North Country Looking Greener as New Prison Opens

The last bunch of Christmases up in Berlin, New Hampshire haven’t been terribly merry.

For the last decade, the old pulp and paper mill city near the Canadian border has watched life-long neighbors leave, businesses go bust and economic dream after dream dissolve.

But this Christmas there’s something in the air.

There's a new employer coming to town.

This Christmas story starts - fittingly- in Bethlehem.

This no-stop light 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 has sat vacant because Congress hadn’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’s come bearing gifts: job prospects, lots of job prospects.

To a region chewed up economically....boasting the state’s highest unemployment rate....Belanger says for locals the federal prison is a city up on the hill, it’s a real chance.

“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 could set up you up with a very good salary.”

This all comes after Congress passed a spending package last month, freeing up $6.5 billion dollars 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 30’s and benefits, 19-year-old Dan Dobson hopes he’s one of lucky ones.

“I just got out of high school this spring. oh, it’s perfect timing for me. It’s perfect.”

Like lots of people up in this part of New Hampshire, Dobson’s trapped in a seasonal shuffle.

For about $8 bucks an hour, he’s cleaning buildings at a resort this winter.

Then in April, he’s likely headed back to his job with a train company taking tourists up a mountain.

“I’m trying to find a steady job, one that’s year round. Get regular schedule, regular pay, don’t have to keep flip-flopping....mostly just something steady. I am sick and tired of flopping around doing jobs.”

For young people like Dobson, this federal prison may hold the promise of some city on a hill.

At least it’s an option.

54-year-old Sharon Amero can’t say that.

“When the prison was first introduced, a lot of people thoug, ‘you are going to have this wonderful establishment coming in,’ and now we find out, you can’t apply for the job if you are over 37 years old.”

The federal prison certainly has its critics.

Whether it’s the age limit, or just the fact that a prison is coming to town.

But even skeptics say this facility- which will eventually hold 1300 medium and minimum security prisoners- is going to help the area turn the corner.

Some businesses are already seeing signs.

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 is fully operational, the payroll alone will be $20 million dollars a year.

“The snowball effect of that much of a’s a’s amazing. That’s talking about grocery stories, that’s restaurants, that’s cars, that’s shoes. Everybody benefits. The hospital will probably double the number of people who have health insurance.”

Unlike previous attempts to resurrect the paper industry in northern New Hampshire, Ramsey can’t see ‘market forces’ shutting down the prison anytime soon.

That helps explain the optimism that seems to be running around here.

Ramsey says it’s the kind of Christmas where people can actually leave a little something extra under the tree.

"I went to Wal-Mart on Sunday and bought $100 of gift cards, and...I am going to give out 4 $25 gift cards to people I know who are going to appreciate that."

Ramsey says he knows it’s not a lot of money.

But he says, ‘yeah, having some extra money, it’s going to be nice.’

The future up in Berlin, says Ramsey, is bright.