BERLIN — The bitter cold outside last Wednesday night did not dissuade dozens of residents from venturing out to talk about the Town of Berlin’s strategic plan at St. Paul’s Church on Flower Street.
More than 65 people spoke about affordable housing, traffic, gentrification and other long-term issues during a town hall meeting hosted by Salisbury University’s BEACON, the group hired to support the town in updating its strategic plan.
BEACON’S John Hickman walked residents through a typical analysis of the town’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, with the audience agreeing that strengths included a strong community spirit, the historic neighborhoods, arts and free entertainment, the low crime rate, parks and schools. They also highlighted diversity and the compassion neighbors have for each other.
Residents also said they appreciated that they personally know their local elected officials and town employees. In that regard, council members Shaneka Nichols, Jack Orris, Steve Green, and Jay Knerr and Police Chief Arnold Downing attended the meeting.
As for weaknesses, residents highlighted their belief that there are “two Berlins” (one Black and one White) divided by Route 113, or, as one woman called it, the “segregation highway.”
Even so, some East Berlin residents said they feared gentrification of their neighborhoods.
“‘Gentrification’ is a heavy word. It carries heavy implications,” Gabe Purnell said.
Numerous residents confirmed that people have come to their doors and asked to buy their homes or have received offers regularly in the mail. That has left them wondering if there is an effort to push out anyone below a certain income level, these residents said.
Council member Nichols replied that she felt threatened and violated by these aggressive tactics and told residents they should tell these people to cease and desist.
“One mega mansion and you are done.” Purnell said.
Residents agreed that affordable housing and local businesses should be encouraged on the east side of Berlin.
One man noted that there were several businesses on the east side in the 1980s, but those have all disappeared and the planning commission nixed the latest mixed use development proposal.
The developer, Karbyte Enterprises LLC, came back to the commission with a revised proposal for a housing development at the intersection of Route 113 and Germantown Road that omitted the mixed use and suggested townhouses. The prices, however, were in the $400,000 range, which residents agreed were beyond their means.
The Berlin residents in attendance also expressed frustration with the tax rate and did not feel that they were getting the services they expect for the money they pay. Some felt their tax money was going to the promotion of local businesses in the downtown area and not to support their community.
Joining east and west Berlin was a priority for residents. There was agreement that the town needed some sort of safe walkway or bridge that could allow bikers and walkers to safely cross Route 113 to connect the two communities.
Other areas of concern mentioned during the conversation included the need to address the stormwater problems throughout town and the need for more sidewalks and trails.
But it was affordability of housing and commercial development that dominated the discussion. One resident suggested that the town should define what affordable housing is and others suggested a small commercial district in East Berlin. Another resident, noting that many residents in East Berlin are older and on fixed incomes, suggested that the tax rate be reduced for these citizens.
BEACON has conducted surveys and hosted two town halls to gather opinions from residents for the strategic plan, which will guide spending and policy decisions for the next three to five years.