If you take a ride or stroll through the streets of historic Downtown Berlin, you will find yourself immersed in a vibrant community with bustling business, original architecture, an engaging art culture, a creative culinary scene, and even its own brewery. This combination of aesthetics and activity is a result of renewed tourism efforts and was a major factor in the Baltimore Sun dubbing Berlin as “Maryland’s Coolest Small Town” earlier in 2013. Looking at downtown now you wouldn’t realize it, but it wasn’t too long ago that Berlin was an afterthought along Ocean Gateway that was searching for an identity.
Enter Michael Day, a long time economic and marketing consultant, former member of the Salisbury City Council, and 2005 Wicomico County Tourism Person of the Year, who was hired to oversee the economic development of Berlin in 2005.
Prior to Day’s hiring as Director of Economic Development, Downtown Berlin was plagued by a fractured business community that often favored in-fighting instead of cooperation. Town officials, merchants, and the Chamber of Commerce were the three main entities aimlessly pulling against each other and preventing any significant progress. According to Day, the Chamber did not understand the proper roles and functions, at the time, and resembled an unorganized merchant association more than a Chamber of Commerce. This void in leadership created a disorganized business community in which local owners lacked the cohesion necessary to drive Berlin forward.
Upon his hiring, Day completed a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis of downtown to gauge the extent of the problems at hand. His main goal was bringing these problems to the forefront, so the town, Chamber, and business owners could all be on the same page heading into the future.
Putting Berlin’s fragmented business community back together was a long, hard process for Day, who only served in a part time role for his first 4 years. One of his first initiatives was holding weekly meetings with local merchants over coffee at The Globe. These informal gatherings helped shed light on many of the issues facing the town and played a pivotal role in future courses of action implemented by Day.
It took over 2 years for Day to gain the trust of the local merchants and he still strives to maintain, and grow, that trust today. From his earliest days in office, Day wanted to build a Main Street Program as well as art and entertainment programs for Berlin like he’d seen in other communities. Meeting with the merchants each week helped form enough cohesion for Day to lay the groundwork for a loose Main Street program that provided a strong foundation when Berlin was officially designated under the national Main Street Program in 2008.
Many communities around the country are beneficiaries of the Main Street Program; but few have used it as a catalyst for success as well as Berlin under the guidance of Day, who took the assistance from the program and parlayed into a thriving downtown community. Day, along with community organizer Terri Sexton, formed multiple committees that focused on one goal at a time in order to help all entities have a singular focus and, in turn, increase the efficiency of the downtown businesses and local government. Now, the merchants, the town, and the county all work together in planning, development, marketing, implementing budgets, coordinating events, and making all other major decisions.
Proper coordination and leadership have allowed Berlin to establish marquee events throughout the year that drive thousands of visitors and bring added business to downtown. Among these events are Oktoberfest, the New Year’s Eve ball drop party, May Day, the International Festival, the Heritage Festival, and Peach Festival. These major annual events are complimented by the monthly ‘Second Friday’ art stroll, bathtub races, high heel races, and other favorite local traditions throughout the year.
It is the major events, quirky traditions, and the desire to drive the community forward that helped elevate Berlin and earn it the title of “Maryland’s Coolest Small Town.” What began as a moniker has evolved into a rallying point that’s united the community. Ocean 98.1 FM, the Art and Entertainment Committee of Berlin, and local businesses have not only embraced the title, but strive to embody it. On social media, #MDsCoolestSmallTown has become a calling card that’s been an effective promotional tool and brought extra awareness to the revitalized town.
Coordination under Day’s leadership has produced a resurgence in vibrancy within the downtown community, which continues to fuel further economic development and ensure a bright future for Berlin. Day wants to continue riding the wave of success and plan even more events and activities to increase business. There are already plans in the works for a new Visitor’s Center with information on local businesses and a gift shop with inexpensive souvenirs bearing the Berlin brand. In addition, Day envisions the town investing in a 60 acre tract of land on the Purnell property off of Route 50 that he would like to see developed into a nature park and epicenter for events. He also sees a strong need for Berlin to have a major hotel because there are currently only 26 rooms for rent in town between the historic Atlantic Hotel and several bed and breakfasts. Day is optimistic about the opportunity for more growth downtown because expanded water and sewer lines make development on nearby properties highly feasible.
Berlin is certainly growing, but Day wants to achieve the same vibrancy year round that the town experiences during the peak months. Day still sees the same potential in Berlin that he saw when he started there years ago. He knows there is still much work to be done to take the town to the next level, but is confident Berlin is on the right path to get there. In the meantime, if you’re in the area, check out historic Downtown Berlin and see the work of Michael Day first-hand as you experience all that “Maryland’s Coolest Small Town” has to offer for yourself.