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Off-season promotions keep Berlin relevant in quiet weeks

Whether it’s free carriage rides near Valentine’s Day, a week of restaurant specials in January, or a February photo contest, Berlin’s business community does what it must to keep customers coming to the historic downtown in the cold.


One of the glass bubbles that Berlin artist Jeff Auxer created to hide throughout town as part of an off-season promotion is pictured.

Berlin-horsedrawn carriage

A horse pulls a carriage along Main Street in Berlin.

Officials say town  ‘Open For Business’ even in cold times

By Charlene Sharpe, Associate Editor

While shoppers might use the early part of the new year to cut back on spending following the holiday rush, merchants are trying to keep customers coming in the doors during what’s traditionally the slowest time of the retail year.

In Berlin, a variety of promotions are aimed at reminding area residents to support their local business community. Whether it’s free carriage rides near Valentine’s Day, a week of restaurant specials in January, or a February photo contest, Berlin’s business community does what it must to keep customers coming to the historic downtown.

“Just because it’s the offseason doesn’t mean we don’t want to remain relevant,” Ivy Wells, the town’s economic and community development director said. “Berlin isn’t closed up because it’s cold outside. We’re alive and we’re open for business.”

Post-Christmas slump

While most merchants in Berlin’s downtown commercial district enjoyed a successful holiday shopping season in the weeks leading up to Christmas, they knew that they’d need that income to see them through January and February, which are often the slowest months of the year for retail.

A key focus of Wells’ department and the Berlin Chamber of Commerce has been developing ways to keep people coming to Berlin no matter the month.

“I’d say that Berlin is at the cusp of no longer enjoying the luxury of calling itself a seasonal attraction,” Ryan Nellans, executive director of the Berlin Chamber of Commerce, said. “Once upon a time the warm fire of Berlin’s success was rekindled every spring. Now, a higher demand for ‘the Berlin of expectation’ means never letting that flame go out. And as you might guess, an eternal flame is no small feat, and nothing that a single person — or business — could accomplish.”

The collaborative efforts of the chamber, Wells’ department, and the businesses themselves is what it takes to keep Berlin relevant. This month, the chamber is hosting an educational series for local business owners. Shops donated gift cards to serve as the prize in the #LoveWinsInBerlin photo contest. The town’s economic and community development department lined up a horse and carriage to offer rides the weekend before Valentine’s Day.

“We try to keep it fresh,” Wells said.

The February promotions come on the heels of a busy Berlin Restaurant Week in mid-January. While it’s now an annual event, the weeklong schedule of specials at the town’s eateries was started to encourage area residents to dine out during a slow month.

And just how successful was this year’s Restaurant Week? There was a wait at The Blacksmith, and The Globe ran out of specials in the first hour of the first day.

“It’s that kind of promotion that keeps Berlin at the forefront of people’s minds,” Wells said.

She was thrilled with the buzz generated both before Christmas and again after the holiday with the Berlin Bubble Project, a promotion in which glass bubbles created by Berlin artist Jeff Auxer were hidden throughout town.

Merchant participation

Part of what makes the town’s contests and promotions effective is the willingness of merchants to donate prizes.

While Auxer donated dozens of handmade glass bubbles, local real estate broker Cam Bunting donated a cash prize for Restaurant Week and numerous eateries donated gift cards. The winner of the Valentine’s Day Photo Contest drawing will receive a basket full of Berlin prizes, including a railbike ride for two from Tracks and Yaks, as well as a spa session at Renaissance Med Spa.

“All of our businesses are very willing to donate,” Administrative Assistant Allison Early said, noting that the merchants understood the benefits of the various campaigns and promotions.

Nellans agreed and said the coordination provided by the chamber and the town’s economic development staff was critical in keeping folks coming to town year-round.

“The work of groups like economic development and the chamber of commerce may appear, at a glance, to be extraneous or unnecessary,” he said. “And, in the past they may have been. However, with the increased exposure the town enjoys, it’s more and more necessary to optimize all our efforts year-round. During the summer and holiday seasons Ivy and I amplify the numbers of visitors through events. During the quiet season we help projects like Restaurant Week or carriage rides along, provide support in the way of educational series, and plan a course through the summer to come. We are always promoting and supporting and investing in ourselves and our business community.”

Outside support

Also playing a key role in supporting the small town economy is the Main Street Maryland designation and the Berlin Arts & Entertainment District.

As a Main Street Maryland community, the town is able to apply for a $25,000 grant each year that can be used to promote and support downtown businesses, whether it’s through buying flower pots for the town’s Victorian lamp posts or installing wayfinding signs.

The Arts & Entertainment designation, meanwhile, provides tax incentives for eligible businesses. When The Globe hosts acts like Afroman, it doesn’t have to pay income tax on the cover charge. When artists within the district sell their work, the sales they make aren’t subject to income tax.

The Berlin Arts and Entertainment grant, which varies from year to year, has also helped fund key projects that add to the town’s draw, including the Rev. Charles Albert Tindley mural and Pollinator Way.

“We just want to get people here, so they can enjoy lunch with a loved one or shop with their friends,” Early said.

Wells said the various efforts are all meant to ensure Berlin’s downtown business district stays healthy.

“Without a vibrant downtown Berlin wouldn’t be the desirable place to live, work and play that it is,” she said.

This story appears in the Feb. 8, 2024, print edition of the Bayside Gazette.