Berlin Begins Strategic Plan Effort; Public Meetings Planned Over Next Month

Berlin Begins Strategic Plan Effort; Public Meetings Planned Over Next Month

BERLIN –Town officials kicked off the strategic planning process last week by sharing their own ideas and concerns for Berlin in a work session modeled after the ones citizens will be taking part in during the coming weeks.

On Jan. 15, Berlin’s officials and department leaders met with Christine Becker, the facilitator the town has hired, to begin discussions of the town’s future. Becker will be leading the four community input sessions that will result in the creation of a three-year strategic plan for Berlin.

“We’re not talking about dramatically changing Berlin’s direction but to be more explicit,” Becker said.

She started by having attendees break into small groups to talk about what they loved about the town and what its values were. Staff members talked about the pride residents took in the community and said it was evident even when citizens called town hall to complain.

“If nobody calls, it means nobody cares,” said Mary Bohlen, Berlin’s deputy town administrator.

Other values mentioned included economic and environmental sustainability.

“They can be compatible but it has to be a community value,” Mayor Gee Williams said.

He went on to say locals also put a lot of importance on partnerships, which had come to be expected in Berlin.

“Partnerships between the pillars of the community come naturally,” he said. “They’re not forced.”

When Becker asked the group to share their worries for Berlin’s future, responses included aging infrastructure, changing demographics and growth.

“The focus has shifted from where we’re going to get the money to where we’re going to spend the money,” Town Administrator Laura Allen said.

Another concern voiced was sustainability.

“In the region, we’re one of the environmental leaders,” said Dave Engelhart, Berlin’s planning director. “We want to stay there.”

The work session concluded with participants sharing what they considered to be the biggest issues facing Berlin in the future. As expected, the need for more park space was one of the first mentioned, but staff also brought up the shortage of downtown parking spaces, an aging population, energy concerns and the need to increase the town’s property tax base. The need for a variety of affordable housing options was also cited, as was the importance of improving accessibility and mobility in town.

Bohlen pointed out that as they worked on creating a strategic plan town officials shouldn’t forget about previously set goals they hadn’t yet met.

“I don’t want to see those priorities get replaced,” Bohlen said.

Williams agreed and said he hoped the strategic planning process would enable the town to move forward but without changing its character.

“We want to maintain our 19th Century charm but be a 21st Century community,” he said.

Becker said the process would benefit from significant community participation. That way, she explained, rather than single ideas from each individual the town would have broad concepts created through community conversation.

“It’s collective ideas from people who love the community,” she said. “They become co-creators of the strategic plan.”

Town officials agreed that public participation was important and said the varied dates and times for community input sessions were an effort to accommodate residents’ schedules. Free babysitting by Worcester Youth and Family Counseling Services will even be offered for the sessions on Feb. 12 and Feb. 21.

Williams made a point to say that anyone with an interest in Berlin — resident or not — was welcome to attend the sessions.

“There are no unimportant people as far as we’re concerned,” he said.

Community meeting dates are Thursday, Jan. 29, 5:30 to 8 p.m., Flower Street Multi-Purpose Building; Saturday, Feb. 7, 9:30 a.m. to noon, Berlin Town Hall; Thursday, Feb. 12, 6-8:30 p.m., Buckingham Elementary School; and Saturday, Feb. 21, 9:30 a.m. to noon, Flower Street Multi-Purpose Building.