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


Gee Williams: new year and more opportunities

(Dec. 18, 2014) From the “Coolest Small Town” nod to the Little League World Series to the nearly $2 million in grant money awarded for public utility improvements, it’s hard to ignore the across-the-board success that Berlin enjoyed in 2014.
No one has been happier about the town’s good fortune than 66-year-old Mayor Gee Williams.
Williams, a Berlin native who was elected mayor in 2008 and reelected in 2012, can remember a time when Berlin was not, exactly, cool. He, more than anyone, is determined to keep Berlin’s success going.
The first step in continuing that success begins in January, when the town will conduct a series of strategic planning sessions to gauge public interest in new municipal projects.
“I think for an encore we follow up on all the expressions of hopes and dreams that have been just flowing from, obviously, our citizens who live here and the people who work here, but also many of our guests,” Williams said.
“I’m very much looking forward to getting organized input about all of these ideas. None of them have been bad – it’s just a matter of prioritizing things that people want in services, the things that people like to see in terms of events, the things that people would like to see in continuing to expand our economic base.
“It won’t happen overnight, but over time I think most of it can happen,” Williams continued. “The key is not starting with the money – it’s starting with the ideas. If you get the right ideas together and then you get the right people working together, the money will come.”
For the first time in years – perhaps decades – Main Street and the surrounding areas in downtown Berlin are at capacity, full of vibrant storefronts and restaurants. Williams said the town’s next period of economic growth would focus on the surrounding areas.
“The next round of business development will be to take advantage of something that folks here have always taken for granted,” Williams said. “That is that the real hub of Delmarva is Berlin, because it’s the crossroads of U.S. 50 and U.S. 113.
“We have two major gateways, which will be excellent for commercial and residential development,” Williams continued. “We also have Maryland 346, which locals call Old Ocean City Boulevard. All three of those have so much potential. Quite frankly I sincerely believe if we do this thoughtfully we’ll be complimenting the downtown. We’re not trying to create three different downtowns.”
Williams said plenty of major commercial operations have expressed an interest in opening up shop in Berlin, although not all have been an ideal fit.
“They would be perfectly appropriate as long as they are on the gateway, on the major highways,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that we’re taking business from one place and taking it to another.
“A very important foundation of our immediate and long-term growth is to continue doing what we’ve been doing in the recent past, and that is not trading dollars between our merchants to grow the financial pie,” Williams continued. “That’s exactly what we’re going to be emphasizing here. Not every business is right for Berlin.”
When new businesses approach Berlin, Williams said, he encourages opening with informal discussions before investing large amounts of capital.
“In a few cases, people came to us and we were very honest with them and said, ‘You’re good people, you’ve got a great reputation – it’s just not a good investment for you. Let me suggest you call …’ and we give them the name, the number and the email,” Williams said.
On the infrastructure side, stormwater improvements began last year with the creation of the utility and initial upgrades on Williams Street. Major improvements in several other sectors of Berlin will begin construction next year.
“Two things are happening simultaneously,” Williams said. “One is we have the three major phases that will take about three years to complete. While that’s going on the maintenance is already going to another level. We’ve had to hire a couple of people who are well educated and well trained in that. We bought the necessary equipment and we’ll probably have to buy a little more.
“The sewer is no different than your house,” Williams continued. “If you keep it well maintained, it’ll keep working and it will last a lot, lot longer. So if we’re going to make this major investment of public dollars, regardless if it comes from the town, the county, the state – even the federal government – we have a responsibility to take care of that investment. I think that’s going to be a critical difference.”
It was not long ago, Williams said, that years passed before the town could be bothered to perform even the simplest maintenance projects, such as trimming the grass around drainage ditches.
“We’re in a whole different league now,” he said. “That those kinds of things have to be done is very basic.”
Today, not only are those projects addressed, they are done with so much finesse that it looks “like magic.”
“Constantly monitoring and cleaning and maintaining the new systems that we put in is the part I hope most people never notice,” Williams said. “I keep reminding all of our department heads, ‘I want you to do everything possible to make people think you’re magicians.’ The less they see you all having to work the better a job you’re doing. It’s not because you’re not doing the work, it’s because you’re doing work that doesn’t cause a lot of disruption.
“If something fails, they respond,” Williams continued. “They don’t care what time of day it is. They don’t care what time of night. Whether it’s an electric utility line or a stormwater pipe or a waterline. If any of those things are compromised, they’re on it. It’s certainly not because they’re the highest-paid employees around, but I do think the pride extends to the employees as well.”
The sense of pride surrounding the resurgence of Berlin is an essential component of the town’s success, according to Williams.
“If you’ve come to Berlin in the pursuit of happiness, you’ve come to the right place,” he said. “If you’ve come to Berlin because your number one pursuit is to become rich, you’re probably going to be disappointed. But if you come here to have a good balance between self-sufficiency, security, happiness and being part of a bigger family, we’re exactly right for you.”
As an example, Williams said more than 80 volunteers worked on the Christmas Parade in early December. Williams knows the exact number, because he recently hand wrote “thank you” notes to each one.
“We had 85 units [in the parade],” he said. “You think about that. There was almost one volunteer for every unit. I’m willing to bet a reasonable sum that, per capita, Berlin is in the top 10 percent in the country in terms of volunteers.
“What’s happening is they spread the word on how much enjoyment they’re getting out of it – how much satisfaction,” Williams continued. “Our volunteers are our greatest recruiting tool for more volunteers.”
A growing number of Berlin’s volunteer class is nonresidents, some coming from as far away as the metropolitan areas in Annapolis, Baltimore and Washington, D.C.
“They have second homes in West Ocean City or Ocean City or Ocean Pines, and they time their stays around a lot of our events – not just so they can attend them – but so they can volunteer for them because they feel like they’re part of the community,” Williams said.
“Plenty of people in the suburbs only know their most-immediate neighbors, and they may not be the best of friends, but when they come down here they know lots of people,” Williams continued. “And if people don’t know their names, they know their faces, and they’re welcoming. Isn’t that what community is supposed to be all about? That without any incentives or any emotions they feel the willingness and the desire to want to volunteer tells me everything.”
At some point in 2015, another small town in America will take over the official title as “the coolest.”
“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 said the attributes that made Berlin cool – having citizens that actively care for and look out for each other, maintaining a solid economic base as well as community that is culturally viable, and maintaining traditional American values in an open and unapologetic way – will continue to make the town cool.
“All of these things 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.”