BERLIN — The city has submitted its $18.7 million application to revitalize downtown Berlin by reconstructing the entire streetscape and installing an innovative snowmelt system.

The city has spent four years studying and gathering information on the concept since it was first suggested by City Manager James Wheeler. As proposed, “Renewing Berlin with Renewable Energy” would reconstruct Main and Pleasant Streets from Green Square to St. Anne Church. Sidewalks, parking lots, two bridges would be rehabilitated or reconstructed and sections of the aging drainage infrastructure would be replaced. Partnering with Burgess BioPower, the city would install a snowmelt system that would eliminate snow and ice in the downtown.

The city is applying through the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development grant program which funds projects that have a significant local or regional impact with special consideration to those in rural areas.

City Manager James Wheeler said he felt the city put together a very impressive application in a compressed time frame. Still he warned the city council Monday night that there is a lot of competition for the grants. But he said if Berlin is not successful in this round, it can apply in the next round.

The application outlines how the hydropower provided by the Androscoggin River attracted the paper industry to Berlin and the shuttering of the mills has put the city in a downward spiral. The documents show that renewable energy is still a big part of the city’s economy. Between hydro generation, wind turbines, and the biomass plant, Berlin produces more clean energy that it consumes. The biggest generator of renewable energy is Burgess BioPower’s 75-megawatt biomass plant and its participation in the project is central by allowing for a unique and innovative snowmelt system.

Also committing to partner with the city on the project are the University of New Hampshire and the U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory. Both would monitor the performance of the snowmelt system.

The U.S. DOT’s schedule calls for the successful grants to be announced this September. If the city’s application is approved, construction would begin in the spring of 2024 and it would take over two years to complete.

With an average snowfall of over seven feet a year, the city plows, salts and sands the downtown and then has to load snow in dump trucks and remove it from the downtown after every storm. Despite that, the application states the downtown streets and sidewalks are rarely free of ice and snow during winter months. The salt and sand build up and blow about on windy days before Public Works gets a chance to remove it.

The snow melt system would make the downtown safer by keeping the streets, sidewalks, and municipal parking lots bare. Shoppers and walkers would find the downtown appealing.

Installing the snow-melt system would require reconstructing the road bed all the way to the base gravel. Sidewalks would also have to be reconstructed with new concrete pavers. Sections of old and undersized drainage that cause flooding in some areas of the downtown would be replaced. Enhanced lighting, engineered crosswalks, and trees would improve the aesthetics and increase economic activity. The application describes the downtown as one of the city’s economic drivers.

Wheeler said the project is possible because of Burgess BioPower. The city will use hot condenser water from the biomass plant, pump it across the river on a new pipe bridge, circulated it through the downtown to heat surfaces and return the cooled water to the plant to be used again. The city is looking at heating approximately 381,000 square feet which is about eight percent of the waste heat that the plant currently releases into the atmosphere. The application states there is sufficient waste heat for an expansion of the project should that be a possibility in the future.

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.

Included in the application are various studies pointing to the importance of the downtown to the city’s efforts to improve the local economy. There is also information on the snow-melting system that has operated in downtown Holland, MI since the 1980’s. That system has been expanded to cover a four-block section of downtown streets there and is very popular.

Councilor Peter Higbee said he was very impressed with the application, which was put together by Wheeler, Community Development Director Pamela Laflamme, HEB Engineers, Wilson Engineering Services.

“That’s a piece of work,” he said.

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