By MARTHA WELLS, InDepthNH.org
BERLIN – For the first time in 14 years, the city of Berlin has a new mayor. Inauguration at City Hall on Tuesday night featured a transition in power from seven-term outgoing Mayor Paul Grenier, a Democrat, to Robert Cone, a Republican Berlin native and employee of the federal prison. When asked how it felt to officially have the title of Mayor of the city of Berlin, Cone said, “I am honored and looking forward to doing the people’s work.”
Cone narrowly defeated Grenier in the municipal election on November 7. Cone was informed of his victory in a phone call from Mayor Grenier: “I was in disbelief and shock. I actually had to ask him to repeat it again. He told me I won by 49 votes.”
The election featured a 42 percent voter turnout for the only city in Coos County. Along with then-incumbent Mayor Grenier and Cone, the four-way mayoral race included current city council member and former NH House of Representative Robert Theberge, and political newcomer Sarah Mafera. Cone secured 36 percent of the vote, followed by Grenier, with 34 percent, Theberge with 21 percent, and Mafera with 9 percent, according to unofficial results.
Despite his lack of political experience, Cone says he never doubted that he had a shot at winning the election: “We always figured we had a chance to win. I mean, that is why you ultimately decide to run.” Cone retired from the NH Army National Guard with 22 years of service, including 13 years on active duty. Upon completing active duty, Cone and his wife, Katherine, decided to move back to his hometown of Berlin in 2012. Cone started working at the federal prison the same year and has gained further leadership experience through his involvement in the prison union. He served terms as steward, vice president, and president of Local 2008 of the American Federation of Government Employees. He said he decided not to seek reelection for president in 2021 and instead looked to expand his political experience by becoming the union’s legislative coordinator.
While Cone feels his military and union experience made him a good candidate for mayor, he said he thinks his appeal for many voters was his acknowledgment that he is just like them. “Oddly enough, I think what made me a good candidate as Mayor is that I am just like everyone else.” He said that he understands firsthand the financial struggle of many Berlin residents and noted that he has the same concerns as many about education, property taxes, infrastructure, and attracting businesses to the city.
On his loss, outgoing Mayor Grenier acknowledged, “Elected officials have a shelf life. I accepted when I got into this that, someday, I would be defeated at the polls.” Grenier began his public service at age 36 and served as a member of City Council for 16 years before deciding to run for Mayor in late 2009. He won seven consecutive two-year terms. He suspects that this time, the number of people on the ballot impacted the results; votes that would’ve been split between him and one other opponent in the past were dispersed among four candidates. He noted, however, that he would not contest the election results: “The country has been through that in 2020. Shame on people who perpetuate that.”
He attributes the change in voter dynamics to one of his biggest struggles as Mayor: the out-migration of natives. Grenier was first elected as Mayor in November of 2009, and said that in the spate of 18 months thereafter, the Fraser Paper mill closed, Isaacson Structural Steel, Inc., closed, and the Car-Freshener plant closed. Grenier recalled receiving a call from the head of the local paper makers union in December 2010: “He said, ‘You and I need to meet. We’re in trouble.'” Grenier organized a meeting with then Gov. John Lynch, Commissioner of the state’s Department of Resources and Economic Development, George Bald, and union representatives to develop a response plan. Ultimately, Lynn Tilton, who specialized in buying struggling companies through her private investment firm, Patriarch Partners, bought the mill in May 2011.
It was a short sigh of relief. While on vacation in June 2011, Grenier received a call from Isaacson Structural Steel, Inc.–the second largest employer in the city–that the bank had cut its operating finances. He cut his vacation short and returned home to try to figure out what to do. Ultimately, the steel fabricator closed two weeks later. “Right when there was a light [for Berlin], the tunnel closed,” he said.
Grenier said he and his fellow officials worked hard to find alternative employment opportunities for those who had been laid off. Burgess Biopower, a biomass plant that uses wood to generate electricity, broke ground in October 2011. Grenier said he facilitated a deal between Burgess Biopower and the NH American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) to put together an apprentice program to train those looking for a job.
Concurrently, the city negotiated with the state to build an industrial park which helped to secure Capone Iron Corporation. Capone Iron, based out of Rowley, MA, is one New England’s top steel construction firms. Grenier explained that one of the reasons Capone Iron considered Berlin as a location for a second fabrication facility was because they knew there was already a subset of skilled fabricators in the area. Grenier said Capone Iron currently employs about 45 people.
Despite the city’s effort to mitigate emigration, Grenier admitted that after losing several employers, “A lot of people left and didn’t come back.” According to the 2020 census, there were about 600 fewer residents in Berlin than in 2010. Grenier explained that as families left Berlin, housing prices dropped and the people moving in tended to be from outside Coos County and outside of the state. “They saw that the infrastructure was poor and the tax rate higher,” he said. “They accused the city of mismanagement. But they didn’t know the history [of Berlin] and where we’re coming from.”
Grenier, a lifetime resident of Berlin and Berlin High School Class of 1973 graduate, recalled a vibrant Berlin. He said that in the 1960s, with a city population of nearly 18,000, the local mills were a heavy industry and employed almost 3,000 people. “I grew up in the Phoenix of the city of Berlin,” he said, recalling a population nearly double the current, and one able to sustain attractions he appreciated as a child and young adult, like American League baseball. He noted that as the paper industry declined, however, the city began to lose population, “the type of population that can keep a city thriving.”
Holding this vision of a flourishing Berlin, Grenier ran for Mayor in 2009 with an aim to provide two things he felt the city needed: a native familiar with the culture of the city and someone willing to work overtime to keep the city solvent. When he entered office in 2010, the city fund balance was less than $400,000–the low end of state requirements. “Times were lean,” he said. He explained that for many years, the city wasn’t able to replace public works equipment or fire trucks, and the school department wasn’t adequately funded. “With the uncertainty, I didn’t dare go in debt. We were cash as you go,” he said.
He is proud to leave the city in a better financial position. “[The city] now has a $4.3 million undesignated fund balance. This sets the city on a path of solid growth and being able to invest in infrastructure without clobbering taxpayers to do it.” He adds that every piece of public works equipment has been upgraded, two new firetrucks were acquired through a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grant, and there is no longer an edict from the NH Department of Education for Berlin schools to improve. Recognizing the city council and employees of the city, Grenier said, “We’ve done a lot of work in this community. I’ve been able to lead the charge, but it would be disingenuous of me to say I did it all on my own.” Of Berlin today he said, “It’s the most secure this place has been in a full generation.”
Mayor Cone acknowledged the growth in Berlin: “Honestly, as much as we can all acknowledge that Berlin is in a really rough place, it’s actually been in a worse spot. We were on the brink of bankruptcy many years ago and can at least be thankful that we’re not there now.” Cone said he is eager to look into ways to increase the city’s revenue and thereby reduce the burden on taxpayers, the latter a concern he heard often while campaigning. He believes bringing new businesses in and reversing the trend of businesses closing will be an important part of this. He is optimistic that the $19.5 million federal Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE) grant, awarded to the city in 2022, will help to enhance Berlin’s appeal to business owners and tourists alike. The grant will allow for complete reconstruction of Berlin’s downtown over a 10-year period. “If we want tourists to stop in our city, we need to give them a reason to stop. If we want families to move here, we need to give them a reason to move here,” he said.
He cited his two children as motivators for his commitment to the future of the city: “My wife and I are raising our young family here and we want the best for them, just like everyone else.” Having grown up in Berlin himself, Cone said he knows the city can be a great place to raise a family. With a pride reminiscent of his predecessor, Mayor Grenier, Cone said: “The city of Berlin is a very special place.”
Cone said he has been attending City Council meetings and having conversations with community members and business owners in preparation for the transition. He noted, “It’s a huge priority for me to make sure that people know I want to continue hearing from them. Just because the election is over doesn’t mean that stops. I meant it when I said I wanted to be a mayor for the people and will continue to do my best to hear their questions and concerns.”
Cone said he has also been in contact with Grenier, and Grenier complimented, “The new mayor has been very gracious.” Grenier extended his assistance, as well, stating that he would help in whatever way Cone needed to understand his new role. He offered Mayor Cone a final piece of advice: “Steady as you go and keep your integrity and honesty intact. With those two, you can go a long way. And without them, you don’t last.”
Martha Wells writes occasional articles for InDepthNH.org. She grew up in Colebrook and lives in Pittsburg.