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Shaheen surveys Coos economy

BERLIN -- When the nation's economy begins its turnaround, northern New Hampshire's most important highways must be smoother and faster, economic leaders told U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen on Saturday.

They weren't just talking about the paved roadways, they were talking about the information highway and the need to bring broadband to the most rural areas.

Highway dollars, said Eddie Deblois, who has hung on to his job at Fraser Papers, tend to go to southern parts of the state.

"We need to improve roads and hopefully steer some money to the North Country," he said who had frequently visited Berlin when she was governor, was in town Saturday to talk about the economic challenges facing the region.

More than a dozen economic leaders and state lawmakers briefed her on projects they are working on to provide jobs and opportunities for the people who live here.

In the economic stimulus plan passed earlier this year, there is "significant funding for rural broadband," she said, after several people mentioned the importance of it in the region, but noted "other parts of the country want to see increased speed and broadband is vying with that."

Energy was also a topic as Shaheen made her way around the roundtable discussion. Jim Wagner, general manager of Woodstone, which is developing a pellet plant in Berlin, said there is "great real estate available" for renewable resources, perhaps the greatest availability being in Groveton, where the town has lost its two paper mills in the past few years.

State Rep. Bill Remick, R-Lancster, said the region "has the potential of being the energy capital of New Hampshire." But right now, "all this is just talk unless we upgrade the transmission line," which he said, only has 100 megawatts of capacity remaining.

Tourism is also an important part of the economic mix in the region. Scott Labnon, whose family has operated the Town and Country Motor Inn in Shelburne for decades, said the business has been able to "refocus and capitalize on" local ski areas and attractions.

His biggest challenge, however, is in his fastest rising cost.

"My biggest concern is health care," he said. "We've had a double-digit increase come at us."

The Northern Community Investment Corp. is continuing work on a branding project for tourism in Coos County, said Cathy Conway.

Getting tourists into the county is the first step, but once they are here, there are few signs to point them in the direction they want to go.

At the intersection of Routes 3 and 302 in Twin Mountain, she said, "there is nothing to tell people where the Mount Washington Hotel is," and asked for some help to pay for a system of wayfinding signs.

Max Makitas, executive director of the Androscoggin Valley Economic Recovery Corp., agreed that tourism development will be a key in recovery.

"The potential for tourism is fantastic," he said. "This is New Hampshire the way it used to be. We need something to sell it to people," such as resources for signage and marketing.

For state Sen. John Gallus, R-Berlin, it all comes down to jobs in a county that now has the highest unemployment rate in the state.

"I am super concerned about employment opportunities in northern New Hampshire," he said. "The economic downturn has focused the spotlight on New Hampshire and when recovery comes, it won't come to Coos County. We need some serious attention."