A 4.5-mile trail for ATV riders running through the northernmost city of New Hampshire may be key to putting the North Country community, still suffering from the loss of its paper mill industry several years ago, on the path to economic recovery.
The trail connects the 3-year-old Jericho Mountain State Park on the west side of Berlin, which has numerous all-terrain vehicle trails, with a large trail network in the unincorporated township of Success east of the city. The connector trail through Berlin, which opens Saturday, allows for 100 miles of ATV riding.
Berlin and economic development officials hope the trails will be a huge draw for ATV enthusiasts, who don't have a lot of riding options in New Hampshire and surrounding states, and for new businesses, including hotels, gas stations, and stores.
"We're struggling to find ourselves here with the demise of the pulp mill," Berlin Mayor David Bertrand said. "We're looking to open up some options, and this is one of them."
There are some bright spots in Berlin: A new federal prison is expected to open next year. Two electricity plants that would burn waste timber from the surrounding forest also are planned.
For years, Berlin was known as an industrial city. It once had a population of more than 20,000 in the 1920s, but now has fewer than 10,000 residents. The city seal showed a smokestack, part of its heritage as the home of paper mills. The 100-year-old pulp mill closed in 2006. This year, the smokestack was taken away from the seal, and mountains, evergreens and a river were added to emphasize the area's natural beauty.
"We see ourselves differently now as being maybe recreation-oriented, but we need to build that infrastructure, that draw to have people come here," said Laura Viger, the city's community services director. She said the city opened up sidewalks and streets for snowmobile use in the winter about six years ago, and that has been a benefit to local tourism and businesses.
A goal for New Hampshire's North Country, the most rural and least populated region of the state, is to build up an ATV trail system. In Gorham, less than 10 miles away from Berlin, the state has proposed opening sections of a former rail trail to include ATV use and connect it to Jericho State Park and the Success area, as well.
Chris Gamache, trails bureau chief with the state's Department of Resources and Economic Development, said the majority of ATV trails statewide include secluded pockets of trails with little or no connection between them. To create a network in the North Country, the state needs to first negotiate with private landowners and timber companies.
In Berlin, Randy Cicchetto has seen his ATV and snowmobile business grow with the rising popularity of the state park and expects to see that continue with the new trail connector, which also passes by restaurants and convenience stores. In the few years since he opened his store, he's been getting more calls to rent and operate ATVS from Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, even some from overseas.
"It's the whole package," he said. "This is going to attract a lot of people up here who enjoy the sports of ATVing, snowmobiling and dirt biking. They'll all have the opportunity to come up here and use the park and ride across town."