By Josh Davis, Associate Editor
This is part one of a two-part interview. The second part will be released in the Jan. 25 edition of the Bayside Gazette.
(Jan. 18, 2018) In the next 11 months, according to Berlin Mayor Gee Williams, the town will examine its parking problems, develop a growth strategy and a way to capture revenue from recent growth, forge a new partnership with fire and EMS services, begin development and lay groundwork for the future of Berlin Falls park, and implement a new street and sidewalk plan.
“I think 2018 offers the town the opportunity to either initiate or build upon some of the major areas of improvement that we have worked on the past, and some will be truly a beginning,” he said.
At Berlin Falls, for instance, Williams expects “more visible impacts” as a result of a newly established advisory committee.
“Other things that will be truly a new initiative, is I think we need to take a comprehensive look at increasing parking capacity for downtown Berlin,” he said. “That’s something we’ve discussed informally, but I think the timing is just right.”
He said a formal parking study could be ordered by the early part of this year.
“This study should be initiated by the town and completed as early as possible in 2018,” he said. “It may be a foundational study, but I don’t think it will be the only study. We need to identify basic needs and figure out what our options are.”
Williams said there are some underutilized areas in town that could easily be adapted for additional public parking spaces, “assuming we have the support of the property owners.”
Other solutions to parking shortages could range from less expensive, short-term options to long-term fixes “to be implemented in the next 10-15 years.” Williams said other transportation options, such as trams, trolleys, bicycle taxis and bike rentals, should be considered.
He said a parking garage is not out of the question, so long as it is complimentary to the downtown.
“We’re not talking about putting up some modern building or something that’s totally incompatible with our historic charm,” he said, adding, “The people you serve will not allow you to spend $1 to prevent pain, but they will allow you to spend what is responsible and necessary to make pain go away – that describes Berlin’s situation.”
Williams recalled looking at parking concerns when he became mayor in 2008, and found “there were plenty of parking spaces.” That has changed over the past decade.
“From my observation, there has been a significant increase in day-to-day motor vehicle traffic, and there’s been significantly more in the last 10 years than anything we ever experienced before – and even more so in the last four,” Williams said. “I am convinced that we now need more parking, not just for the peak parking times … I think that now there is a need for additional parking during our season, which is the first of April through New Year’s Eve,” he said.
“For roughly 80 years, this town had a parking problem – we had lots of parking and not that many cars,” Williams added. “Now, we have a more traditional parking problem. In a way, it’s a consequence of the economic vitality and growth of this community.”
He does not see the problem going away, nor does he foresee economic growth in the town stalling any time soon.
“I think the worst-case scenario is, during an economic downturn nationally, it may be leveled for a short time,” he said. “But, given all the potential that we can identify today, I think it is incumbent upon the mayor and council and this community to work together to provide additional parking to meet the needs that currently exist, and to be prepared and have plans for growing demand, as it develops.”
As for managing growth, Williams said the town would “begin the development of a growth strategy for not only downtown, but all neighborhoods in Berlin, including the two major highway corridors of U.S. 50 and U.S. 113 in the Town of Berlin.”
The is expected to include a series of public meetings using “the experience and the template” of the series of stormwater meetings the town held in recent years, Williams said.
He said meetings would be held “in every residential neighborhood [and] the downtown historic and business district, to consider growth issues, ideas and concerns in not only their respective back yards, but also what we expect to be primarily commercial opportunities” along the highways.
“The discussions and consultant studies for future Berlin growth should evolve into a plan for both immediate and long-term annexation priorities that will also define a permanent ‘green no-growth zone’ that would be adopted in town growth policy, but would also serve as an important contribution to the updating of the Town of Berlin and Worcester County Comprehensive Growth Plan for the next decade and beyond,” Williams said.
“I think all of us, the mayor and council and everyone involved, are going to be welcoming people who come in and want to learn as much about this, ask any question they want, and give their true and thoughtful – and informed – opinions about what they’d like to see,” he added. “I think anybody who’s in public office who truly cares about the job tries to listen to everyone, but people who have informed opinions tend to carry more weight than people who just have an opinion based on their emotions.”
The stormwater meetings lasted about 18 months and William expects the next set of assemblies to run about the same duration.
“The one assumption that I’m making as a lifelong resident of Berlin [is], I don’t want unmanaged, uncontrollable, go-for-the-fences growth,” Williams said. “But I do think, as a community, we recognize that manageable and incremental growth is necessary to the vitality of the community – not just economically, but in every other way. That is what’s gotten us here.
“When we were, not consciously, a no-growth community, we suffered,” he added. “But, it took time for people to realize that. I want us to take the lessons we’ve learned so far and apply term to the future.”
Williams went on to say the town’s current revenue structure “was never designed [for] or ever anticipated the economic growth our community has experienced in the first couple decades of the 21st century.”
“To continue along a path of sustainable prosperity, Berlin must begin to look at revenue options that are mutually beneficial to the business community and the town,” he said.
He said to maintain economic vitality requires ongoing investment in both infrastructure and economic development “to make the gains in the town’s recent economic resurgence sustainable and not just a short-lived flash in the pan.”
The lack of parking spaces, Williams said, is a perfect example of an issue town planners didn’t foresee, decades ago.
“You can’t have more people coming to town more often, doing more shopping, going to restaurants and enjoying events, without having the obvious impact of where are they going to park,” he said. “We want to address that – we’re not reluctant – but our traditional property tax revenues are inadequate for the town to continue to make the investments … to enable our economic progress to be permanent.”
That does not mean raising taxes, he said.
“That’s the interesting thing,” Williams said. “We can’t just do the basics and approach revenue generation for the town to invest in the town, and apply the same basic strategy that we applied in the 20th century … Other communities who have addressed this and successfully done it are way ahead of us. We need to look ahead and start considering what works in other places.
“Are we going to raise property taxes and expect the residents to provide additional revenues so that we can invest in the economic, business sector of our community? No. That’s not right. Property taxes, the way they’re structured, is to provide services to everyone,” Williams continued. “The idea is that we all come together and share responsibilities so we can have shared benefit, regardless of where you live in town. And I think we’re doing a better job of that than ever.”
As value is added for a commercial enterprise, Williams said, there needs to be “reasonable and responsible ways that the town benefits.”
“Most people don’t realize it, but all this economic activity that I’m truly grateful for and I think we all as members of the Town of Berlin are grateful for doesn’t add one dollar to town,” he said. “But we’ve had to invest, literally, millions of dollars of our own money – not just grant money – but money that we’ve had to either borrow or spend outright to make this all possible.
“There’s greater demand on all those services and we are committed to making sure they meet the current standards that are environmentally responsible, that they’re engineered for reliability, and as we expanded we are also preparing the for the future,” Williams continued. “I think we have a responsibility to take that approach with every aspect of the community that we are responsible for.”
What exactly that means, Williams said, has not been determined.
“We just know that other places are doing it in a variety of ways where we would get a reasonable benefit of getting some return to replenish the resources that we not only have invested, but will continued to need to invest to allow this economic growth to continue,” he said. “It doesn’t happen by magic.
“One of my basic beliefs is that the residential community should not underwrite investments in our commercial community – but it takes more than just wishing about it,” Williams added.