Snow Hill Seeks To Generate Interest In Vacant Properties

Snow Hill Seeks To Generate Interest In Vacant Properties
Snow Hill Both

SNOW HILL – “It’s sitting here waiting for an opportunist.”

While Michael Day, Snow Hill’s economic development consultant, was talking about a particular building, he might as well have been talking about the town itself. Like Berlin, Snow Hill is a quaint historic town located just off a major highway. But while “America’s Coolest Small Town” is teeming with visitors and benefiting from an improving economy, Snow Hill is in a slump. There are 22 vacant buildings downtown and another 60 empty houses.

Day has been tasked with changing that. Formerly Berlin’s economic development director, Day has the experience needed to bring Snow Hill back to life. While he’s spent his first few months on the job exploring ways the town can use its river for promotion, he’s beginning now to focus on brick and mortar itself. The bulk of the town’s turn-of-the-century buildings are in need of repair.

“It can be done,” he said. “It’s just putting the money into it.”

While the town’s participation in the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development façade grant program is expected to help some property owners repair their buildings, Day is also hoping to bring new investors to town. The key to that, he believes, is finding entrepreneurs interested in three notable town-owned properties.

The most visible of those are the Oscar Purnell house and the town’s old opera house. The Purnell mansion, known for its red brick and white columns, was given to the town by Worcester County earlier this year. While the exterior of the long-vacant home has been renovated, the inside needs $500,000 to $700,000 in repairs before it’s usable.

“I’ve had people interested but everybody’s scared,” Day said.

He’d like to see the mansion turned into something like Berlin’s Atlantic Hotel or a bed and breakfast. And though the task might seem daunting, he says the town is willing to partner with an investor. The town will put up the 8,000-square-foot building, he said, if a private partner would fund repairs. At the end of an agreed upon time period, the mansion would be deeded over to the investor.

“Essentially you’d be buying the building for whatever you put into it,” Day said.

Snow Hill officials want the same kind of partnership on the opera house property, which takes up most of a block on Washington Street. That is the building Day believes is simply waiting for an opportunist. Like the mansion, the former opera house needs substantial interior renovations. Nevertheless, gutted as it is now, Days sees it as the perfect spot for a brewery. He says at least one person is already interested in the site and is investigating financing.

“It definitely has potential,” Day said.

The final property the town is working to generate interest in is an ancient row house near the district court offices. While it too will require interest from just the right person, town officials are actively looking for someone to find a use for it.

In between the trio of town-owned sites are a myriad of other empty buildings. While the owners of some are beginning to make improvements at Day’s encouragement, others are looking to sell their buildings.

“You can get a lot of bang for your buck in Snow Hill,” said Lisa Challenger, Worcester County’s director of tourism. “There are beautiful historic buildings to be had at a deal.”

Washington D.C. investor Tang Tran says that’s what brought him to the quiet county seat.

“It’s a historic town,” he said, “and Berlin is too expensive.”

Tran is just beginning renovations on his building, which he hopes to have complete by May. He wants to bring in tenants to what he believes is going to become a burgeoning municipality.

And while much of the town is discussed in terms of potential, there are businesses already finding success there. Sassy Girl Boutique, owned by Suzanne Timmons, has been in Snow Hill for more than a decade.

“In 13 years I’m still here,” she said. “I have people that come in from all over not just Snow Hill. You can make it here.”

She and Tran are confident that with the addition of Day to the town’s team things will only improve.

“It takes the right people,” Tran said.

For his part, Day maintains that the town is full of possibilities and can undergo a renaissance like Berlin did.

“I keep telling people it’s just not going to happen overnight,” he said.