Q&A With Berlin Mayor Gee Williams, ‘Incremental Growth Is Good’ For Berlin’s Citizens

Q&A With Berlin Mayor Gee Williams, ‘Incremental Growth Is Good’ For Berlin’s Citizens

BERLIN — William “Gee” Williams is a lot more than just the smiling, top hat-wearing mayor of America’s Coolest Small Town. He’s a former newspaperman, a staunch optimist, a passionate visionary and a guy who isn’t one to back down from a fight.

Under Williams’ watch, Berlin has skyrocketed from a quaint little town that people merely escaped to when they wanted a brief respite from the crowds in Ocean City to a highly sought after destination all year long. Recent foot traffic in Berlin has reached unprecedented levels on the weekends, but behind the scenes, not everything has been award ceremonies and photo shoots.

Williams continues to endure criticism surrounding a public row with the town’s century old fire department and he has been pushing to leverage the town’s current success into a solid future plan focused on what he calls incremental growth to ensure the future looks as bright in Berlin as the present.

Q: There’s a bit of a community debate about what to attribute the success of Berlin to. How much do you attribute the success of what’s happening in Berlin right now to the “America’s Coolest Small Town” poll win and what do you attribute the rest of it to?

A: The ‘Coolest Small Town’ title gave us extra momentum and it’s speeded up the progress of the town, but that didn’t happen automatically. There have been communities both before and since that got the same award and they haven’t seen one bit of difference. It’s what you do with the recognition that matters, and quite frankly, I think by working very closely with our partners at the state, county, and local level, and having an economic development thrust to this in our own department has helped.

When you have a function of your community dedicated to economic development and not just for one industry, but for the whole community. We had about 30 years of discussion and change, and it’s been building. We had determined without knowing the destination that we are now a destination community.

Q: So, being a destination community was always part of the long-term plan and because of the success of the online poll, you’ve been able to leverage that extra attention into fast tracking some of that long term plan?

A: Absolutely, I’d agree with every word. Nobody sat down and had an “a-ha” moment in the first 20 or 25 years of what for a long time was called revitalization. The revitalization process was the first 25 years or so. But, no one said ‘Berlin is going to become a destination community,’ they just kept trying things.

Q: The vast majority of visitors are day trippers or daytime guests. Is that part of the long-term plan from here on out to perhaps give people more options and increase the number of rooms where people can stay in Berlin?

A: No, absolutely not.

Q: Even on the fringes of town?

A: We need one or two affordable, but very nice … I’ll call them motels, but maybe the distinction is blurred from times past. Maybe we need tops 60 or 70 rooms. Long term, maybe 100, but that is to be primarily a support for our destination community.

Q: It seems that this destination in the long-term is to be very content with the vast majority of guests being day trippers?

A: Absolutely. That is key and if we ever lose sight of that this will all end. It’s an understanding of mutual cooperation. We are here to be one more reason, and we are finding our economic success and opportunities by being one more reason for people to come to the greater Ocean City area. And, when we are rocking and rolling, which is more and more, we are putting heads on beds in Ocean City. One of the things we don’t depend on is the beach and our appeal is year round. We have very strong appeal in the fall and the spring, and there are lots of great deals to stay overnight in Ocean City in those times of year. You can live like a king on an average family’s salary and that is the relationship.

We don’t want to be and there is no need to build lots and lots of hotels. They are already here. Driving six miles is nothing and our guests drive five times that much just to get to work where they live.

Q: What do you see as smart growth for the town of Berlin?

A: I have been preaching smart growth since the early ‘90’s. Smart growth does not mean stagnation. I’ll give you an example. Based on what might be possible, in the next decade we might end up adding another 1,500 to 2,000 people, assuming that everything happens on the fastest track. But, people have forgotten that in the year 2000, we had 3,000 residents here. Five years ago, we had 4500. This pace of growth is already here. It’s being assimilated and we are not talking about changing that, we are talking about sustaining that for a while. We aren’t talking about changing the gears, we are talking about having a plan for what I call incremental growth.

Incremental growth is good, but you have to have a plan and we have people who are moving here not just because of what we are but because of what we aren’t. The people who say that we are going to become some sort of big suburban mass and we’ll be the next Salisbury don’t know what they are talking about. We don’t want to be the classic disastrous growth [story] of the last 20th century.

Q: An idea gaining some traction is that of an excursion train coming through Berlin. How much of an impact do you think an excursion train would mean for this town moving forward and where is it on your priority list?

A: I’m hoping that it’s not unreasonable to expect by next Christmas we’ll have our inaugural ride. Maybe that’s a little bit optimistic, but it’s something to shoot for. Certainly, by 2017, and I think it will be another game changer. I think it can possibly be to the next 25 years what the Atlantic Hotel was in the last 25 years. That’s the kind of impact I think it can have. But, it’s going to take everyone working together. Government is the foundation of civilization and society. If you build a home or a building, you have to have a foundation. Then, you have the pillars: the private sector, the non-profit sector, the education system and faith based organizations.

We are here to support all of them, but we are here to also make sure that they all do what they do best. We have choices to make, and I’m going to present and continue to present and particularly this year, I hope we give people choices. If the overwhelming majority of people just want to shut this town down, then I will go and find something else to do with my time. I’m not going to waste it. I think we are one of the few communities in the state of Maryland that is getting younger. By that I mean young families, young couples, young singles who are moving here, not because they can maximize their income, or because money is the most important thing to them, but rather, because they want to be part of a community that has the same values as the town of Berlin.

Q: I’d be remiss if we didn’t talk about one of the more contentious parts of your tenure, and that’s the public row between the Mayor and Council and the town’s fire department. Recently they sent a letter to the town seeking a 225% increase in budget funding…

A: Plus another increase for a station, so I think it was over 300% when you put it all together…

Q: With this new proposal, what does the future look like? Has the relationship improved?

A: Well, I’m hopeful that it’s improving. There’s this perception that I had it in for the Volunteer Fire Company, and it was actually the opposite of that. As much as they feel frustration or anger or whatever they feel about the unfortunate incident that we didn’t create, but we took the appropriate actions. None of it was enjoyable or fun … I’d still do the same thing if I had to do it all over again, even though I hope I never have to.

Q: Talk about what that situation was like for you personally. During the last election, there was rumor that the last minute write-in candidate was orchestrated by the fire department to unseat you…

A: That was real.

Q: I know you are hopeful that the relationship will be mended, but in reality, do you believe that it will ever happen while you are the mayor?

A: I don’t think it has a diddly-damn to do with who is the Mayor of Berlin. I think it has more to do with who is the president of the Berlin Fire Company. That’s my opinion, and I’m entitled to one based on this experience and what we’ve gone through. They are good guys and they are doing good things for this town and I have total respect for them, but the decisions that have been made … think about it … we had an excellent working relationship when I was first mayor. I didn’t change and our policies didn’t change, but the leadership of the Berlin Fire Company changed and that has changed everything.

About The Author: Bryan Russo

Bryan Russo returned to The Dispatch in 2015 to serve as News Editor after working as a staff writer from 2007-2010 covering the Ocean City news beat. In between, Russo worked as the Coastal Reporter for NPR-member station WAMU 88.5FM in Washington DC and WRAU 88.3 FM on the Delmarva Peninsula. He was the host of a weekly multi-award winning public affairs show “Coastal Connection.” During his five years in public radio, Russo’s work won 19 Associated Press Awards and 2 Edward R. Murrow Awards and was heard on various national programs like NPR’s All Things Considered, Morning Edition, APM’s Marketplace and the BBC. Russo also worked for the Associated Press (Philadelphia Bureau) covering the NHL and the NBA and is a critically acclaimed singer/songwriter and composer.