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Berlin officials took careful steps while guiding turnaround

(Nov. 19, 2015) Berlin suffered like many other small towns across the United States during the Great Depression and its turnaround took the better part of a century.
Now that the town is thriving again, its mayor wants the citizens to help plan for a future that’s focused on growth and sustainability, without losing its trademark charm.
For Mayor Gee Williams, a resident of Berlin, it’s a discussion that he’s been waiting to have for most of his life.
“When I used to talk about growth years ago people just laughed,” he said.
Williams remembers a time during the 1970s, when he was covering town politics for what was then the Eastern Shore Times, the paper in Berlin at the time.
“In the old days, the meetings would go on till past midnight and very little would get decided. You talk about the ultimate frustration,” he said. “Maybe, along with what I honestly believe is caring for the town, I have a few psychological scars from those days. I don’t ever want to see that happen again. Most of it was because everything was being decided one piece at a time.”
He said the town took an unusual approach to governing during the “Great Recession” that occurred during the first decade of the 21st century, by investing in infrastructure, starting with wastewater.
“We had no growth potential,” Williams said. “We might have been able to add a few single-family homes. That’s it. But I think all of us who were involved in decision-making knew that we were making decisions that would allow us opportunities and options when the economy came back.
“It was a perfect time to be investing, because we didn’t have any demand,” Williams added. “I think we had a year or so there with no applications for new housing at all.”
Clearly, things have changed. During a council meeting earlier this month, the town approved a measure to allow for more units in a large, new townhouse complex and voted to go to the bond market to pay for a $3 million former industrial property that will eventually be transformed into a massive recreation complex.
The latter move, according to Williams, is what inspired the upcoming planning sessions approved last week by the Town Council and tentatively set for Jan. 29-31.
“I think it’s going to be another aspect of Berlin that will create excitement, pride and interest in our community,” he said, comparing the potential impact of the complex to the revitalized downtown area.
“There’s still some tweaking that needs to be done in our downtown district, but in terms of turning something that’s been an embarrassment and a liability to the town of Berlin for a long time into something that will be a catalyst for improving the quality of life for current residents, for future residents and for guests today and tomorrow, I think it fits,” he said.
To gauge public interest in a number of projects, Berlin held four strategic planning sessions last January and February at various locations throughout the town.
The upcoming meetings, Williams said, would be more focused, with consulting firm Environmental Resources Management leading the discussion.
“The strategic planning sessions were an open slate. We were looking for ideas,” he said. “Here we have a situation where there’ll be, literally, a series of workshops, each with a scene.”
Williams said the subjects, while not finalized, would likely include areas such as land use, design and architecture, impact on transportation and economic growth.
“We need to have a community conversation that then evolves into an overall plan,” Williams said. “It’s got to be a thoughtful process – it can’t just be someone stands up and has passionate feelings about something and that’s it. That’s not what planning is about. I want informed opinions and thoughtful suggestions.”
Williams said the town is experiencing a rebirth that started roughly 30 years ago and brought Berlin back to the kind of thriving, economically sturdy community it was before the Great Depression.
“It took, depending on who you talk to, somewhere around the area of three quarters of a century for the rebirth to begin,” he said. “We’re at the end stages of that, but now we have to look forward. It’s going to require a lot of work, it’s going to require a lot of key decision making and it’s going to require some time.”
His vision of the future is a Berlin that holds onto the character highlighted by the Victorian architecture of the brick downtown, without becoming so exclusive that longtime residents are forced to move.
“To think that we’re going to come up with some master plan that we’re going to create paradise on paper is just not a responsible way of thinking,” he said. “I do think we can keep all the charm – keep all the excitement – and still have a reasonable amount of growth so that we can sustain ourselves.”
What Berlin does not want to do, Williams said, is to become another Salisbury.
“I’ve heard at least one councilperson say we’re going to be a community of 20,000 people,” Williams said. “No. We’re not after trying to be another large community. But to say we’re going to allow just another a few hundred people in and then we’re closing that gate and building the wall, that’s not planning. That’s burying your head in the sand.
“Just because other communities that are within our sight have not done this does not mean we can’t,” Williams added. “There are real answers, but it takes an informed public that thinks beyond the next year or two – or next five years – to make all of that happen. I have absolute confidence in the people of our community that we’ll find that right balance.”