BERLIN – In his first visit to Berlin this week, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley announced the historic town’s return to the Maryland Main Street program to an enthusiastic crowd before the Atlantic Hotel.
Before making the announcement, O’Malley, visiting Worcester County for the Maryland Municipal League convention in Ocean City, walked through town with interim Mayor Gee Williams, stopping in local shops to speak to shopkeepers, as Williams described the history of the town.
Twenty-five years ago, Williams told O’Malley, Berlin bore little resemblance to the modern town, until revitalization began.
“Prior to those efforts, more businesses were closed or boarded up than opened,” Williams said.
Berlin, he said, has come a long way on its own, but a partnership with the state will let it go even further. The town cannot do everything by itself.
“The future of our state is really going to be made in our towns, in our cities, in our older communities,” O’Malley said, speaking from a podium before the Atlantic Hotel.
“We can’t tell you how much we appreciate this opportunity and we’re going to do our best to make this the best investment you’ve ever made,” said Williams after the governor’s speech.
Berlin, along with Princess Anne, Chestertown, Annapolis and Middletown, the new members of the Maryland Main Street program, can now benefit from training, grant funds and networking through the program.
Berlin was part of the Main Street program several years ago, but was dropped from the initiative when rules were changed to require a paid program manager in each town, which Berlin did not then have.
The town now shares a professional program manager with Pocomoke City, but until recently, the Maryland program was closed to new participants.
According to Raymond Skinner, Secretary of Housing and Community Development, the Maryland Main Street program’s 18 communities have attracted $215 million in investment and over 800 new businesses to participating towns since its inception in 1998. Over 3,300 new jobs have been added to Main Street communities as well.
The program increases small businesses and improves the overall appeal of downtown, Skinner said, and creates family and community wealth.
Skinner praised O’Malley for his involvement with the program.
“He made Baltimore Main Street a priority [as Mayor] and today he continues his commitment to revitalizing Maryland’s small towns and communities,” Skinner said.
“You can make it a place where people want to invest. If you want to go to a strip mall you can do that anywhere,” said O’Malley.
Berlin Main Street Coordinator Michael Day was thrilled with the news. “It feels real good, very, very good,” said Day.
A $12,000 grant from Maryland Main Street accompanies Berlin’s new status, which will be matched by the town of Berlin from the increased amount of county funds received this year, for $24,000 dedicated to Main Street Berlin.
“It will accelerate the renaissance of our Main Street,” Williams said.
Day and elected officials will meet with townspeople and business owners to create priorities and a strategy for using the grant funds as early as August.
Traffic calming, signs pointing the way to shops and restaurants on side streets, bike racks and more thermoplastic cross walks top the town’s list of possible improvements.
Grant funds might also be used to create Main Street architectural standards, Williams said.
The state has also added a green component to Maryland Main Street’s principles of design, organization of local groups, promotion, and economic restructuring.
“That’s kind of a great new thing,” said Day.
Green initiatives would include low-cost cloth shopping bags emblazoned with the Berlin logo, an alternative to plastic bags and a souvenir in one.
Pocomoke City applied to the program, and while it did not get the nod this time, the town will benefit from Maryland Main Street because the Pocomoke Main Street initiative shares Day with Berlin.
Williams said it was refreshing to see the Governor’s office take an interest in Berlin.
“We haven’t had support from the state in quite awhile, not that kind of interest or support,” he said.
The Maryland State House has taken little to no interest in Berlin in recent years, Williams said.
“It’s very encouraging to have [Governor O’Malley] personally involved and interested in the town, said Williams. “I’m willing to bet that sooner or later he’ll come back to see how we’re doing.”
“Every town matters. Every city matters. Every neighborhood matters. Every neighbor matters,” said O’Malley.
“It was a very exciting day for Berlin,” said Williams. “It’s just the beginning.”