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


Looking behind Berlin’s ‘coolest’ campaign

(April 16, 2015) Last year, during the aftermath of the Budget Travel magazine designation that named Berlin the “Coolest Small Town in America,” the Bayside Gazette examined the decades-long journey the town took, from former peach hub, to forgotten stopover, to a thriving, resurgent community of certified cool.  
While this Saturday’s Cool Berlin Anniversary Party is a celebration of the years of work the town’s business, political and community leaders put in, it’s also thanks to the people who spearheaded the campaign to snag the designation in the first place, starting with Worcester County Tourism Director Lisa Challenger.
Challenger said she was involved in, but did not originate, a similar campaign to nail down the designation several years ago. The movement stalled, but she kept up with Budget Travel’s mailing list and saw a virtual cartoon light bulb when she received notice for new nominations in 2014.  
“We had a social media coordinator at that time for the first time and I thought, ‘Hey, we should do this. We should try this again,’” Challenger said. “Berlin didn’t make it last time, but we should do it again. And then it just snowballed.”
Challenger said the magazine was looking for a town of fewer than 10,000 residents “with elements that make it cool besides just cute little shops and places to eat.”
During the nomination process Berlin earned more than 80 comments on the magazine’s website, leading to the formal nomination.
“We talked about our proximity to Assateague, the comments talked about how we have the Grow Berlin Green program, our 2nd Fridays, and all the events the town is famous for, because we do so many,” Challenger said.
Berlin emerged as a dark horse during the initial round of voting, leaping from ninth to third in the top-15 vote. Then, when the second round of voting opened up, things took off quickly.
“We shot right out there to first and kept after it,” former Economic and Community Development Director Michael Day said. “When the voting started again, we knew we were really going to push it out.”
“We were able to rack up a lot of votes initially, which got us into the top 15, and then we just worked that voting afterward,” Challenger said. “Mark Huey, our social media coordinator, I don’t think he ever slept for that last month and a half. He was just on it all the time.”
Huey said his job was to “basically organize the people who are already passionate about the town using the Internet and social media.”
“I think the big rallying point was the [#AmericasCoolestSmallTown] hashtag,” Huey said. “The contest itself was based on the Internet and voting through a link, so it was all about getting people to that link the easiest way possible.”
Thanks to Huey, sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram served as a constant reminder to a tuned-in public to vote on a daily basis. Day, meanwhile, led the effort in the trenches of the town’s shops and restaurants.
“When it first started, I got the merchants all involved,” he said. “I was the cheerleader for downtown and I worked the crowd and my mailing list and email list, and worked to convince the merchants in town to keep after it.”
That included producing the “vote” buttons and stickers that soon became ubiquitous in Berlin, as well as a town-sponsored website that acted as a virtual voting booth.
“The big rallying point through the early stages was just letting people know what was going on, and then we organized further through the hashtag and,” Huey said. “We basically used every form of social media to keep people engaged.”
Near the end of the campaign, Huey began posting a virtual countdown, showing both the narrowing gap between rival towns and the days remaining to vote. On at least one occasion the margin between the top-two towns became whisper thin.
“There was one weekend where [Cazenovia, N.Y.] made this massive gain and I was just like, ‘How did this happen?’” Huey said. “That’s when I started to get a little nervous.”
Then, during the last days of the contest, Berlin finally pulled ahead convincingly.
“I didn’t start celebrating until the night of the last day of the contest,” Huey said. “We were at Burley Oak and I was watching it thinking, ‘We’re going to do this.’ We were up by four or five percent at the end of the night. That’s when I knew we had it.”
Challenger said the full-court press Berlin put together impressed the magazine, which “had never seen such a massive effort.”
“They don’t come to every town to give the award, but they took the train down and came down here for [the first Cool Berlin party],” Challenger said.
The original party was postponed for two weeks because of heavy thunderstorms, but Budget Travel rescheduled.
“They came and they just fell in love with the town,” Challenger said. “And, of course, the party was amazing and the weather on the makeup date was absolutely spectacular. We were all on cloud nine. There was just such a sense throughout the entire town of feeling so buoyed up by this award. It was wonderful.”
This year Grand Marais, Minn. won the “coolest” designation, while Berlin could get yet another boost from Budget Travel later this year in a planned “top 10” retrospective list from the magazine. Budget Travel will also examine the Eastern Shore during a half-hour television special for PBS. Shooting begins the first week of May.
“They’re going to be here for a bunch of days, and we’re so excited to host them and show them how much fun it is here,” Challenger said, adding the special would air in the fall and repeat roughly five times.
Challenger believes the legacy of being called “cool” is the sense of unity the town continues to enjoy.
“Look at what we can accomplish when we all believe and work together,” she said. “I think it really showed this fabulous coming together and working together, all for one big common cause.”
Day said the designation was enormously valuable from an economic development standpoint.
“You couldn’t put a price tag on the free national publicity, but what I think it did economically for the downtown was it brought in a ton of people that lived within an hour’s drive of Berlin who had either never been to Berlin or had been there 10 or 15 years ago and had not come back,” he said.
“It brought them into town and now they’re repeat customers. I think it’s just going to snowball. I think it’s going to last as long as we keep touting it, and I don’t see any reason why Berlin can’t do that.”
Huey hoped the campaign would remind people of “the value of small towns.”
“For Berlin itself, it established what a lot of people already knew, that there was something very cool happening here,” he said. “It was kind of like the exclamation point on all of that. To have the title is pretty sweet, and it’s just continuing to keep the town on people’s radar.
“Berlin’s not off the beaten path, but there are towns off of interstate highways, off of corridors of strip malls, with historical character, friendly people, really unique places,” Huey continued. “On the Eastern Shore, to get people to realize that there’s more out there, I think that’s probably one of the larger concepts around this.”
Mayor Gee Williams said the experience was “so much more intense than anything I could have ever possibly imagined.”
“I think that the most rewarding aspect of it has been the afterglow that has resulted from the entire experience,” he said. “I truly believe the designation has been embraced overwhelmingly throughout every neighborhood and every demographic group in Berlin.
“The foundation to enjoying the benefits of being known as ‘cool Berlin’ is not only the shared pride of place, but I think it’s participating in the shared happiness and respect that this has really taken to a new level in the past year.”
That sense of togetherness, Williams said, is more present now than “any time in my six-plus decades of living here.”
“It’s not forced, it’s not something you have to prompt,” he said. “People are just sincerely proud of their community and I think they measure success by a different standard than was the case not so many years ago. There’s a common spirit that I’m just so grateful for, and that’s why I think it’s important that, as long as we earn the designation by remaining cool and finding new ways to share the experience, then I see no reason we should let this just fade away.”