Officials ‘Go Back To Basics’ On Excursion Train Possibilities; State Suggests Tying It To Balloon Festival, Freight Service

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SNOW HILL – While interest remains high, no progress has been made in bringing an excursion train to Worcester County.

Berlin Mayor Gee Williams said this week that he and Snow Hill Mayor Charlie Dorman were taking the project back to the drawing board. He said efforts to gain state support resulted in suggestions that an excursion train be tied in with a balloon festival and freight service.

“Quite frankly that’s not in our ballpark,” Williams said. “We are two communities looking to provide additional reasons for people to enjoy our communities. We’re looking at culture which doesn’t have a diddly damn to do with freight service.”

Nevertheless, all parties involved — Berlin, Snow Hill, Worcester County and the Maryland Delaware Railroad (MDDE) — remain committed to the project.

“MDDE is still interested in pursuing the excursion train project and remains willing to make its rail line available,” said Cathrin O’Donnell, vice president and general counsel of MDDE. “For our part, we have continued working to gather support from several state agencies and have identified several potential operators for the excursion train, while continuing to coordinate with Berlin, Snow Hill and Worcester County on their respective commitments to the project.”

The idea of an excursion train was first put forth by Worcester County’s economic development department in 2014.  A two-phase study funded by the county with contributions from Berlin and Snow Hill reported that such a venture could have a $17 million impact on the local economy.

Last December, Worcester County Economic Development Director Merry Mears and officials from Berlin and Snow Hill visited the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad in Bryson City, N.C., and came back more excited than ever about the prospect of creating a similar attraction on the Eastern Shore.

“I was very optimistic last spring,” Williams said.

He and Dorman began working together on the initiative. When they sought support from the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development, however, Williams said state officials indicated they thought the train should be tied in with a balloon festival and freight service for Tyson Foods.

“The state wants to be supportive but as they became involved in the project they kept adding additional layers of expectations that weren’t what the towns of Berlin and Snow Hill had in mind,” Williams said.

He says that while some people may still view Berlin as an agricultural town it has become a destination community.

“We’re the ones that live here,” he said. “This is not the early 20th century it’s the 21st century and we have moved on … Many folks may honestly think of this as an area that’s 50 years behind. That’s not where we are.”

Williams and Dorman plan to “go back to basics” and figure out how to get a simple train excursion established. Williams believes that if they start small they can bring something to fruition.

“A few years down the road then we can talk about whistles and bells,” he said. “It’s more important to do it right than to do it fast.”

He said the towns were trying to build something that would be a permanent attraction for the area. And while eager to get it done, Williams said they were not desperate and would not accede to conditions that didn’t make sense just to get the project underway.

“We’re not desperate and we’re not going to take whatever’s thrown at us,” he said.

Mears commended the mayors for spearheading the train initiative and doing so in a way to protect the best interests of their towns. She said her department had laid the groundwork for the project and was still interested in seeing it move forward.

“As with any business venture, though, there are partners involved that must agree on the financial realities and impacts of making the project operationally successful,” she said. “The re-development of a functional commercial freight line out of Snow Hill is considerably valuable to both the town and the county’s economy, but diversification of the project goal to include a balloon festival at this juncture is considered locally to be premature.”

Mears stressed that her office would maintain a supportive role as the effort moved ahead.

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

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Charlene Sharpe has been with The Dispatch since 2014. A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and the University of Richmond, she spent seven years with the Delmarva Media Group before joining the team at The Dispatch.