With Snow Hill shop closed by town officials, owners sought second location
By Josh Davis, Associate Editor
(March 7, 2019) The dispute between the Town of Snow Hill and Toy Town Antiques could lead the business back to Berlin, albeit in a smaller, satellite location.
Storeowners Richard and Debbie Seaton were in Berlin on Monday, looking at several rental properties downtown.
Meanwhile, an April trial date looms for a civil citation in the case of State of Maryland vs. Richard Seaton Jr. at the District Court For Worcester County in Snow Hill.
At issue is a 2016 memorandum of understanding between the Seatons, then Mayor Charlie Dorman and all three members of the Town Council. The terms of the agreement were that the Seatons would take ownership of the former Outten Theater, a 6,800-square-foot building on 207 North Washington Street, if certain renovations were made over a five-year period. The renovations were to include a repair of the entire façade with the work to be verified by a code enforcement officer designated by the town.
The Seatons, in exchange, agreed to operate the Toy Town business for five years, and to pay all utilities and maintenance costs. The building had been vacant for nearly 30 years.
Despite the five-year agreement and no specific timeline for renovations, town officials reportedly asked for some of the repairs to be done immediately.
Last Wednesday morning, Snow Hill Code Enforcement Officer Jon Hill cited the Seatons for operating a business without a certificate of occupancy. Later that day, the business was closed and the sidewalk surrounding the storefront was cordoned off with caution tape and large, orange pylons.
The same day, the town issued the following statement:
“Several immediate safety concerns with the building currently occupied by Toy Town Antiques were identified by reputable and licensed third-party engineers. The Town of Snow Hill has made several attempts to work with Toy Town Antiques to address these safety concerns in a timely manner, but unfortunately have not been able to reach a solution.
“The Town of Snow Hill has a duty to ensure the safety of the public. Therefore, it could not allow the dangerous conditions to go unremedied any longer. The matter is now before the court, and, as such, no further comment will be forthcoming.”
Snow Hill Councilwoman Alison Gadoua, responding to the town press release on Facebook, said the dispute could keep the business closed for two-to-six months.
“It’s truly up to the business owner how long this will take at this point,” she said in a post last Friday. “The 2-6 months is a guesstimate based on whether or not this matter truly does end up being heard in court, which has never been our goal.”
Town Manager Kelly Pruitt referred all questions to attorney Rena Patel.
“I can’t really say much, because the case is now in court,” Patel said on Monday. “Of course, the town’s open to resolving the issue, but they’ve got to protect the safety of the citizens.”
Richard Seaton said disagreements with the town began before the business moved into the building.
“We couldn’t get a building permit to start the project, because Kelly Pruitt wouldn’t give me one,” he said.
He added things went further south on the day Dorman resigned, last October.
“That’s when it really blew up, because they wanted to undo what he did,” Seaton said. “It’s just a power trip [by Pruitt].
“It’s just been bad. It was a bad deal,” he added.
Toy Town issued its own statement of social media last Wednesday:
“We were not aware that the store would be roped off. I guess they wanted to leave us a surprise, because they did it after we had left the building. I have not spoke with anyone and I am not sure if this means no one can get into the building? Snow Hill Town Hall is definitely FULL of surprises. Welcome to Snow Hell,” the post said.
“When they roped off the store, they didn’t even tell us they were roping off the store – they just did that. They did that after [Richard] had left for the day,” Debbie Seaton said. “They didn’t put a sign up saying we were closed. They didn’t give us any notification. They didn’t say anything.”
The Seatons later posted signs in the storefront saying the town had closed the business.
“All of this happened on Wednesday when they gave us a citation for not having a permit of occupancy, which was promised to us by former Mayor Charlie Dorman,” Richard Seaton said. “And Charlie Dorman has said, himself, ‘Yes, we promised them a certificate of occupancy – and it’s probably still sitting on my desk.’”
Seaton said he recently spoke with Pruitt and current Mayor Stephen Mathews on whether they would honor the 2016 agreement.
“They said yes, but, ‘We’re not going to honor anything that [Dorman] put in it,’” he said. “That’s the whole doggone contract!
“They don’t want to honor anything [Dorman] did,” he added.
Moreover, according to Debbie Seaton, Pruitt told them they were “never supposed to move into the building.”
“She said that’s not what the MOU means – the MOU means we were supposed to work on the building for five years, then move in,” Seaton said. “In fact, it says in the MOU … that we have to occupy the business for five years, so she’s contradicting herself.”
The Seatons plan to sue the town to recoup the roughly $150,000 to $200,000 they’ve already put into restoring the building.
“I love the building [in Snow Hill] and I’d like to stay there, but … I don’t see them signing over this building after that MOU is over with – they’re going to cause problems on even signing it over to us,” she said. “I just see that because of all the things we’ve been through with [the town].
She added, “I hope that things will work out. We love the building and we would love to stay.”
In the meantime, the Seatons are said to be close to signing a contract to bring a second Toy Town location to downtown Berlin. Before moving to Snow Hill, the Seatons operated Toy Town in the 4,800-square-foot building on Main Street that now houses World of Toys.
“They were fantastic,” Debbie Seaton said of her prior experience with Town of Berlin officials. “It’s just that our lease was up and we needed to make a decision on what we were going to do.”
“And they came and got us – Michael Day and the mayor came and got us,” Richard Seaton said, referring to Dorman and former Snow Hill Economic Development Director Michael Day.
“We invested a lot of money and a lot of time and, in hindsight, if I knew [what would later happen] I would’ve never moved there,” Debbie Seaton said.
“We have to run a business. We have to be open. We have to make money,” she continued, adding the story, to her, was now, “Berlin Welcomes Toy Town back.”
Berlin Economic and Community Development Director Ivy Wells on Monday said she was thrilled at the prospect of the business’s return.
“Part of my job here is to make sure that we don’t have any vacancies [and] to assist the property owners with finding the right tenant for the space, and also making sure that whoever comes here complements the town – I’m always looking for something that complements the rest of the businesses here,” Wells said.
“I love Toy Town,” she continued. “When I saw that they were having some difficulties, I knew that we would welcome them back.”
Wells said she understood why the Seatons left Berlin nearly three years ago.
“Anyone would’ve accepted that deal,” she said. “It’s a beautiful building.
“I’m pro-business, so I want all small businesses to succeed regardless of where they’re located,” Wells continued. “But, in order for small businesses to succeed in a municipality, you have to get along with the local government – it’s imperative. And [as a local government] sometimes you just have to listen to what the community wants.”
Berlin, on the other hand, is “open for business,” Wells said.
“We treat everyone with respect. We treat them as fairly as possible. We work with them and, me specifically, I wanted to ensure [the Seatons] that they have a pleasant experience, so I made sure that everything would go smoothly with them if they decided to come back,” she said.
If the dispute in Snow Hill is resolved and Toy Town ends up operating two businesses simultaneously, Wells said that would benefit all parties involved.
“They’ve got such unique things in their shop that it works for everyone,” she said.