Prison Could Jumpstart Old N.H. Mill Town

After nearly a decade of severe economic decline, good fortune may finally be shining down on Berlin, N.H. A federal prison is set to open there in the next few months. That means $20 million will start washing into this city devastated by the collapse of the pulp-and-paper-mill industry. Residents and business owners say this Christmas is going to be a little bit brighter.

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Recent Christmases in Berlin, New Hampshire, have not been terribly merry. For the last decade, people in the old pulp-and-paper mill city have watched neighbors leave, businesses go bust and economic dreams dissolve. But this Christmas, there's something in the air. As we hear from Dan Gorenstein of New Hampshire Public Radio, a new employer is coming to town with jobs for people throughout the region.

DAN GORENSTEIN, BYLINE: This Christmas story starts fittingly in Bethlehem, New Hampshire.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Hi.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Hi, welcome.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Thank you.

GORENSTEIN: This no-stoplight town tucked into the White Mountain National Forest is a little under an hour's drive from the new federal prison; a prison that for the past year sat vacant because Congress hasn't provided the money to open it until now. So, on this wet, early winter night, about a dozen men and women, young and old, are sitting in the town hall. They're here because employment security manager Mark Belanger comes bearing gifts. Job prospects, lots of job prospects.

MARK BELANGER: It's not just correctional officers. Electricians, HVAC supervisors, people who do typing, filing, bookkeeping, office manager, (unintelligible) in that department, budgeting, teachers, education specialists, food service. Twelve new hires in medical services, somebody with a master's degree in divinity and a psychologist's secretary.

GORENSTEIN: To a region chewed up economically - it's got the state's highest unemployment rate - Belanger calls the federal prison a city on the hill. He says, for locals, it's a real chance.

BELANGER: This is a job worth pursuing for the long run, so let's just say you were thinking about going to school. You didn't know what to go to school for. One of these occupations would set you up with a very good salary.

GORENSTEIN: This all comes after Congress passed a spending package last month, freeing up $6.5 billion to staff up three newly built federal prisons around the country. In Berlin, Belanger says about half of the 320 jobs will go to locals with salaries starting in the high 30s and benefits. Nineteen year old Dan Dobson hopes he's one of the lucky ones.

DAN DOBSON: I just got out of high school this spring. This is now finally opening up. It's perfect timing for me. It's perfect.

GORENSTEIN: Like lots of people in this part of New Hampshire, Dobson's trapped in a seasonal shuffle. For about eight bucks an hour, he's cleaning buildings at a resort this winter, then in April, he's likely headed back to his job with the train company taking people up a mountain.

DOBSON: I'm trying to find a steady job, one that's year round, regular pay going. I don't have to keep flip-flopping through jobs, filling out applications every spring, every fall. I'm sick and tired of flopping around doing jobs.

GORENSTEIN: For young people like Dobson, this federal prison may really hold the promise of some city on the hill. At least it's an option.

Fifty-four year old Shara Marrow(ph) can't say that.

SHARA MARROW: When the prison was first introduced, a lot of people thought, you're going to have this wonderful establishment coming in and now we find out you can't apply for the job if you're over 37 years old.

GORENSTEIN: The federal prison certainly has its critics, whether it's that age limit or just the fact that a prison is coming to town. But even the skeptics say this facility, which will eventually hold 1,300 medium and minimum security prisoners, is going to help the area turn a corner.

Some businesses are already seeing the signs.

RUSSELL RAMSEY: And as we drive around the neighborhood, you can see the Christmas lights on all the different houses.

GORENSTEIN: Real estate agent Russell Ramsey is showing off some of the available housing stock. Just last month, Ramsey closed on six places. He's got a contract with the Bureau of Prisons, which means corrections officers who are transferring here from Maryland or California, or wherever, call him. Ramsey's eyes get big when he tells me that, once the prison's fully operational, the payroll alone will be $20 million a year.

RAMSEY: The snowball effect is a tsunami. The impact that that's going to have is just going to swell. That's restaurants, that's ATVs, that's cars, that's shoes. I mean, everybody benefits. The hospital will probably double the number of people that have health insurance. How many people have thought of that?

GORENSTEIN: Unlike previous attempts to resurrect the paper industry in northern New Hampshire, Ramsey can't see market forces shutting down the prison any time soon. That helps explain the optimism that seems to be running around the place. Ramsey says it's the kind of Christmas where people can actually leave a little something extra under the tree.

RAMSEY: I was at Wal-Mart on Sunday and I'm going to give out four $25 gift cards to people that I know that are really not having it so good that'll appreciate that.

GORENSTEIN: Ramsey says he knows it's not a lot, but he says, yeah. Finally having some extra money, it's going to be nice. The future in Berlin, he says, is bright.

For NPR News, I'm Dan Gorenstein.

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