SNOW HILL — The town of Snow Hill is at a crossroads. Not geographically, of course, but figuratively, as the once vibrant and quaint community has fallen on tough economic times and is trying desperately to reverse that downward trend.
There are more vacant storefronts and buildings in the county seat than there have been in more than a decade and its aging population base is still struggling to rebound from the recession.
Mayor Charlie Dorman knows this is a critical moment in the town’s history, and he says he has a plan to turn everything around.
We sat down with Dorman this week to talk about the details of that plan, which includes a few interesting ingredients such as a bigger highway, a new perspective on the town’s geographic location, a renewed focus on the river and a man named Day.
Q: How did we get to the point where Snow Hill is now facing a big uphill battle (to recover financially)?
A: My personal opinion is that there was the concept that Snow Hill government, which is the position that I’m in now, should not be in the position or not be in the market or the business to make the decisions on how to make Snow Hill grow. It was the private sector, and in my personal opinion, I thought that was wrong. Not picking on the previous mayor, he and I are great friends, but his ideas and mine are different. His ideas were that government should stay government and not be out there jumping and trying to get businesses to come to town and then the economy took the tank, too.
The economy is what really caused the whole thing to go down, and unfortunately we are the county seat, and we don’t have an Ocean City to the east of us like Berlin does, and then Pocomoke has (Route) 13 that goes right straight through them. You have to come up this corridor of Route 113, which people don’t want to travel at nighttime because you’ve got this two-lane highway for eight miles. They don’t want to travel that road. Thank God for the governor [Larry Hogan]. I think once that road is completed it will be a big boon to Snow Hill.
Q: How so? How do you quantify that? Because many people do think that Snow Hill, for lack of a better phrase, is sort of in no man’s land in the county geographically speaking.
A: Because people will travel that road more. It’s the shot that gets straight on down. A lot of truckers travel that road, and a lot of people travel that road. They just pass by Snow Hill, and maybe we need a light or a hotel out there to say, ‘hey, we’re the county seat, we’ve got Furnace Town. We’ve got this beautiful historic downtown. Come and stop and see us. We’ve got the river. Berlin doesn’t have the river. Pocomoke has part of the river, true. But, we are unique in that way, and we are starting to brand ourselves that way: Life on the river. That’s why we got Michael Day, to help us like he helped Berlin. But, it didn’t happen overnight.
Q: What needs to happen first? Obviously, special events were a big thing that helped Ocean City and Berlin. I know Michael Day swears by special events. I know part of the strategy to help brand Snow Hill and connect it to the river is to enhance special events. But, going back to that feeling or reality that people are simply driving past Snow Hill, is it special events that will draw in people first, or do you need to build up the business community once again so that when people do take that turn off 113, there’s more than just a special event here?
A: It’s a combination. There’s got to be more restaurants and businesses in town so that when people do take that turn off 113, there’s something for them to do when they get here. That’s what we are looking at now. We’ve got a lot of vacant buildings down here, and the building owners need to fix their buildings. We are getting ready to draft an ordinance to help them and show them all the things out there that the town’s got, that the state’s got, to get these buildings fixed up. Because we have people who want to rent them, but they don’t want to rent a building that looks like a dump. You know, you’ve got a roof leaking or the electric doesn’t work. They have to bring those buildings up to where if someone wants to have a coffee shop, let’s use that as an example, the building is up to speed and up to code. But these buildings aren’t ready.
Q: Has that been a challenge to reach out to people who have been invested in this community for most likely decades, to change their ways and realize that their properties need, for lack of a better phrase, a reboot?
A: Yeah and there have been people who have done wonderful in the town for years and years, and I won’t mention names, but they have passed on, and their buildings are in disrepair. And now, the next generation has the building and they think, I can just keep on renting it and they can’t do that. People are smarter now, and they want to know what the utility bills are going to cost, is it going to heat or be air conditioned, is the roof going to leak. That’s what they need to do. They need to reboot these buildings.
We, being the town for example, we have the building on the corner called the Raley building. It was donated to us by Bob Raley, who passed away, and we asked the County Commissioners to help us. The building was in bad disrepair, and it was ready to fall down. They gave us $200,000 and we pumped another $78,000 into it, and now the building is structurally sound. Our last meeting of the town council, the council said, ‘we have to lead by example, we’re finishing the roof, it’s going to water tight.’ We’ve already brought water and sewer into the building and that building will be brought up so someone can come in and design it and do whatever they want to do. So now, we can say (to the owners) we fixed our building, it’s time for you to fix yours.
Q: But some have criticized and said that while Snow Hill definitely needs something, the town government coming in and essentially becoming landlords may not be the best approach. Where do you think the balance is between the old way, which you say got Snow Hill into trouble because government completely stepped out of it, and now where government knows it has to get into it to spark a rebirth?
A: The balance is like with the buildings we have donated to us, if you get a viable business that comes in there and invests a lot of money into the building that we own, we will write a program that after a number of years — not sure what it would be because we are still working on it — that the building would become theirs, and we’d step back. It’ll be on the tax rolls while the person is doing it, but it’s like giving a helping hand.
It’s like, here’s a building, we have made it water tight, you invest your dollars into it, and in “x” number of years down the road, if you continue to do this, we will give you that building and it will be yours. So, that’s where the government is getting into this. It’s not that we want to, but we figure this is probably the only way we can survive. Buildings donated to us are different than the town buying a building.
Q: People have been struggling here. There aren’t a lot of jobs, and industry has been struggling too, as we’ve been talking about. So, your own hometown folks don’t necessarily have enough disposable income to go out and pump money into these businesses, which some might point to that fact as the reason those businesses aren’t here anymore. So, regardless of how good your plan is, how do you hope to succeed with that plan if the reality in the perimeter around where we are sitting is still struggling economically speaking?
A: It’s basically by showing the river and bringing new people into the community and get them to want to live here. It’s new blood, such as the “come here’s” like me. So, we are hoping we can get people to come again, and fall in love with these things. Yeah, the people in town who are older don’t have the disposable income, but we are looking for new people to get reenergized.
Q: Another thing that’s been on the table recently that I know you are a big proponent of is this idea of an excursion train in Worcester County. Now, a feasible study came back and said that it would be much more viable if that excursion train stayed in the northern part of the county, but you have been very vocal in saying that Snow Hill needs to be a part of an excursion train if it does ever up existing in Worcester County. Tell me why that’s so important to you?
A: We’ve looked at the Christmas train that’s located in Pennsylvania, and there’s another train that’s located in Denver that is the Polar Express, and both places are very interested. We have the only train station on the line. Everyone else tore theirs down. Our biggest problem is the track is fixed to Newark to Snow Hill. I think the railroad and Tyson don’t get along. We’ve got investors that would probably come up and help if it were to come here. Polar Express has gotten so involved in this that they have offered two people from Berlin and two people from Snow Hill to view their Polar Express in action. They have one in Denver and another in the Smokey Mountains.
So, we in the towns have said, North Carolina is better than going to Denver to look at it, so arrangements have been made that on the 28th through the 30th of December, so I’m going to North Carolina on my nickel, to see what this Polar Express is because we are interested. We are going to push hard for this. I work in Ocean City in the summertime driving a bus for a resort, but after three days, people are looking for something else to do. So if we had the train, and we had businesses in town, and we have the river, it would be amazing.
Q: Do you see the train as an important conduit to get people, perhaps for the first time in a long time from the northern end of the county to Snow Hill?
A: That train will draw people from 200 miles away. And it’s an ideal spot because it’s a train station that was built back in the 1800’s that we have kept up to snuff and the train track ends right there. It doesn’t go any further. We’ve done everything, but the track is the biggest thing right now. I fight all the time, I say, ‘they don’t think life below Newark is there’ and that’s my biggest deal.
Q: Do you think that’s the perception of Snow Hill from folks countywide: a town that’s fallen on hard times and doesn’t have a path to get back to its former glory?
A: Maybe, but I think I have a different feeling about that. I lived in the north end of the county for years, then I moved away, and when I came back I moved to Snow Hill. When I got to Snow Hill, I said, ‘wow, there’s just so much to offer, it just needs a little boost to make it all work.’ I don’t think that we are that little village that isn’t going to do because we have all the county buildings here.
Q: But at the same time, you don’t want people to only come to Snow Hill if they have jury duty or they have to come to district court, so the big million dollar question is, for you, what does Snow Hill look like in five years? And what does it look like in ten?
A: I always say to people who say negative things about Snow Hill is you can’t see the forest through the trees. It’s like, c’mon, we have a beautiful river here and we are going to promote that river so that people are going to want to make [Snow Hill] a destination. There will be a brew pub or a distillery on the corner in the Raley building. There will be more restaurants in town, there will be people walking the streets, the buildings will be filled, and folks will say, I went to Snow Hill and had a great time. I see that coming. We aren’t that big, but we can draw people here, and if they come for a day, maybe they’ll want to come and live here.