BERLIN, N.H. — This is “The City That Trees Built.”

A gateway to the North Country. Flanked by the White Mountain National Forest. More than a century ago, the Brown Paper Co. used water power from the Androscoggin River to provide steady work for thousands of men and women.

Sounds a lot like Millinocket, Maine.

Millinocket was nicknamed “the Magic City.” The gateway to Thoreau’s Maine Woods and Mount Katahdin. In 1898, the Great Northern Paper Co. built what would become the world’s largest paper mill on the banks of the Penobscot River.

But the world changed. In Berlin, the paper industry’s decline hit bottom in 2006, when the mill shut for good and was torn down.

Sounds a lot like Millinocket.

More than 4,000 people once worked there and at a sister mill in neighboring East Millinocket. The Millinocket mill closed in 2008, and was demolished in 2014. East Millinocket filed for bankruptcy that year, shut down and is likely to be scrapped.

But this is where the story lines diverge.

Berlin and surrounding towns now brand themselves with: “Your Adventure Starts Here.”

The area has evolved into the largest destination in the Northeast for all-terrain vehicle riders. It’s called Ride The Wilds, a 1,000-mile network of off-road trails that includes nearby Jericho Mountain State Park.

In late September, 7,100 visitors descended when motorsports maker Polaris held the inaugural Camp RZR event at the park. It was icing on the cake after the annual Jericho ATV Festival, which drew 6,000 people in August.

Most recently: The Zombie ATV Poker Run, a pre-Halloween dress-up and ride this weekend, part of Berlin’s RiverFire festival on the Androscoggin.

 

In this corner of Coos County, an economic recovery is arriving on four knobby tires, as a former papermaking community reinvents itself by embracing recreational tourism.

What’s happening here is being watched with interest by some in Millinocket.

Hobbled by joblessness that’s typically double the state average, conflicted over whether a manufacturing resurgence is possible, divided over whether the newly-created 87,500-acre Kathadin Woods and Waters National Monument is an asset or a threat, Millinocket is casting about for a path forward.

That process sent John Raymond to Berlin last year to check out the Jericho ATV Festival. He was struck by the similarities and the potential.

“After seeing what I saw in Berlin, I thought we’d be a perfect area for something like that,” said Raymond, president of the Northern Timber Cruisers ATV and Snowmobile Club.

An ATVer rides across over the Androscoggin River in downtown Berlin, N.H., in front of a $275 million wood-to-energy plant.

An ATVer rides across over the Androscoggin River in downtown Berlin, N.H., in front of a $275 million wood-to-energy plant. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Raymond’s plan is in its early stages, but he envisions a multi-use network that connects major trail corridors on 6,000 acres of private and state-owned land in the Katahdin region.

“Millinocket is like Berlin was 10 years ago,” said Pam Laflamme, Berlin’s community development director.

Laflamme, who heard that analogy last year at a symposium on the northern forest, was asked by a citizen-led redevelopment group in Millinocket to make a presentation next month at a speaker series on revitalizing the Katahdin region. It made her think back a decade, to the sense of despair in her city.

“All people could talk about was finding another buyer for the mill,” she said. “Reopening the mill. That was the theme. But at the same time, a group formed to look at the future and say, ‘we’ve got to do other things.'”

That effort led to rezoning city-owned land around Jericho Lake. It abutted a large parcel that was being logged and had changed hands. By chance, the state was looking for a place for ATV riders and wound up buying 7,200 acres in 2007 to create New Hampshire’s newest state park.

Ray Bergeron, owner of White Mountain ATV Rental, accelerates up an off-road trail between Berlin and Gorham, N.H.

Ray Bergeron, owner of White Mountain ATV Rental, accelerates up an off-road trail between Berlin and Gorham, N.H. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

WOODS AND WIDE OPEN SPACES

Earlier this month, Ray Bergeron was showing off the 80-mile trail system inside the park. Owner of White Mountain ATV Rental in Gorham, New Hampshire, Bergeron is one of the area’s leading advocates for off-road tourism. He steered his machine over the hilly terrain, stopping to take in expansive views of the Mahoosuc Range, cloaked this day in low clouds. From the Jericho Power wind farm, Bergeron stood beneath the 278-foot towers and pointed out highlights of Berlin and the river valley below, set in a forest landscape flecked with the red, orange and yellow of autumn.

At one vista, Anthony Lagrasse and his wife, Kylee, pulled over. The couple from Winchendon, Massachusetts, has been to the park a dozen times. They said they love the vast trails and mountain scenery, something they can’t find closer to home. They had hoped to book a motel room in Gorham, but there were no vacancies. They ended up staying in Lancaster, New Hampshire, 20 miles away.

The couple was driving a Polaris RZR side-by-side, a two-seat machine that sells for $10,000 or more. But they have a young son and want to buy a four-seater, something like the three-seat Yamaha Viking that Bergeron was driving. Selling for more than $12,000, it has a windshield, covered roll-cage roof and padded seat with seat belts. It resembles a narrow, stripped-down SUV rather than a straddle-like-a-motorcycle ATV, and speaks to the investment that some riders make in their pastime.

At the park’s welcome center, John and Dawn Carlos were unloading their machines. They had driven five hours from Coventry, Rhode Island, and were staying two nights at a motel in Gorham. They estimated they would spend $300 to $400 on food, lodging and fuel.

“We love it up here,” Dawn Carlos said, motioning to her husband. “I tell him, we should move up here.”

If they did, they’d find a bargain. The median home price in Berlin is $95,000, compared to $223,000 in Coventry.

SIGNS OF SPUTTERING PROGRESS

Low values reflect Berlin’s uneven and ongoing recovery. The downtown, the face of the city, is a work in progress. Handsome brick structures from glory days are in various stages of use, although some are abandoned. A vacant block for sale across from City Hall, the legacy of a fire, begs for redevelopment.

And while the former paper mill is gone, the downtown’s industrial heart is beating again with a $275 million wood-to-energy plant. The towering stack, the hum of machinery and the stream of trucks creates some semblance of paper making days, although with far fewer employers.

Berlin, N.H., has evolved into the largest destination in the Northeast for ATV riders, with 7,100 visitors descending on the area in late September for an event put on by Polaris. The area is also home to a 1,000-mile network of off-road trails, and brands itself with "Your Adventure Starts Here."

Berlin, N.H., has evolved into the largest destination in the Northeast for ATV riders, with 7,100 visitors descending on the area in late September for an event put on by Polaris. The area is also home to a 1,000-mile network of off-road trails, and brands itself with “Your Adventure Starts Here.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Beyond biomass, the forest products industry remains active. Downriver, the last surviving paper mill in the North Country, now called Gorham Paper & Tissue, is running again with roughly 100 workers making tissues and paper towels.

Berlin also has had success diversifying its economy. Federal and state prisons were built on its outskirts, together employing 450 workers. The federal facility has an annual payroll of $20 million. The city’s largest employer, Androscoggin Valley Hospital, has 400 employees.

Back downtown, a sidewalk sign by the 151 Main Street Grill welcomes ATV visitors, and banners on lamp posts depict helmet-clad riders. Berlin and surrounding communities have passed ordinances allowing ATVs on city streets, and it’s not unusual to see machines at gas stations, restaurants and motel parking lots.

Officials haven’t conducted a dedicated study of the impact of ATV tourism, but the boost is reflected in the state’s meals and lodging tax. Year-over-year tallies in Coos County for October, for instance, show a steady rise, from $691,429 in 2012 to $880,134 last year.

“Talk to any business, and you’re going to find out they are much busier than five years ago,” said Karl Stone, the outgoing marketing manager at Northern Community Investment Corp. in Lancaster.

Stone gives credit to the Androscoggin Valley Chamber of Commerce, which came up with the “Your Adventure Starts Here” motto and promotes the ATV events.

“They’ve welcomed these events with open arms and have grown them,” he said. “The only comparable area (on the East Coast) is the Hatfield-McCoy Trails System in West Virginia.”

SNOW NOT NECESSARY

Like the Katahdin region, Coos County is a magnet for snowmobiles. But sleds stayed in the yard during last year’s warm, brown winter. All-terrain vehicles, however, don’t need snow. They can get on the trails as soon as mud season ends and keep coming until winter.

That traffic has been transformational at Mt. Madison Inn & Suites in neighboring Gorham, which unlike Berlin has a dozen or so motels and restaurants.

“Since the ATVs came to town, we have no vacancies starting Memorial Day to the end of October,” said Ron Dagesse, the inn’s owner. “Seven days a week. Every single night. The ATV business has catapulted us into a whole new realm that I never thought I’d be in.”

In June, Dagesse said, an ATV club from Pennsylvania rented all his 32 rooms for five days. A group from New York City came and rented some machines and loved it so much, he said, that they bought a couple of ATVs and keep them in a local storage unit, so they can come up and ride.

Dagesse, who has 10 employees, said his revenue is up 20 percent this year over last year and he’s considering building a new hotel in town.

“That’s the only way I’d get my numbers up, because I’m maxed out,” he said.

Nearby at the Town and Country Motor Inn, owner Scott Labnon said that every weekend he sees between 10 and 20 vehicles hauling trailers with ATVs, arriving from Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

“A few weekends are solely dedicated to ATVs,” he said. “A significant number of room nights are added due to these visitors.”

One perception of ATV riders is that they are wild young men tearing up the woods. But Labnon and Stone say a more-typical profile of riders coming to Coos County are baby boomers, retirees and families. They come to enjoy the mountain scenery, not to drive fast. And it’s common, they say, to see a $40,000 pickup truck towing a pair of side-by-side ATVs in an enclosed trailer.

“They are willing to spend,” Labnon said.