When Shawn Marquis moved back to Berlin in 2017 after 25 years in the Boston area, much had changed.
The last paper mill had closed, population continued to decline along with an economic downturn, and a UNH study had described the area as a food desert, citing limited access to affordable and nutritious food.
So Marquis, 48, began to schedule 45-minute trips to the grocery stores in North Conway, or to the Littleton Food Co-op, a trend that Berlin City Councilor Peter Higbee found to be surprisingly consistent among local residents as he began organizing plans for the Androscoggin Food Co-op.
The only city in Coos County, Berlin is far from major hubs, but serves as a commerce center for smaller towns throughout the Androscoggin Valley. While similar mountain towns like North Conway and Littleton have experienced major economic growth in recent decades, Berlin’s relative isolation has contributed to the closure of many small businesses and local grocers.
With help from Littleton Food Co-op general manager Ed King and other volunteers, Higbee has spent the past few years bolstering membership for a potential co-op in Berlin. The pandemic provided a massive speed bump, but the start-up currently has over 320 members and is on the way to the 700-member bar set to secure a bank loan for a potential storefront.
“Every little bit of info. regarding the new store helps it feel a little more real,” said Higbee, a Berlin resident since 1974.
“When you start up, you have nothing to show for it other than plans and hopes, but every round of membership is like a marker that will trigger another round.”
Co-operative food markets offer a membership-based model that supports local producers and gives members a voice in store decisions. Typically, non-members are welcome to shop at co-ops, but membership drives the start-up process, which can take up to 10 years before opening.
JQ Hannah, assistant director of the Vermont-based nonprofit Food Co-oOp Initiative, said the cost of building and equipping grocery stores has gone up 50 percent since 2020. Yet there are 10 co-ops opening in the U.S. this year — including the Assabet Valley and Dorchester co-ops in Massachusetts — with over 100 in the process of opening across the country.
It takes a bit of faith for people to invest a one-time, $200 membership fee in a store that might not open for years, but Marquis said he has several family members who no longer live in New Hampshire, and are still willing to invest in their hometown.
“Those who leave here have such a fond spot in their heart for the city and they love the idea of supporting local farmers and enriching the area,” said Marquis, a 1992 Berlin High graduate and president of the Nansen Ski Club, the oldest continuously-operating ski club in North America.
“We’ve been the scrappy underdog. The mill went under, and this place kind of hit rock bottom for a while, but I think green shoots are starting to show through. After the pandemic people are looking at more rural places, and there’s a simmering sense that this area is ripe to explode.”
Help is on the way from outside sources, with the New Hampshire Community Development Finance Authority awarding $31,250 in tax credit funds to the Androscoggin Co-op and $150,000 to the Coos Economic Development Corporation in Lancaster.
The New Hampshire Community Loan Fund could also get involved. When the nonprofit first opened in 1984, one of its first loans went toward the opening of the Concord Food Co-op, and it continues to focus on improving local food options in addition to providing affordable housing, child care, and supporting small businesses.
“The co-operative model is something we really see a lot of value in,” said Jennifer Hopkins, the fund’s vice president of business and finance.
“It ties together a lot of values. It’s a resource for local farmers, decisions are made locally by co-op members, and the pricing system includes discount plans, so fresh food can go even further for people who need it most.”
For Androscoggin, as well as the Caledonia Food Co-op looking to open in the St. Johnsbury, Vt., area, the Littleton Food Co-op serves as a model.
After starting fundraising in 2006, the store opened just three years later in 2009, and has thrived ever since, earning the 2023 Cooperative Excellence Award by the Consumer Cooperative Management Association earlier this month.
In addition to running the Littleton Food Co-op, King has worked with Androscoggin, Caledonia, and the Dorchester Food Co-op to help get more stores off the ground.
“We definitely filled a need that wasn’t being met north of [Franconia Notch],” said King. “And there’s a huge need for a store in the Androscoggin region. Walmart is the primary grocery store for 80 to 90 percent of people in that market, so to have a food co-op would be a huge boon.”
Berlin Mayor Paul Grenier added, “Opening a food co-op would give residents more choices and competition is always good. It could raise the bar in the area for pricing and food freshness.”
As Berlin’s population surges back over 10,000 residents, New Hampshire’s northernmost city is embracing new economic growth opportunities.
New residents Amber and Micah Bachner — a retired Army veteran — opened a disc golf shop and are working with city officials to install a course in Berlin. The Bachners have lived all over the country and said they were drawn to the feeling of “closeness” in New England. They’ve become Androscoggin Food Co-op members and Amber is working with the board on social media initiatives to spread the word to more residents.
“I think the community’s desire for the changes that a co-op would bring are strong,” Amber Bachner said. “Everyone is on the same page. We want revitalization and we want to be some of the folks that put our money where our intentions are. We believe in this place and we’re hoping that show of faith is also a show of confidence that can inspire our neighbors to put the same investment in our area.”