In a new book, former Berlin mayor Gee Williams sets out his prescription for revitalizing small-town America.
Turn Your Town Around: How to Make It a Great Destination Community maintains that building on any town’s distinctive history and hospitality, along with nurturing local entrepreneurs and artists, can lead to transformative results.
Williams’ case rests on a tangible example– the real-world success of Berlin, where he served as mayor for 12 years (2008-2020).
A town of 5,000 located between its larger neighbors of Salisbury and Ocean City on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Berlin traces its own history to a Colonial-era plantation and related hostelry known as the Burley Inn. But its current reputation as a fun destination for day trippers was burnished in just the last 20-30 years, earning wide notice in 2014 when Budget Travel magazine named Berlin “America’s Coolest Small Town.”
That turned out to be only one of 30-some awards and recognitions Berlin has won in recent years. In roughly the same time period, the number of independent, locally owned businesses located in Berlin’s walkable downtown doubled to 70. Utility lines on Main Street were buried, and exteriors of many historic buildings were refurbished to reflect their Victorian era roots.
Williams says his book is aimed at small town residents and community leaders who find themselves saying:
“Nothing ever really changes in our town.”
“Our town survives, but never thrives.”
“Somehow our town’s beauty and appeal has faded with time.”
“When I shop, I would prefer to have a variety of choices in our downtown.”
“Would anyone recommend our town to newcomers or visitors?”
“Why do we keep doing the same old things, but expect different results?”
Among the answers he recommends are building on whatever cultural and historical assets you have; creating special events to draw visitors throughout the year; focusing on Main Street and hiring a full time coordinator to lead the revitalization; applying for state grants; and taking advantage of regional associations and social media tools to market relentlessly.
Over and above that, two recurring themes are the need for town businesses to practice collaboration, not competition, with each other, and the need of everyone to apply the personal touch by treating visitors as valued guests rather than customers. The key to long term success, he says, is inspiring return visits throughout the year.
He argues that the small size and slower pace of towns, compared to larger cities, are in fact a strength that many people are yearning for in their hectic day-to-day lives.
The book is profusely illustrated with photographs of Berlin residents, businesses, and historical figures.
Williams is confident Berlin’s methods can work elsewhere.
“It’s a great time to take a new look at your town,” he writes. “Ironically, much of its potential may be hidden in plain sight, and a new point of view can lead to a rediscovery of assets that may have been long forgotten or simply taken for granted.”
HOW TO BUY LOCAL
In Berlin, Turn Your Town Around is being featured for sale at The Greyhound - An Indie Bookstore, one of the successful local businesses Williams profiles. It is available through Bookshop.org, where every purchase benefits independent bookstores; other leading retailers; and direct from the publisher at www.secantpublishing.com.