By Josh Davis, Associate Editor
(June 21, 2018) After helping resurrect downtown Berlin and then moving slightly southwest to try his hand at revitalization there, 71-year-old Michael Day has announced his intention to retire as Snow Hill’s economic development coordinator next month.
Day was born in Salisbury and raised in Caroline County. He returned to Salisbury in 1983.
“I ran away six times from there, but I’m back,” he said with a laugh.
He and his late wife, Katherine, lived together in a home built by Day’s great-grandfather, which Day still owns today.
“That was the first house I ever was in after I was born. I was born right down the street in Salisbury and the first place they brought me was there. My grandfather grew up there, and my father grew up there with his brothers and sisters. It’s still in the family,” he said.
He and Katherine operated a photographic restoration business in the home for 25 years.
“We did really well until Photoshop and the computer came along,” he said. “We realized the writing was on the wall and we had a choice to make – either get involved with computers or Photoshop, or switch careers.”
At first, he considered “going into the museum business.”
“We worked with museums a lot with our photo business,” Day said. “The Small Museum Association used to have a conference every winter, and we did that a number of years where we were a vendor. That’s what I thought I was interested in, so I started taking workshops and things like that, and then worked as a part-time employee at the Chipman Foundation in Salisbury for six years.”
The Charles H. Chipman Cultural Center in Salisbury opened in 1994 as “a nonprofit organization dedicated to maintaining the facility and educating the public of the region’s rich cultural background.”
In 2002, Day was elected to the Salisbury City Council and named to the Urban Salisbury committee that began a local revitalization effort.
“And that’s when I found the Main Street program,” he said, referring to the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development program created in 1998. “That’s when I totally switched to Main Street and economic development. I was much more interested in that than museums.”
Day learned all he could about economic and community development, including the art of promoting historic downtowns as the engine that drives small town revitalization. Where before he restored photographs, Day then became interested in restoring municipalities.
In 2005, he was hired to run Main Street programs jointly in Berlin and Pocomoke. Four years later, he was hired in Berlin full time as the economic and community development director.
He held that role for six years, a span that included the successful “America’s Coolest Small Town” campaign of 2014, and then announced his retirement there.
“I said, ‘This is a fun job, but I’m ready to retire. I can retire.’ And I realized I had reached the ‘Peter principle’ more or less, that social media and websites and all that stuff was coming on pretty strong,” he said. “I really didn’t have that much experience [in technology] and just kind of said, ‘Somebody else needs to take this on and take it to the next level.’”
He officially retired on Jan. 1, 2015 and came out of retirement around July 1, 2016 as the new economic development coordinator of Snow Hill, about 15 miles away.
“I was happy [in retirement]. I was good. And I originally told [Snow Hill Mayor] Charlie Dorman no,” Day said. “But he asked me to come down. I’d been to Snow Hill many, many times, but I walked around, looked it over and said, ‘You know, this could be fun!’”
And it was, Day said. When he let Town Manager Kelly Pruitt know he was leaving next month he offered, “If I was younger – 10, 20 years younger – I wouldn’t be leaving. I would be staying right here.”
“This is a great challenge. It’s a great town. It’s a great job – a fun job. I really like it, but I’ve got other things I need to be focusing on in these latter years,” he said. “I think my sister passing away this past fall had a little to do with it. I think it made me realize [singing], ‘time keeps on ticking, ticking, ticking into the future.’”
For whomever comes next, Day said he would love to see Snow Hill events grow and for merchants to “become more of a cohesive group.” He said Diana Nolte from The Copy Shop would take over the Main Street program, similar to what Treasure Chest owner Terri Sexton did in Berlin.
“I’m going to cut back until they have somebody working full time that’s up to speed, and also I’ve offered to work one day a week with the Main Street program with Diana until it’s up and running,” Day said. “But it’s up to them – and their funding sources.”
He said more promotional funding would ultimately be the key to Snow Hill’s success.
“Berlin was doing OK, but when 2008 and the recession hit, the merchants wanted to cut back in promotion,” Day said. “And instead the town stepped up, hired me in 2009, and gave me a promotional budget.”
Each year that budget increased, and Day said he was able to leverage that with help from county officials, namely Worcester Tourism Director Lisa Challenger.
He said events in Berlin – admittedly not his favorite – were also a necessary economic driver. With that and the constant promotion by a unified group of downtown merchants and government, the town took off and has never looked back.
“That’s how Berlin became ‘America’s Coolest Small Town’ – they didn’t stop putting money into promoting the town,” Day said. “Yes, they’re in a great location, but in 1985 they were in the same location they’re in right now and they were still the same distance from Ocean City, and they were in a boarded-up town.
“That’s what I think Snow Hill is starting to do and I think I’ve been a big part of that – promoting the town in Ocean City,” he continued. “And I think Chincoteague is also a good opportunity.”
Day promoted Snow Hill as a destination for ecotourism and outdoor tourism. He said Berlin has a lock on shopping and dining, and Pocomoke has the industrial park and proximity to Wallop’s Island and NASA.
“[Pocomoke] has the river, but they don’t have the downtown ready for that yet. I think they will become more of a destination,” Day said. “But Snow Hill has had a study done [on outdoor tourism], we’re working on a new website, and we’re putting together all the things you can do for all four seasons.
“We’ve got so much to do outdoors – biking, hiking, canoeing, kayaking, horseback riding, Furnace Town … I think this could become what we’re talking about: ‘The Outdoor Adventure Capital of the Eastern Shore,’” he added.
Next, Day said he would tackle perhaps his greatest challenge – selling off the incredible stash of antiques he and Katherine amassed over the years.
“She had seven antique booths in three different counties – with three different licenses – and several other consignment shops she was involved in. She was hustling antiques and collectables all those years. I’ve got rooms full of this stuff that hasn’t been sold,” he said. “And I collected books and stuff. [Selling all that] is going to be my focus.
“I’ve got more stuff than I know what to do with,” Day added.