OCEAN CITY – Jerry Nolte and his wife Diana own three businesses in the town of Snow Hill: the Snow Hill Business Center, Jerry’s Woodworking and Pocomoke River River Cruises.
They often joke with one another that they need three businesses to break even.
“It’s a beautiful town with practically no crime but Snow Hill has been struggling,” said Jerry Nolte. “I think ours is a struggle that a lot of small towns have been feeling all over the country.”
Old Buildings Need Help
There are 22 vacant storefronts and buildings in Snow Hill and more than 50 vacant homes, according to Mayor Charlie Dorman.
“The interest is there for new blood to come into town and rent these vacant buildings, but no one is willing to come in and invest in a place that is broken,” said Dorman.
Nolte agrees that many of the historic buildings in Snow Hill have fallen into disrepair, and the slow decay of the century old buildings seems to mirror the county seat’s economic decline over the course of the past decade.
“A lot of the buildings are old, and most of the roofs leak, including ours”, he said, “we were going to build an apartment upstairs and we stopped for a number of reasons.”
Yet, Nolte says it wasn’t just about the high costs to fix up an old building. It was also about the numerous groups that were putting in their two cents about how it should be done.
“It’s tough to balance what the town wants, what the county wants, the historical district wants, and what the state mandates,” said Nolte. “They need to get together and figure out what they expect from a 120-year-old building because you can’t afford to try and make a 120-year-old building perform like a new building.”
Nolte, like many others in Snow Hill, believes it’s time for the county seat to rebrand itself so that it can have a rebirth of sorts.
“We have to recreate ourselves,” said Nolte. “Basic standard retail is not going to work anymore because everyone is going to the malls and the big box stores, and now, the big box stores are hurting because everyone is going online. Berlin did a good job recreating themselves but it took them 20 years to do it. We have to do the same thing.”
Mayor Charlie Dorman says getting the building owners to rehab their decaying buildings has been a challenge. Some throughout the town believe that many of them are waiting to see if the town can turn itself around before investing into their properties.
Yet, Dorman says the owners are an important part of the first steps to help the town’s rebirth.
“I guarantee you that the day these buildings are renovated and back up to snuff they will be rented,” said Dorman. “Michael Day has a list of people who want to come here and fill these vacant stores, but we can’t expect the renter to pay all that money to fix the buildings and then try and start a business.”
Nolte says business owners are more hopeful than in recent years because of the town’s new approach, but he noted that the current state of economic affairs in Snow Hill makes it hard for businesses and building owners to open their wallets to invest.
“Since the buildings are attached, I have to insure my neighbor, and they have to insure me in case of a fire,” he said. “I know it’s tough for people to put money into their properties when it might be tough to sell, but sitting on them and doing nothing is helping no one.”
A New Day In Snow Hill
Day’s arrival in Snow Hill provided a spark of enthusiasm in a town which currently, only has one place to get a bite to eat at lunch during the week, and 2 options for dining and entertainment on the weekends.
When Day left the town of Berlin, Dorman took a shot at getting him to come to Snow Hill.
“When Michael came to town, some people thought that was the best thing that ever happen to us in Snow Hill,” said Dorman, “but in real estate, people who were interested in selling their buildings jacked their prices up as soon as he got here.”
Day doesn’t really have an office in Snow Hill. He works more as a consultant. He comes and goes as needed, but he’s already trying to work the same magic in Snow Hill as some say he did in Berlin with a similar approach.
“It’s different and it’s very challenging right now, but it’s fun down here in Snow Hill,” said Day. “I think what will work here is part of the same formula but not all of it because Berlin and Snow Hill are totally different places. We have the river, and Berlin doesn’t. But, I think we will increase the number of special events, like we did in Berlin, and that will feed upon itself.”
Day says the biggest difference right now is the amount of money that is available to promote the town of Snow Hill.
“I’m trying to cobble up a lot of money with grant funding so I can do some promotion, but I think right now, there’s about $20,000 set aside for me to work with,” said Day.
When Day left the town of Berlin, his budget to promote the town was well over $250,000, but he emphasizes that the number grew over time.
“When I started in Berlin, I think I had about $30,000 to work with and I’m pretty sure that my salary was included in that,” he said.
But Day is making the best with what he has money wise, and he’s trying to develop special events that showcase Snow Hill’s best attributes, particularly, the Pocomoke River.
“It wasn’t by accident that I started doing charters on the river 30 years ago,” said Nolte. “It’s beautiful, and I think people will completely fall in love with it once they go out on it. We just got to get people to town so they can experience it. If we can fix the buildings and get more of a diverse range of shops and businesses in here, I think we can turn it around.”
The Next Chapter
Not every business in Snow Hill is struggling. Down the street from Nolte’s storefront sits the Blue Dog Café, which is packed virtually every weekend, according to co-owner and local Realtor Gary Weber.
“This entire block has been revitalized and these stores are filled,” said Weber, “but when I moved here 20 years ago, the so-called players in the town were getting ready to retire, and the big box stores sort of sped up their departure from the business community.”
But while Weber points to the economy as an obvious reason Snow Hill has struggled economically, he points to a double digit drop in population from the 2000 census to the most recent one in 2010.
“The town is small, and we don’t have a lot of business people involved, because a lot of them are no longer here”, said Weber, “but even before the economic crash, if you look at where Snow Hill was during the boom in 2005 or 2006, we weren’t ready to handle that.”
He points to the town’s wastewater treatment plant that had been put on notice for almost a decade, as “the critical failure” that stopped Snow Hill from feeling the positive impacts of the economic boon. He says, that fact, coupled with the economic crash, made things worse in Snow Hill.
Weber has owned property in town for 20 years, and argues that an extremely expensive endeavor for property owners to fully fix these old buildings, but says the town is poised and ready to rebound economically.
“The town leaders are headed in the right direction and they are doing good things, and hiring Michael Day was a great thing,” said Weber. “Obviously, we have to keep weather out of these buildings, but the thing to remember is that these are very well built buildings, and they can and will come back.”
Dorman says the town is in the midst of drafting an ordinance that will help entice building owners to fix up their properties immediately. He says it will likely be rolled out at the beginning of 2016, and realizes that it may be controversial.
“We are trying to fine tune it, because we have already had some people on the council who are worried they might upset someone,” he said. “I don’t care if they re-elect me but I know that I’m going to try and push this town forward as hard as I can.”
While the river may be the key to the future of Snow Hill as a destination, Dorman says fixing and filling the buildings is one of the first big steps to help Snow Hill’s present, look at lot more like the historic community’s vibrant days of the past.
“I lived a lot of places on the Eastern Shore and I haven’t lived anywhere that I care about as much as I care about Snow Hill,” said Weber. “This town is very unique and very special. We have a clean slate right now.”