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Shaheen visits for snowmelt

BERLIN — The $19.5 million federal snow melt grant will allow Berlin to improve the downtown and make it more enticing to visitors, Mayor Paul Grenier told U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen during her visit to the city last Friday.

The federal Department of Transportation last week announced Berlin had been awarded one of the highly sought grants with its innovative proposal to use waste hot water from the Burgess BioPower biomass plant to heat downtown streets and sidewalks during winter months.

Officials of the city and Burgess took Shaheen, a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee,  on a tour of the downtown to give her an on-the-ground briefing of the project.

“Finally putting money into the heart of our city. That’s what we’ve been needing this whole time,” Grenier said, noting the city’s finances do not allow it to undertake the reconstruction of the downtown.

He said the grant will completely reconstruct Main and Pleasant Streets from St. Anne Church to Green Square, replacing the subsurface utilities, upgrading sidewalks, repaving the streets,  fixing two culverts/bridges and landscaping. Grenier said the last major upgrade of the downtown was in the late 1970s and early ’80s.

What makes the project innovative is the snow melt component. Grenier said snowy roads, icy sidewalks, and snow banks in the downtown area will all be things of the past once the project is finished.

“And then when you drive through here, you know, the week of Super Bowl, and it’s not going to be a stitch of snow here. How incredible is that?” he asked.

Kelli Poulin, owner of Greetings Jewelers at 107 Main St., told Shaheen she has been in business in Berlin for almost 20 years and tracks the financial impact of winter storms when people can’t get out because of the storm and icy conditions. She said the loss in revenue is pretty significant and said she provided that information to the grant application.

Grenier said the loss in revenue comes during the four months when expenses are the highest for most businesses. With the snowmelt system installed, the mayor said Berlin will mimic street conditions in North Carolina. He said people will come to Berlin to see it in action and the downtown will become an attractive place for businesses.

Dammon Frecker of Burgess BioPower said they spoke to officials in Holland, Mich., which has had a snowmelt system for years and recently expanded it. He said the community development director told them people have grown to like the system and they would have a mutiny on their hands if they stopped it.  

The city will use hot condenser water from the 75-watt biomass plant, pump it across the river on a specific pipe bridge, circulate it through the downtown in the underground piping, and then return the cooled water back to the biomass plant to be used again. Frecker said Burgess BioPower has agreed to provide the water for the city’s project for free. Asked about the possibility of providing hot water to businesses in downtown Berlin, Frecker said this system is designed specifically for street and sidewalk heating but said expanding into buildings is something they could look at in the future.

“There’s certainly a lot more heat left at Burgess, this project only uses about 10 percent of the waste heat that gets ejected from our cooling tower,” he said.

Frecker said Burgess BioPower will have a supplemental boiler on the power plant side of the river it can use to raise the heat to address days of extremely cold subzero temperatures or heavy snowfall.

“Certainly, if it’s snowing 2 or 3 inches an hour and it’s subzero the snow isn’t going to instantly melt. It might take an hour or two when things settle down for it to catch up. But under normal systems, it should melt fairly readily,” he said.

The application shows that the project would gradually pay for itself over 30 years in savings in reduced snow removal costs, avoided salt and sand costs, increased revenue to businesses, and sale of thermo Renewable Energy Certificates.

Shaheen congratulated Grenier and the city for persevering on the project for such a long time.

“I think it will be good for the city, for the surrounding area and, and good for the future as we think about how do we attract tourists and continue to move the economy forward here,” she said.

Grenier indicated the city has not yet received details on how the grant will be spent and what permits will be required. He said he will recommend the project be done in stages.

“I think you can’t rip both streets all at the same time,” he said, noting they need to minimize disruption to merchants and businesses. He said he believes the project will have to be done in sections with traffic rerouted.

Grenier said the project has been criticized by a group of what he termed “naysayers” and said it would have been easy to walk away. But he said in five years, Berlin will have the snow melt project done, the riverwalk finished, and a commercial greenhouse project selling greens and tomatoes to the New England market.

“You just have to be bold enough to tie your shoes a little tighter and move forward,” the mayor said.