Snow Hill Merchants ‘Upset About What’s Happening’ With Government

Snow Hill Merchants ‘Upset About What’s Happening’ With Government
A “closed by Town Hall” poster is pictured on a streetside window in Toy Town Antiques. Photos by Charlene Sharpe

SNOW HILL – The Town of Snow Hill has closed a well-known downtown shop because of safety concerns.

Nearly two years after the Snow Hill community celebrated the opening of Toy Town Antiques, town officials have closed the shop to the public, citing dangerous conditions and the store’s lack of a certificate of occupancy. Neighboring merchants, however, believe the shop is safer now than it’s been in years. They’re more worried about what the store’s closure means for the town.

“Every business in downtown Snow Hill is concerned,” said Jerry Nolte of the Snow Hill Business Center. “We’re all worried and upset about what’s happening.”

According to Richard Seaton, who opened Toy Town with his wife Debbie in April of 2017, Snow Hill Code Enforcement Officer Jon Hill stopped by the shop last Wednesday morning with a sheriff’s deputy. They informed Seaton he was being issued a civil citation for operating without a certificate of occupancy. He didn’t realize they intended to close the store, however, until another merchant called him after he’d left for the day to tell him town officials were cordoning off the shop.

“There was no notice, nothing on the door, nothing,” Seaton said.

When he visited town hall to ask what was going on, he said they told him the store would be closed until the certificate of occupancy issue was resolved. A District Court hearing is scheduled for April 5.

The town issued a press release Thursday.

“Several immediate safety concerns with the building currently occupied by Toy Town Antiques were identified by reputable and licensed third-party engineers,” the statement reads. “The Town of Snow Hill has made several attempts to work with Toy Town Antiques to address these safety concerns in a timely manner, but unfortunately have not been able to reach a solution. The Town of Snow Hill has a duty to ensure the safety of the public. Therefore, it could not allow the dangerous conditions to go unremedied any longer. The matter is now before the court, and, as such, no further comment will be forthcoming.”

Toy Town, located at the intersection of North Washington Street and East Market Street, occupies the century-old building long known as Snow Hill’s opera house. The property, which is owned by the town, sat vacant for 16 years until the Seatons signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the town in the summer of 2016. According to the MOU, the building would be handed over to the Seatons after five years if they renovated it and operated a business out of it.

Richard Seaton spent months—and more than $150,000—working on the building, which was essentially a shell at that point. He installed a new ceiling, redid the floors and walls and completed extensive electrical work. By the time the store opened in April 2017, it was transformed into a veritable museum of classic toys and memorabilia from days gone by. Merchants say the shop, which had operated previously in Berlin, was a draw from the day it opened.

“From a seven, eight state area they’d come for that store,” Nolte said. “Then they’d eat here and shop in our stores.”

Sophika Smith, proprietor of The Corner Shoppe, says that Toy Town, like Snow Hill’s other successful businesses, is unique.

“We have a lot of quality here,” she said. “Dickie’s a very big part of it.”

Michael Day, the town’s former economic development director, worked with then-mayor Charlie Dorman to get Toy Town into the old opera house. Finding an occupant for the long-vacant space at one of the town’s major intersections was one of Day’s primary goals during his time with the town.

“It’s a major piece of property downtown,” Day said. “It’s a huge building. Getting someone in who puts $150,000 into it is a big deal.”

According to the Seatons, the shop closure comes after several months of disagreements with town officials that started when Dorman resigned in October. They said the town’s code enforcement officer expressed concern about the floors in the shop and then the second-floor windows.

“These windows have been here for years,” Debbie Seaton said. “They’ve never been considered a safety hazard. We’ve been open two and half years.”

Nevertheless, the Seatons got three estimates for the replacement of the windows in question but told town officials they’d need some time to get the project, which will cost roughly $17,000, done.

“We tried to work with them,” Debbie Seaton said.

Two weeks ago, they received certified mail from the town’s attorney advising them they had one week to apply for financing for the project. On Feb. 21, they applied for a façade grant from the town, in hopes that partial funding from the town would make it easier to get a loan for the window installation.

The grant application was denied, however, and Hill visited to issue the citation Feb. 27.

As for the missing certificate of occupancy, Richard Seaton said he was issued a temporary one back in 2017. The permanent one was contingent upon the addition of a certain wall inside the shop, which Seaton completed. Seaton says the certificate of occupancy was never provided.

“They forgot to give it to me,” he said.

When contacted Friday, Reena Patel, the town’s attorney, said the issue was now in the court’s hands. When asked whether the shop was closed because of the lack of a certificate or the concern about the windows, she said the two issues were related.

“To have a certificate of occupancy you’ve got to meet all the criteria of the code,” Patel said.

Snow Hill merchants, however, don’t understand why the building is cordoned off and considered unsafe now when it was never deemed a hazard before.

“They weren’t worried about it when it was their building,” Nolte said.

He pointed out that the town was made up of historic buildings.

“These buildings are 120, 130 years old,” he said. “You could put a code enforcement officer in here and he could find something to close any one of them down. It makes everybody who owns a building nervous.”

Property owners are worried about who’s going to be next.

“Town hall is broken,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like it … Every property owner is concerned about the trend right now. It’s unfriendly. It’s unprofessional.”

Lorissa McAllister, who runs the Daily Brew Coffeehouse, is upset about the impact recent events will have on the town’s image but is also upset about the way the situation is directly affecting her business. The coffeehouse is located just a few doors down from Toy Town. Most of McAllister’s customers are people who work at the courthouse and county government building.

“Right now they can’t get through,” she said, pointing to the fact that the blockade of Toy Town made the sidewalk impassable.

She said a councilwoman mentioned scaffolding as an alternative but told her the town wouldn’t pay for it.

“I don’t see how there’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” McAllister said.


Richard and Debbie Seaton are pictured inside the Toy Town Antiques store in Snow Hill.

She’s never felt unsafe as she walked by Toy Town.

“The building is in better condition than when they moved in,” she said. “There was no blockade then. It’s a show at this point. A cart and pony show. The only reason they have the blockade up is to make people think they’re keeping them safe.”

While the merchants are all frustrated at the current impasse, no one’s more frustrated than the Seatons.

“Town hall is messing with how we make a living,” Richard Seaton said.

Beyond the fact that the town has closed the shop at least until the court date, Seaton says Toy Town’s future in Snow Hill has been called into question.

“They’re trying to get me out,” he said, adding that he’d been encouraged to come to town by Dorman, whose practices had been criticized by the current council. “We got caught in the crossfire … They have no intention of signing the building over.”

His wife agreed.

“I feel it’s a personal vendetta,” she said. “It couldn’t be anything else. I think it’s going to be an ongoing problem.”

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.