their criminal justice programs.
"There are not a whole lot of good-paying jobs around here," said Belander, 39, who was laid off from the mills. "We're excited about it [federal prison]. We're a little disappointed we've got to wait 18 months for the environmental study, but we've got to do what we've got to do."
Even longtime residents like Inez Hamlin are ready for change.
"You have to listen to them [younger people]," said Hamlin, 82, and a former city librarian. "Their ideas aren't like ours, but who's to say we're right and they're not."
Hamlin and her husband, Oscar, 86, both worked at the mills at one point. He was a chemical engineer who retired from the paper business after 39 years.
Sitting at the Dunkin' Donuts in downtown Berlin, Inez Hamlin struggled to talk over the din of senior citizens' voices about the hoped-for rejuvenation of her city. "I think it'll become a younger town," said Hamlin. "A lot of our friends have gone [died] . . . It'll be new blood. I think you have to have new minds and new ideas."
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.
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