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Berlin, Ocean Pines News Worcester County Bayside Gazette Logo Berlin, Ocean Pines News Worcester County Bayside Gazette


Berlin hits critical mass of ‘cool’ in travel contest bid

A year ago, on Dec. 3, 2013, Berlin was on the verge of merely becoming the third-coolest small town in America, according to a preliminary vote conducted by Budget Travel Magazine.
The polls, opened in October, asked for nominations of cool municipalities with less than 10,000 people. The rules were simple: the town must have “outstanding food, great locals, amazing art, unique history, wonderful shops and an all-around cool vibe.”
At the time Megan Houston, Berlin’s cool Main Street coordinator, commented, “I think we can all agree that Berlin, Md. can put a check right next to all of those requirements.”
Still, the race to be cool was on, and the polls opened back up in January with the top-15 towns reset on an even playing field.
Berlin coolly got off to a fast start, leading the pack with 26.8 percent of the vote. Then – suddenly – a very uncool hiccup happened, dropping the total to just 25.3. Panic, the polar opposite of cool, began to set in. Buckhannon, W.Va., itself pretty cool, was nipping at Berlin’s heels at 21.6 percent.
Michael Day, universally recognized as the coolest Economic and Community Development director, lowered expectations saying even if Berlin only landed in the top three “We’ll still use it.”
If Berlin was named the coolest, however, Day promised, “That’s going out on the billboard on Route 50.”
Two weeks later another contender emerged, as Cazenovia, N.Y, a college town that apparently majored in cool, began to close the gap. Undaunted, Berlin coolly doubled down.
Mark Huey, the social media coordinator for Worcester County’s tourism department, worked “around the clock” according to Day, reaching out to every last corner of social media in a feverish attempt to spread the gospel of Berlin. The town even got a little boost from Gov. Martin O’Malley, who gave Berlin a “cool” shout out during a Maryland Mayor’s Conference, and repeatedly tweeted to the same effect.  
Finally, the polls closed and only one town remained in the quest for the cool crown. Berlin finished seven points ahead of the next-coolest small town, collecting roughly 28 percent of the 137,819 votes cast nationwide.
Mayor Gee Williams raised a glass at Burley Oak Brewing Company just after midnight on Tuesday, Feb. 25, to toast the victory.
Williams teased a series of strategic planning sessions to capitalize on the cool accolade, and the economic boost expected to follow.
“We are absolutely delighted to be voted the `Coolest Small Town in America.’ Now we will be taking a longer view … I want the involvement of the citizens on where we go from here,” he said.
Lisa Challenger, director of Worcester County Tourism and one of the architects of cool, said that Berlin would have “huge marketing value and exposure.”
Berlin planned a series of events, beginning with the “Coolest Small Town” party, set for March 29, but rainstorms washed out the celebration. Two weeks later, on April 12, Berlin and several thousand of its closest friends celebrated the now undeniable coolness.
The town’s open beverage containers were suspended, and yellow “Coolest Small Town” cups were omnipresent. Food tents lined the sidewalks, and several of the coolest area bands played in front of an enthused crowd.
Day labeled the last-minute decision to move the party a cool move. “It was absolutely brilliant … now here we are with the biggest crowd we’ve probably ever had,” he said.
“We’re absolutely delighted with the turnout,” Williams said, relishing the moment of triumphant coolness. “The fact that we postponed (the party) not only brought us wonderful, blessed weather, but I think it also increased the amount of publicity and awareness about the fact that we were doing this.”
In the following weeks, town’s eclectic mix of downtown shops began to see an uptick in their bottom line, which, of course, was cool.
Debbie Frene, owner of Victorian Charm, said the boost from the “Coolest” party was “fabulous.”
“We’ve almost had more people than we could handle,” she added.
Blair Falck Parsons, owner of Ta Da, agreed the cool effect had set in.  
“I think it’s bringing a lot of people to this town that have never been here before – even locals who maybe live in Ocean Pines or Snow Hill who never think to come to Berlin,” she said. “In the last couple of weeks, we’ve heard a lot of people say they were driving down Route 50 and saw the signs and said, ‘well, we have to go now, it’s America’s Coolest Small Town.’”
“We’ve always known we were the coolest small town; now the world knows,” said Terry Sexton, owner of The Treasure Chest. “Once people come to Berlin, they love it and they come back. So I think this will only help more people to want to come to Berlin.”
Day, who worked for years under the assumption that Berlin was cool all along, announced his retirement in April. He declined to give an exact date, instead deadpanning coolly, “I’m going to retire when they let me.”
Williams called Day, “the spark that Berlin needed” during its decades-long road to attaining coolness.
“If you tried to point to one individual who has made the most significant difference in helping Berlin move forward economically in the last few years, that person would clearly be Michael Day,” he said. “It was just the right combination of his life experience, his experience with government, his experience with business and his ability to explain and persuade people to work together. And he works hard at it – whether it’s a work day or a weekend it’s all the same to him.”
Bud Church, then president of the Worcester County Board of County Commissioners, agreed that Day was indeed cool, calling him “Berlin’s hero for all he’s done.”
“Michael Day was the right man for the right job at the right time,” he said. “He had a way to get things done and he had an insight and a vision for the town … he’s leaving the job at the peak of his career.”
Ivy Wells, Day’s successor and herself a cool small town economic development director in Sykesville, officially took over for Day on Nov. 24.
In July, the Bayside Gazette took an in-depth look at how Berlin became cool, finding it began with the revitalization of the Atlantic Hotel.
In the late 1970s, according to Williams, the town was actually the epitome of uncool.
“There were more stores that were closed or boarded up on Main Street than were open,” he said. “The town knew it was in trouble. The population actually dropped in Berlin between 1960 and 1970 while the rest of the country was exploding with population. It was unheard of.”
Local business people poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into renovations of the Atlantic, which had become inhabited by “derelicts and drunks,” according to Ta Da founder Patty Falck.
Buddy Jenkins, owner of Jolly Roger Amusement Park and a member of the hotel’s development group, agreed the restoration was the birth of the cool.
“Little by little, you began to see people that were affected by [a] degree of optimism,” he said. “Little, by little, by little that grew and grew, and self-confidence came back, and more people said, ‘I want to come and try that.’”
Sexton’s Treasure Chest was one of the first full-time, permanent shops that laid the groundwork for the cool collective that eventually emerged on Main Street, followed by others including Victorian Charm and Ta Da.
“It was a struggle,” Falck said. “I was back there for 13 years and I was promoting myself like crazy because people don’t get off the main street. But little by little we started seeing more things coming along.”
In the 1990s a pair of fairly cool films, “Runaway Bride” and “Tuck Everlasting,” set up shop in Berlin. Falck also pointed to Day and Williams, and their optimism and penchant for hard work, as a turning point in the town.
Buoyed by a series of grants gathered by Day, Berlin celebrated a cool milestone in 2008 when the town became an officially designated Main Street. Williams, meanwhile, held a closed-door meeting with merchants, telling them, essentially, to be cool to each other and good things would happen.
“No one had to sign a commitment; no one was forced to do anything, but by just talking about it … what would happen if all the businesses started supporting each other?” Williams said.  “The concept became known as ‘everybody act as a concierge to everyone else.’ And believe me, they took it to heart.”
Decades of work and cooperation went into making Berlin cool again, and many of the key players insisted the town was in it for the long haul.
“Ninety-eight percent of the people that come to Berlin come back, because they like what we have to offer,” Sexton said. “As long as we keep the momentum going and keep the Main Street what it is, I think people will continue to come.”
Six months into the “Coolest Small Town” honor, shops reported a close-to 30 percent increase in sales over the previous year.
“It’s been a very busy summer,” Sexton said. “We’re a destination now.”
Bill Outten, who runs the Town Center Antiques stores on Main Street and Pitts Street and owns Uptown Antiques on Main Street, believed the increased traffic in Berlin will continue to be cool.
“It’s a nice getaway,” he said. “We have a lot of nice restaurants and they’re doing well. And we’re cool. We have events every month – and we have antique stores.”
Dee Gilbert, owner of Nest, agreed it was a cool year indeed.
“People are coming who have never been here before and. once they get here, they realized how much Berlin has to offer,” she said.
Heather Layton, owner of Bungalow Love, said she had personally seen a lot of traffic from the previous “Coolest Small Town,” Lititz, Pa.
“It’s at least a few people on a daily basis, and it’s fun talking to them and to see what their town experienced – and what they’re still experiencing,” she said. “They said they’re still getting publicity from it.”
Berlin held a sendoff for Day in October, and people were still talking about how incredibly cool Berlin had become.
Mike Wiley, whose Church Mouse shop does a cool thing in donating its monthly 2nd Friday proceeds, said Day had “done an excellent job.”
“I enjoyed working with him. I’ve helped him with different projects and it was nice to have someone almost my age to hang with,” he said.
Deputy Town Administrator Mary Bohlen lauded the remarkable “transformation of the town since [Day] been here,” while Town Administrator Laura Allen called Day’s role in the “Coolest Small Town” campaign “no small feat.”
“He has garnered the town thousands of dollars in free advertising and significantly changed our summer experience,” she said. “Our merchants are … seeing substantially more sales, we’re seeing a lot more people. It has really made a difference in the energy that you feel when you come to the town.”
In November, the town unveiled its “Coolest Christmas Ever” schedule, including a tree-lighting ceremony complete with a live ice sculpture demonstration, as well as a holiday arts night and a parade. Thousands attended both events, cementing the lasting effect of being called “cool” by a magazine with a national reach.
Berlin capped off the coolest year by formally announcing the facilitator of the strategic planning sessions Williams first mentioned in February.
Christine Becker Associates inked a $14,500 contract to examine possible next moves, focusing on municipal projects made possible by all the ubiquitously effervescent coolness, beginning in January.
Williams, for his part, seemed to have no reservations in passing the torch to next year’s coolest small town.
“We’ll be happy for them and we’re going to help them in any way we can,” Williams said. “We feel that we have an obligation to the people who came up with the idea, and we have an obligation to all of the sister communities who have earned this distinction, to keep earning it.”
Williams expects the attributes that made Berlin cool will continue to make the town, well, cool.
“All of these [successes] can be built on,” he said. “They are not strictly measurable in a quantitative way, but in terms of the way people feel about their community and the way a community feels about its residents, its workers and its guests, we have at least a hundred years of opportunity right now.
“I’m very optimistic that that is what’s going to happen,” Williams continued. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s up to the people of this community if they wish to remain ‘America’s Coolest Small Town.’ We can do it for another hundred years just by continuing to do what we’re doing by never stop believing in ourselves, and most importantly, in each other.”