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Berlin turns down Decatur’s ‘Prom on Main’ concept

Stephen Decatur High School’s plan to hold prom on Main Street failed to get the approval of elected officials after business owners voiced concerns.

Berlin meeting

Berlin business owners and residents pack City Hall during a discussion on March 25 about holding Stephen Decatur High School’s prom on Main Street.
Charlene Sharpe/Bayside Gazette

By Charlene Sharpe, Associate Editor

Stephen Decatur High School’s plan to hold prom on Main Street in Berlin has failed to get the approval of elected officials after business owners voiced concerns. 

Business owners told the Berlin Town Council at a meeting March 25 that they couldn’t afford to lose business on a Saturday in April after a slow and wet start to the year, especially with only a month’s notice.

“We could’ve come up with a cool idea,” said Larnet St. Amant, who owns two retail stores in the downtown area. “We could have welcomed it but no one asked us.”

Mayor Zack Tyndall said he’d been in communication with Decatur teacher Jamie Greenwood regarding the possibility of holding prom on Main Street on April 27. Greenwood, who has been organizing prom for close to 20 years, told officials the convention center in Ocean City didn’t let local groups book events more than six months in advance. While the April 27 date was discussed with convention center staff, it was before it could be formally booked. School officials said they found out in February that the date was no longer available as the preference goes to larger bookings. 

“What happened, happened,” Greenwood said. “I can’t change it. We’re looking for some help.”

Since late February, Greenwood said he’d been working with Tyndall on plans to hold prom on Main Street. He said the street would be closed to allow for setup at noon April 27 and would remain closed until about 11 p.m. The area would close to the public at 5 p.m. as shuttles began to drop students off for prom. The shuttles would return students to their vehicles following the prom ending at 10 p.m.

“I want to disrupt as little as possible,” Greenwood said.

Councilman Jack Orris asked what the fire company thought of the plan. 

“This is the first stop,” Tyndall said.

Orris asked what town businesses had said.

“This is the first stop,” Tyndall repeated. 

When asked what he thought, Police Chief Arnold Downing said the event would be a heavy lift but could be done. Greenwood said the school traditionally worked with the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office on prom and that they would have officers present as well. As far as town staff costs associated with the event, department heads said up to 10 public works employees would work overtime during the event in addition to the police coverage. Greenwood assured the town that the school would be able to contribute financially, as ticket sales in the past had covered the cost of food at the convention center.

Greenwood stressed that in his time leading the prom effort, there had been very few issues with student behavior at prom. Fellow teacher Michelle Hoffmeister agreed. She said that in the wake of the pandemic, students were just so grateful to go to events that they behaved well. 

Greenwood noted that students and staff would have wristbands on and the wristbands would be cut off when they left.

“Once you leave, you’re done,” Greenwood said. “You’re not allowed back in.”

Business owners, who packed the council chambers, were quick to express concerns with the proposal. Sterling Tavern owner Matt Borelli said there had been no communication from the town to the business community about the prom. He said Saturday was typically a good day for business in Berlin and that with a rainy winter, it would hurt businesses to give up a spring Saturday. He said it was unlikely teenagers would be spending money at Main Street establishments. He added that when Decatur’s state champion football team had paraded through town, one of his employees’ cars had been jumped on and covered in hot chocolate. 

“I don’t think the business district is where it should be done,” he said. 

Borelli said if he accepted the fact that he wouldn’t do much business during prom and closed, his staff would lose a day of pay.

“If the town doesn’t stick up for us on this, it’s going to be tough,” he said.

Borelli said another day of the week, even a Sunday, would be better. Greenwood said the school wanted the April 27 date because students had already rented tuxedos and made hair appointments. 

St. Amant was adamant that the event could have been pulled off fantastically if the business community had been brought on board from the start. Instead, she said the event had been sprung on merchants despite the fact that they were in town working every day. 

“Who’s got my back in this room?” she said. “No one came to me.”

She said she’d love to support the idea but that there had been no time to prepare. Another merchant said the purpose of the town’s other events was to bring shoppers to town, something the prom would not do. The concept of student safety was also discussed, as she pointed out that people walked their dogs up and down Main Street constantly and that people lived in the apartments above Main Street. 

“We can’t do this in five weeks,” she said.

“We hear you,” Tyndall said. 

Matt Burrier, the director of worldwide sales at Burley Oak Brewing Company, suggested the prom be held on the school’s football field. He said Berlin businesses would likely be happy to help with any related fundraisers. 

Councilwoman Shaneka Nichols said her daughter was a senior at Decatur but she wasn’t able to support a prom on Main Street. She said she had too many concerns about what could happen.

“I want my child to have a prom but it’s not happening on Main Street,” she said. 

Greenwood said the prom couldn’t be held on the football field because it was a turf field and couldn’t be pierced. 

Councilman Jack Orris suggested the group focus on the rain location, which Greenwood said was under a tent on the parking lot at Berlin Intermediate School. 

“Our decision here tonight is whether the prom plan proceeds downtown,” Councilman Dean Burrell said. “It is not to figure out what needs to happen if it’s not held downtown. That’s not our responsibility.”

Cindi Krempel, representing the Berlin Chamber of Commerce, said having the prom on a Saturday in April would be a financial burden for businesses. She suggested Stephen Decatur Park as a location. Laura Stearns, the general manager of the Atlantic Hotel, said she knew prom was a difficult topic because emotionally everyone wanted to support it. 

“I want nothing more than for them to have a nice prom,” she said. “But understand what it’s like as a business in the town of Berlin.”

She said businesses this year had dealt with bad weather, an increase in minimum wage and a jump in food costs. 

“We have to put the emotional part aside and think what’s the best thing for the town of Berlin,” she said.

Resident Melissa Esham brought up the concept of a grand march, something Decatur hasn’t had. Borelli said that could be something the businesses could support, as it wouldn’t include a lengthy street closure.

Resident Sara Hambury said she often planned events for Atlantic General Hospital and said she felt a tent was key for any outdoor event, especially one with an expected 600 attendees. Another resident, Jody Hallman, who said she also has a child at Decatur, said parents were not aware of the prom problem and should be engaged. 

“I struggle that this is now the town’s issue,” she said, adding that there were parents who owned hotels and other suitable sites that might be able to step up. 

Greenwood thanked the Berlin community for the input provided. He said he understood the difficulties small business owners faced as he grew up in his family’s restaurant business. He said he’d discuss the possibility of a grand march as well as using the park or the rain location, with his prom planning group.

This story appears in the March 28, 2024, print edition of the Bayside Gazette.