BERLIN – The kick off meeting for the Berlin Main Street program may have been sparsely attended, but ideas to improve Berlin’s downtown sprang up thick and fast.
People need more reason to spend time in downtown Berlin, interim Mayor Gee Williams said at the meeting last Thursday night.
The special meeting was called to gather input from the business community on priorities for the Main Street program.
“We want to do what you all want to do. We want to prioritize what you think is important,” Williams said.
Berlin’s Main Street Program will use a $12,000 state grant and $12,000 in matching town money to accomplish its goals this year. Changes through the Main Street Program will be incremental, according to Main Street coordinator Michael Day.
Small amenities that could be added include benches, bike racks and historic site signs. Day suggested having local sculptors and artists design the benches and bike racks.
Williams estimated that one to two crosswalks could be added each year and asked for recommendations of which intersection needed them the most.
Some Main Street funding should be available for promotion of town events, it was suggested.
Berlin’s businesses have taken the majority of the burden of promotional expenses, without much assistance from town government.
“The town has a responsibility to do its share,” Williams said.
The Berlin Chamber of Commerce and the Commercial District Management Association do all promotional work for the town businesses and the chamber sponsors every major town event.
Berlin resident Marge Coyman called for bike racks, trails, parking and pedestrian ways to get people downtown more conveniently.
“There is state money for trails. There is money there. You just need to ask for it,” Coyman said.
There is also Main Street Maryland money earmarked for green initiatives. Williams suggested beginning with smaller projects that the town can do itself, such as handing out re-usable shopping bags emblazoned with Berlin and Main Street Maryland graphics.
“The involvement of our citizens is where most of the progress is going to be made,” Williams said.
Empty storefronts downtown, such as the former Berlin Hardware site, are a big concern for downtown merchants, one business owner at the meeting said, and the town needs to attract retail businesses into those spaces. Office space does not attract a customer base the way stores do.
Empty storefronts are the sign of a dead business zone, Williams said. Berlin needs to attract shops and restaurants to counteract this.
Tax incentives could help remedy that, Day said.
Williams started off by suggesting the addition of an arts and crafts market, similar to the town’s farmers markets. More food and entertainment venues would benefit the heart of Berlin as would more open spaces. Berlin could also benefit from an Internet café, he said.
Downtown businesses should also consider staying open until 8 p.m., Williams felt.
Two new businesses will be joining the fray soon, a new art gallery and a deli, said Day.
Office space, another business owner countered, brings people in for services who then remain to shop. None of the downtown shops would survive if they relied solely on tourist traffic, she felt, and the town businesses need year-round customers.
Berlin also needs to ease the way for new businesses, Coyman said.
New businesses can have a difficult time navigating town, county, and state requirements and permits, one business owner said.
“There needs to be a sea change in the way municipal government looks at business,” Williams said. “It should be quicker to get started in Berlin than in the county.”
The arts and entertainment district also needs to be nurtured and grown. Coyman suggested a town-sponsored space for artists to work and sell their art, describing a young glass blower who would like to work in front of the public. That kind of offering would attract visitors.
“I agree totally with that concept,” said Williams.
Resident Sue Beaman suggested that visitors would feel more welcome if the Chamber of Commerce was open to the public and provided brochures and information on the town.
“It can be the smallest room in Berlin,” Beaman said.
Day is already organizing subcommittees to oversee economic development, organization, promotion, green matters, and downtown design.