Concord Steam: After heated discussions, a button is pushed and things cool down

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    Co-owner of the now-late Concord Steam Corporation Peter Bloomfield pushes a button on a control panel labeled "system stop/reset" at the Concord plant on Wednesday, May 31, 2017. The plant shut down shortly before midnight. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • John Clark, 62, holds up the log book with the final entry just completed at Concord Steam in Concord on Wednesday night. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

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    A button labeled "system stop/reset" was pushed just before midnight to shut down the Concord Steam plant in Concord on Wednesday, May 31, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Steam rises from a manhole cover on Pleasant Street in Concord on Wednesday night. Concord Steam shut down its plant shortly before midnight. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • John Clark, 62, holds up the log book with the final entry he has just completed at Concord Steam in Concord on Wednesday night, May 31, 2017. The plant shut down shortly before midnight. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Steam rises from a manhole cover on Pleasant Street in Concord on Wednesday night, May 31, 2017. Concord Steam shut down its plant shortly before midnight. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

Monitor staff
Published: 6/1/2017 11:13:13 PM

Peter Bloomfield pushed the button, on a control panel filled with buttons, in a basement-like atmosphere with wall-to-wall buttons.

But this button was different. It was red, giving it an appearance of added importance. It was marked with the words, “System Stop/Reset.” And it changed history downtown, once Bloomfield, the co-owner of the now-late Concord Steam Corp., pressed it.

A buzzer sounded, like a factory buzzer marking a shift change. But this signified a seismic change in local heating methods. “The end of an era,” Bloomfield said. “That’s it.”

That is, indeed, it, as of shortly before midnight Wednesday. That’s when Concord Steam ceased to exist after 79 years, 27 of which featured a partnership between Bloomfield and Mark Saltsman.

As many as 180 downtown buildings will switch to alternative heat sources. Many have already made the change to cheaper natural gas heat. Liberty Utilities, which bought the company last summer for $1.9 million, is in charge now.

It’s a deal that left the owners and employees of Concord Steam steamed. They thought lawmakers were shortsighted, ignorant to the facts and devoid of loyalty. They thought something could have been worked out.

“I’m really bummed out,” said Saltsman, who’s 59. “This is a sad day for Concord, a sad day for the city, a sad day for our family. This was us. I poured literally blood, sweat and tears into this place. It’s my life, you know?”

His words mixed with an odd scene at the Pleasant Street plant. Under normal circumstances, Bloomfield and Saltsman, along with their wives and the several employees who showed up, would have been home in bed by this time, probably asleep.

Not this time. In fact, only 62-year-old John Clark, a bear of a man with a Grizzly-Adams beard and affable manner, was supposed to be working on this night. He had the 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift.

In the old days, he would have been alone, making sure the conveyor belt was flowing freely, monitoring the turbine generators, cleaning the ash off the grates.

Instead, home-brewed beer and homemade wine were served in plastic red cups. A celebratory mood, no doubt masking the sadness within, hung in the air with the whoosh of factory sounds.

“I’m here strictly for emotional reasons,” Saltsman said. “This plant has run every day since I’ve been here 27 years ago. Every day, 24 hours a day, every hour, 365 days a year, and this is it. I’ve never shut it off, so I wanted to be here to shut it off.”

This dissolves the partnership between Saltsman and Bloomfield, whose names fit together like ham and cheese. Bloomfield took over the business after the death of his father from cancer in the late 1980s.

A few years later, he recruited Saltsman, whom he had known while the two lived with their families in Colorado. Their bond goes far beyond business. They hike together, fish together, camp together, hunt together. They watched as each became a grandfather.

“He and I will take some time off this summer and go fishing,” Bloomfield said. “Northern Minnesota. A canoe trip.”

They’ll have extra play time because of a process that’s unfolded for years. They lacked the money to upgrade their plant after it was cited for code violations. Steam heat alone simply wasn’t enough to pay for something like that.

They hoped investors would come forward so they could build a new plant in the South End. They hoped lawmakers would see the wisdom of keeping the company alive long enough to generate an extra revenue stream through electricity. In that way, they could reduce their ever-increasing prices for wood-burning steam heat.

But deals for backing fell through, leaving customers like the state government with cold feet. They feared employees in places like the State House would get, well, cold feet without a switch to gas.

For the most part, both Bloomfield and Saltsman took the diplomatic approach when I tried to pry loose their feelings on how they were treated by lawmakers and potential investors.

Meanwhile, the bosses’ wives, Teresa Saltsman and Pansy Bloomfield, tossed their filters aside and opened their eyes wide when I asked for their take on why the business failed.

Saltsman pointed a finger at senators like Lou D’Allesandro and Dan Feltes, saying, “How do you tell the bureaucrats and how do you tell senators to start working with your people and stay loyal?”

Bloomfield directed her criticism toward the state government without mentioning it by name. “Our largest customer, the people who were in charge of that account, were not interested in looking at how this affected the entire community,” she said. “They were looking at their one little budget.”

In the end, after hopes were raised then dashed, a group of people congregated for a late-night button-pushing ceremony to say goodbye.

It’s a hard place to find, an open area deep in the state office complex, down a narrow road between two brick buildings with shattered windows, past a towering smoke stack, past a conveyor belt, and past two giant silos that once held a total of 1,300 tons of wood chips.

The main area, filled with cables and panels and pipes and giant machines, will one day be gone, probably replaced by a parking lot.

So a portion of the 15 soon-to-be-released employees gathered for a final time, to celebrate a bond with the beer that Saltsman and Bloomfield brewed in 2009.

At the time, they agreed to stash it, waiting for the opening of what they believed would be a new plant in the South End.

“We said we’re going to drink this when the project closed,” Bloomfield said. “We were not thinking closed in this way.”

Soon, Bloomfield pushed a red button. The 8 miles of downtown piping under the city should be cool by now.

For the first time in a very long time.


Ray Duckler bio photo

Ray Duckler, our intrepid columnist, focuses on the Suncook Valley. He floats from topic to topic, searching for the humor or sadness or humanity in each subject. A native New Yorker, he loves the Yankees and Giants. The Red Sox and Patriots? Not so much.



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