BERLIN – A Berlin visitor center will open within the new Berlin Chamber of Commerce offices on Main Street with some financial help from the town.
The chamber’s new offices will cost twice as much as anticipated, said Berlin Economic Development Director Michael Day at Monday’s Berlin Mayor and Council meeting.
The new office on Main Street will serve two purposes, similar to the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce building and visitor center in West Ocean City.
“We’re hoping to turn it into a visitor center,” said Day. “What we’re asking for is help especially for the first year to get this started.”
Berlin Mayor Gee Williams has long supported a visitor center concept for the town.
“It’s something that’s been requested a long time before I was Mayor,” Williams said. “I think it’s great we now have the vehicle for providing some assistance through the Berlin Main Street program…I think it’s an excellent move on the part of the chamber.”
According to Chamber of Commerce President Anita Todd, the new chamber offices will be open six days a week, four hours a day, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The chamber would like to be open more extensive hours, but funding does not allow it at this point.
The previous chamber office, in the rear of a local antiques shop, was not open to the public and was only open three days a week.
“We have a lot more to offer members. We think we can maybe double that membership in two years or less,” Todd said. “We do want to provide this service to the town.”
The Berlin Chamber of Commerce currently has roughly 135 members, Todd said.
A larger membership would bring more funding into the chamber, allowing it to pay for the new offices without government assistance and keep the doors open more hours.
The town needs a visitor center, Todd said, because visitors have no place to find information and must ask for help in local businesses.
“It’s where it needs to be and it belongs,” Williams said.
The chamber asked the town for a $4,500 grant to pay the difference between what it had budgeted for the new offices and the actual cost. Day said the grant should be a one-time request.
Councilwoman Paula Lynch wondered whether that money, which she said comes from the business licenses granted by the town, would make all town businesses a member of the chamber if the town granted the funding request.
Only official members receive chamber benefits or services, Todd replied.
“People pay extra to become members of the chamber,” said Todd.
Allowing all town businesses to reap the benefits of the chamber without paying dues would not be fair to the official members.
“We want to help every business. We would like them to become members,” said Todd.
If all Berlin businesses were automatically given that help, the chamber would not be able to increase its revenue from dues, which should pay for the new space after the first year.
Todd pointed out that Pocomoke City subsidizes everything but payroll for its Chamber of Commerce, and she has heard of no complaints from taxpayers over that funding.
“You’re clearly doing a lot right,” said Lynch, recalling that on a recent trip to Pocomoke, she saw no one on the street, but Berlin was bustling with shoppers.
Day pointed out that the money in question is not from the business licenses. That money is directed to the town billboard and brochures.
The grant money would actually come from Berlin’s general fund, Williams said.
“We need to give you the tools to do your job and frankly that office has been needed for a long time on Main Street,” said Councilwoman Lisa Hall.
The first part of the chamber’s recruiting plan is the Main Street office itself, along with the visitor center.
“They can come in and get brochures. They can get brochures from businesses not on Main Street,” said Todd.
The chamber also needs to show that it does not just include downtown Berlin businesses, said Todd. The chamber also plans to update and improve its website in the future.
“The visitor’s center is a help to the chamber but it really is a service needed by the town,” Todd said.
The town needs to partner with private concerns and organizations like the Chamber of Commerce to promote the town, Williams said.
“We’re in a unique situation and an enviable one,” said Williams. “We don’t want to be exploding with businesses but we’re growing business in the worse recession in our lifetimes.”
The town council voted unanimously to grant the funding request.