By Josh Davis, Associate Editor
(Nov. 29, 2018) Approximately 50 community members gathered at the Stephen Decatur Middle School last Monday night to talk about “a real opportunity for East Berlin,” and about what to do next with the multipurpose building on Flower Street.
The town has plans to build a community center somewhere on Flower Street, with two candidates being the town-owned parking lot opposite Dr. William Henry Park, and the current site of the multipurpose building.
According to D.J. Lockwood, chairman of the Berlin Community Improvement Association that oversees the property, it was deeded seven times between 1925 and 1962, and Worcester County took control around 1970. The building had been part of the old Flower Street School.
Lockwood said the BCIA bought the property at auction for $700 in 1971 and the next year entered into an agreement with Shore Up! Inc. for upkeep of the building. Shore Up oversees the Head Start program in Berlin. An expanded agreement in 1983 was struck to also include a local Masonic lodge.
He said the original purpose of the building, as overseen by the BCIA, was to “establish and operate an association of civil-minded people residing on the northern end of Worcester County” that would offer educational and recreational activities and social programs. However, he added the condition of the building “has kind of hindered the BCIA from doing what they’re supposed to do.”
“We all see the shape of the building,” Lockwood said. “The building was only designed to last 15 years — we’re well past that.
“It’s holding the BCIA back,” he continued. “We can’t put forth what our forefathers wanted us to do … because of the declining and diminishing state of the multipurpose building.”
Lockwood said the restrooms are substandard, the roof is failing, the air conditioning isn’t working, there are electrical issues and “a whole bunch of things that’s going on with that building.” To renovate the structure, he said, would cost about $300,000 “just to try to bring the building back to where it needs to be.”
“I don’t know where I’m going to find $300,000,” he said.
In meeting with Berlin Mayor Gee Williams, Lockwood said Williams indicated the building did not qualify as historical in a traditional, architectural sense. It’s not on any historic registry.
He added, “the building is historical to us … it’s historical to me” and recalled attending community events there as a child. “Just because it means something to me doesn’t mean it means something to the powers that be,” he said.
Lockwood said the town had spent about $32,000 over five years on renovations, but is unwilling to continue that support.
Town officials apparently asked if the BCIA would be willing to transfer ownership of the property. In exchange, the town would take responsibility for all financial and operational costs, and would conduct an engineering study to determine if partial renovation or total replacement of the building would be more cost effective.
The town would then create a Berlin Community Center Advisory Board to advise the Town Council on how to use the facility. Williams pledged those appointments would include some current BCIA officers.
“The mayor actually handed this [document] to me … so I’m going to take it for what it’s worth,” Lockwood said. “We need to decide what we want.”
He said the former “America’s Coolest Small Town” winner does not have a community center, while Ocean Pines has two. Ocean City also has a community center.
“Think about the east side of Berlin having a community center — a state-of-the-art community center where our kids can go play basketball … to have weddings [and] family reunions,” Lockwood said.
“If we decide to do this, it’s done. It’s a done deal,” he continued. “The town is interested in the property. I wouldn’t think they’re interested in the building, but they’re interested in that space.”
Lockwood added, “My thought and the committee’s thought is we better take this opportunity [of a] partnership with the town and see where it’s going to take us. This why we called the meeting tonight. We want everybody’s opinion.”
Former Worcester County Commissioner James Lee Purnell Jr. said he had been thinking about the matter for several days. He suggested going to Annapolis and meeting with state officials in an attempt to get the multipurpose building added to the historic registry. He cited the former Germantown School as an example of how that could be done and said historical status could open the door to more funding for renovations.
“We don’t want this property to get away from us … a lot of sweat and tears went into it,” he said.
Another woman contended if everyone really tried, they could keep the building and find a way to restore it. She said the old Flower Street School was certainly historic, adding, “You don’t know what you’re going to get until you ask.”
She said people actually turned down money for renovations some years ago, and that the money probably was still available.
“I just think that you don’t need to give it to the town, because once you do, it’s not going to be your property anymore,” she said.
Lockwood countered that community organizations had been aware of the state of the building for years, but hadn’t bothered to open their checkbooks.
“It’s not like the building is hidden,” he said. “We can all talk a good game … who’s willing to go to Annapolis? I know Mr. [James] Purnell is, but he can’t go by himself.”
The Rev. Dr. Helen Lockwood said the multipurpose building is not like the former Germantown School, which was aided because of its ties to the Rosenwald Foundation.
She went on to say the community had evolved into an interfaith, multicultural community, but admitted change is sometimes difficult — including in this instance.
“The community that we had when that property was purchased is not the community that we live in now,” she said. “I think it would be in the best interest for all of us that we come into an agreement with the town of Berlin. However, we hold strategic places on the board. We want to be able to have a voice, to be able to speak about how this new building is going to be built, and we need to have a particular percentage of control over it.
“The African-Americans back then worked very hard to accomplish that goal and we want to be able to say we have a voice,” she added.
She said mold has consumed the property and “the African-American family, as I know it, does not have that money to build a new building or restore it to where we would like to see it.”
“We don’t want a black town and a white town — that mess is gone. That’s over with,” she said. “We want a community of people that can come together to use a building … [that] for all we know might produce jobs down the road [and be] a safe place where we can all come together and say that this is our community center.
“There’s too much going on in the world now to keep dealing with this separatism,” she continued. “I just want to put that thought out and hopefully the people will hear what we need to do.”
Lockwood recalled going to the multipurpose building when her son, D.J., was about a year old.
“I know I was out there on my hands and knees laying tile floor,” she said. “I did these things and ever since then it has only been a small amount of people that have tried to keep that building decent. They have put their own time in, their own money … so that it could be rented to make a little bit of money.
“The fact of the matter is, is that all of the people that are gathered here tonight, they cannot be counted within that group of people that have done those things.
“We’re talking about a community project now. We’re talking about something bigger than any of us could ever imagine. No, none of us want to let the old go … but the only way that we can have a legacy that will continue to so that our children and their children and the community can continuously come together, is that now we’ve got to shift — and shift is hard.”
Diana Purnell, president of the Worcester County Commissioners, agreed the Germantown situation was different. For one, she said, there was a certain amount of clout at the state capital that no longer existed.
“We can’t even get funding for the school system,” she said. State funding for Worcester’s public schools is the lowest in the state. “Money ain’t tight,” she said, “money is not moving, period.”
She said research for grants can cost thousands of dollars, while engineering studies can cost even more.
“I would like to know … where are we going to come up with money to get an engineer?” she asked. “An engineer is going to walk out of your pocket with anywhere from $20,000 to $50,000, just to get in the door. They don’t do it for nothing anymore.
“I know that this building is historical for a lot of people,” Purnell continued. “But it can be so historical they you’ll end up with a pile of dirt it stood upon.”
Gabe Purnell, a former BCIA chairman, said he’d “been in the middle of this battle” for years.
“That building, if it wasn’t for the town … we wouldn’t even be looking at it,” he said. “It probably would’ve been pushed down.”
He said town officials a decade or two ago worked with the committee to help with upkeep.
“Every time we pretty much had an issue that was major, they would come and they would be at our rescue,” Purnell said. He added that the BCIA has functioned with a board of only a few people that past dozen years.
“And they wasn’t even meeting! So what in the devil are we in here hollering about saving some things that we don’t even care about?” he asked. “I don’t see it. I really don’t see it. You cannot convince me that you’re going to have bodies that are going to jump up and raise money.”
Purnell also sits on the Germantown School Community Heritage Center and said it’s not easy keeping that going.
“To maintain that building … we raised money. We worked hard. Man, I almost died raising money,” he said. “It almost killed me.
“When you look around, you have a very few people that will be committed. Commitment is hard to find these days,” Purnell continued. “It hurts me to see this building go into the hands of the town, but for the betterment of the community I feel that’s the best thing that could happen, because it takes it out of our hands that we’ve got to struggle.”
He said the town had access to grant funding community members did not, and could leverage that to build something the entire community could be proud of.
“Guess what? We didn’t pay but $700 for it,” Purnell said. “It was a gift. So why do we get all upset about something that came easy?”
Emma Briddell agreed and said the building was only designed to last about 10 years and was more or less given to the community, but people had been unwilling to even pay a $10 membership fee to maintain it.
“The folks that were interested at that time were like me — 85, 90 years old,” she said. “Annabelle and I used to go out there and have dances for the kids, but wouldn’t charge them but $2 or $3.
“We’ve been in there trying to sell dinners [now] — you can’t cook nothing in there now. The building’s not even decent,” Briddell continued. “If the town can put a nice community center out there, we need something for our kids … instead of walking on the streets, standing on the corner.”
She also ridiculed some who suddenly seemed so passionate about having a voice in town affairs.
“They have meetings in the town and how many of us go?” Briddell said. “I remember in my younger years we had one black person that went and never missed one. That was Sonny Derrickson — and he’s dead.”
Berlin Town Councilman Dean Burrell said he had written two Community Development Block Grant applications to pay for renovations, but had twice been rejected. He said money was given for a building that would have gone in front of the Head Start classrooms — but the town at the time couldn’t get BCIA approval.
“So, your end is of our own creation,” Burrell said. “The town is not looking for your stuff. The town has aspirations of building a community center on the east side of Berlin and … the town has property to build this facility across from Henry Park.
“Some folks think it would be splendid there. Other folks think, wouldn’t this be an opportunity to do something with the BCIA property and something for the town,” he continued. “Your decision is your decision, but rest assured the town is going to be building a community center.”
Councilman Elroy Brittingham, who also chairs the local Head Start program, said money is available for an engineering study for the new community center. Town officials just needed to know where to put it.
“The mayor has said, why have two buildings in the same area compete with each other?” Brittingham said, adding he didn’t know how the multipurpose building, in its current state, could compete with anything.
Burrell added that Shore Up, which oversees Head Start, is paying for nearly all of the multipurpose utility bills, because no one else could afford to do so.
“But those expenditures are a drain on that Head Start budget,” he said.
Gabe Purnell said Mayor Gee Williams had been an ally of the East Berlin community and is key to making the promised new center a reality.
“We’ve had mayors before him and you ain’t seen nothing happen on the east side,” he said. “This mayor, as far as I’m concerned, has proven himself to be a friend of the east side — and all the other sides. This is one town that has set itself apart. Yes, we still have the issues that we had in the past, but the leadership has set a standard.”
Purnell pointed to the sidewalks on Flower Street and the special attention paid to Henry Park as positive examples.
“I plead with you. I know this community. I know where our shortcomings are,” he said. “We will miss an opportunity … because when this mayor is gone, who knows what’s going to come behind him. And we don’t need to be risking being left behind, because that’s what’s going to happen — we are going to be left behind.”
Both Gabe and Diana Purnell said they are frustrated and nearing end of their periods of public service.
“I’m about like Gabe — I’m done,” Diana Purnell said. “If I’m going out of town … I need to make sure somebody is in town that go there and push that button. That’s what I’m talking about — it’s commitment. Commitment, commitment, commitment.”
She thanked Williams, Burrell and Brittingham their efforts, and again encouraged the community to trust leadership and make the most of this opportunity.
Purnell said the community needs to have a place for seniors, and a place where children could come to learn and to enjoy recreational activities.
“Right now, we have an opportunity before that can work for us,” she said, adding if the new center were to be built elsewhere, community members may not have a voice.
“This way, we can have some say,” Purnell said. “Berlin is going to grow, whether you like it or not.”
One woman asked that a roundtable discussion be a part of the program the next time such a community meeting takes place, “so we all have [an] equal voice.”
“Let’s include the young people,” she said. “Let’s sit down as … God’s children and get this thing together. We cannot dwell on the past. Let tonight be the beginning of a new future.”
Burrell thanked Lockwood for organizing the meeting.
“I want to thank you for your leadership in dealing with this very sensitive topic,” he said. “You have, I feel, done a splendid job. You have stated the problem. You have shared different aspects of what could happen, you provided the background information, and respected the rights of everybody in this room by giving them an opportunity to say whatever was on their mind. I thank you for your leadership.”
The several dozen people in the room applauded.
Lockwood said the next BCIA meeting would just be for the board to consider its next steps, but asked everyone to leave their phone numbers or email addresses.
“We’ll make sure you know everything that’s happening, step by step,” he said.