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'Havre de Grace really needs to be a city of the 21st Century'

Mayor Bill Martin has a new vision for Havre de Grace

Last in the series of profiles of Harford County's three municipal mayors.

Havre de Grace Mayor Bill Martin likes to remind city department leaders: "Little strokes fell mighty oaks."

He believes the city's future success lies in attention to details. Whether it's lighting downtown purple after Prince's death or handing out challenge coins and city flags, Martin has become known for his energetic and detail-oriented promotion of the 13,000-resident city at the top of the Chesapeake Bay.

"You only make a first impression once," Martin pointed out in a recent interview, and he has stayed busy looking for new ways to make that first impression a memorable one.

After pushing for an lighting project downtown, he has also touted the new Veterans Park, an outdoor skating rink at Hutchins Park and a dog park under way behind the community center at Lagaret Lane.

His winning campaign for the mayor's office in 2015 showed off his interest in spotlighting the city and promoting it as much as possible. Martin made a campaign video in which he danced past the city's landmarks to the tune of Walk the Moon's "Shut Up and Dance." Since becoming mayor, he has stayed excited about social media and marketing tools like Havre de Grace commercials during Orioles games on MASN.

After serving seven years on the city council, three of them as president, "I felt like I hit a glass ceiling with the council," Martin, 42, said.

Martin's enthusiasm for the city's growing slate of events and activities hasn't slowed down. During a recent interview in his office, he eagerly showed a new video promoting an Aug. 11 concert by Kiss cover band Cold Gin, in which city employees casually don black-and-white Kiss face paint as they go about their office work.

Giving a tour in one of the city's new GEM electric cars, part of Martin's recently-realized goal of making all city properties solar-powered, the mayor chatted excitedly about new plans for everything from a tourist trolley to a War Memorial modeled on New York's 9/11 Memorial.

"We're saving a lot of money and it's good for the environment," he said of the $175,000 annual savings expected from using solar power.

He said he's "already given a directive to my [Department of Public Works] director, Tim Whittie, and my grants department [leader], Erika Quesenberry, [and] we are actively and aggressively going to put a trolley system in Havre de Grace by next spring."

The electric trolley would carry about 25 passengers around downtown landmarks, he said, explaining "we're just trying to give [visitors] an easy way to get around Havre de Grace now."

Martin spearheaded a committee to improve Tydings Park, the city's major showcase for the Promenade area. City leaders are now ready to embark on an ambitious upgrade of the park that features a new playground with recycled equipment, a handicap-accessible playground and a model of the Concord Point Lighthouse.

"My vision for Havre de Grace is, Havre de Grace really needs to be a city of the 21st century that can still hold on to its 18th-century charm. There's no reason why we can't," he said.

"Havre de Grace has always been a very smart city, a very outside-of-the-box city, but I don't think there's a human being in this world that will think you can't improve the way we always do things...My grandfather was 81 when he died; until the day he died he kept saying, 'There's always a better way to do something.'"

'Potential...for greatness'

Martin grew up in another waterfront community, Anne Arundel County's Severna Park, and followed his parents to Havre de Grace when they relocated their antique postcard business in 1992, the same year Martin graduated from Severna Park High School.

"My family was probably as far away from politics as we could get," he said, describing his father as a "textbook capitalist" who enjoyed running the business, Mary L. Martin Antique Postcards.

Three years ago, Martin bought his father's former house in Grace Harbour, the first house built in the development.

He lives with his wife, Taryn, whom he met at Aberdeen Middle School. Martin has taught history at the school for the past 17 years, and his wife teaches language arts. They have three children: 9-year-old Will, 10-year-old Molly and 16-year-old Devon.

"I have always hated politics, I have always had a distaste for partisan politics," Martin said. But, he explained: "I really love Havre de Grace and, like so many citizens here, you just see the potential here for greatness."

After someone suggested he run for mayor, Martin said, "I didn't think I was going to win, because I didn't know anybody, but I worked really hard."

"Another thing that attracted me is that it is not partisan," Martin said about the city's elected roles, noting that if they had been partisan, "I wouldn't have gotten into that mess."

People have long been commenting to him that Havre de Grace is going to be the next Annapolis, but Martin brushed off the comparison with Maryland's picturesque, waterfront capital.

"We are not Annapolis. We are Havre de Grace," he said, adding with a laugh: "We don't want to be Annapolis. You can't park in Annapolis."

Besides serving as mayor and working at his full-time job as teacher – which, he said, is often much easier than the mayoral role – Martin likes to play hockey, something he has enjoyed since he was a child and has continued to do with the Phantoms at Ice World in Abingdon.

Martin is also a member of the Susquehanna Masonic Lodge #130 and active with his children's activities, including soccer, dance, Girl Scouts, basketball, softball and baseball.

'Lot of energy'

Despite his optimism, Martin says he's clearly aware the gloomy mood surrounding cities, large and small. The national conversation about police brutality and killings of police officers hovered over the recent Maryland Municipal League summer meeting in Ocean City, he said.

He said he hopes to keep employees' spirits up with events like the Kiss promotional video and keep the city's energy up with events like the new Thursday Night Live series in Hutchins Park this spring and summer.

"We are selling the city," Martin said, noting the city's tourism website has been getting double the web traffic of the countywide Visit Harford site and he believes the city is Harford County's premier attraction to outsiders.

Martin was disappointed to see Havre de Grace's property values go down in the latest round of tax assessments. The budget for fiscal 2017, approved in June, included a slight raise in the city property tax rate, as a result. Martin also set in motion last year a $25 quarterly surcharge for water and sewer bills, set to be revisited by the council next year.

The city's debt-ridden water and sewer Fund 9 "is a bear," Martin admitted, saying he works on it "every single day of the week, twice on Tuesdays." But he remained optimistic about profiting from development connection fees, as well as improvements to the water treatment plant.

Upgrades to the water plant were part of a $4.5 million borrowing package Havre de Grace voters approved in May's election, which will also fund completion of the historic Opera House renovation.

Martin conceded many people were wary of the need for another "community center" in the city, which is the ultimate vision for the Opera House building. "It was a hard sell, to tell you the truth," he said of the project, adding he feels the pressure of making the vision successful.

"There is nothing more pathetic than a failed government project," Martin said.

Asked about his take on prior mayor Wayne Dougherty's approach, Martin said: "Wayne was a good mayor who got us through some economic turmoil. There is a time to save and there is a time to move forward."

The Opera House is a good example of a new project that drew some local skepticism, as did the decision last year to move the farmers market around the corner from Pennington Ave. to Hutchins Park.

"People don't like change," Martin observed with a laugh, saying the idea of moving the market closer to the waterfront, which he said some people don't consider "downtown," was "scandalous."

"Some might be watching and saying, 'What are you doing?'" Martin said about his ideas. But he said even more "conservative names," like Council President Steve Gamatoria and City Councilman Randy Craig, "believe me" when he asks them to agree to spend money on new ventures, Martin said.

Craig, the son of former mayor and former Harford County executive David Craig and grandson of a former city councilman, said Martin has a good approach "in this day and age" and called the mayor a "very accessible" person with a "good vision."

Craig and Martin have disagreed on some of Martin's pet projects, like trying to hold several council meetings outside of City Hall. A recent meeting planned for Hutchins Park ended up getting moved back to City Hall because of weather concerns.

Craig nevertheless called Martin "a great friend, as well as a great colleague."

"I think he brings a lot of energy to the position," Craig said. "I enjoy working with him personally and professionally."

Joe Smith, a former councilman and founder of the new Havre de Grace Alliance business support group, also didn't always see eye to eye with Martin when they were both council members, but Smith said Martin as mayor has "been open-minded and been willing to listen and try things."

"I am pleased with the direction the mayor is taking, that he's trying new things," Smith, who owns a downtown business, said, noting he is impressed with Martin's use of social media "and trying to get the word out about Havre de Grace and promoting Havre de Grace."

Smith, who like Martin served on the council under previous mayor Wayne Dougherty, said Martin is part of "a new generation" of city leaders.

"The previous administration have been resistant to change or trying new things," Smith said. He also said it is good to have someone on the council who "understands that times have changed and cities have to adapt to new technologies, new demands of the citizens, and Bill seems to have been responsive to that."

Building on strengths

Some of the biggest changes coming soon to Havre de Grace are out of the mayor's control.

A project to replace Amtrak's massive Susquehanna River rail bridge, which is likely to cost upward of $1 billion, will turn the waterfront around Jean Roberts and David Craig parks at the foot of the bridge into "a construction zone for the next decade," Martin said somberly. Funding for the project hasn't been approved, so there's no definitive date for the construction phase beginning.

The city is not directly responsible for the railroad bridge, and it can't, for example, take up cyclists' request to build an adjacent bike-friendly bridge, as Martin noted the 16 existing piers in the river from a dismantled former railroad and highway bridge are actually wooden, date to the 1800s and are about to collapse.

Once the Amtrak project does get going, Martin hopes it can include a protective tidal jetty to keep the city's marinas from being continually subject to "horrendous" silt. He noted that Amtrak has agreed to make the spans of the new bridge wider, allowing, for example, Vulcan Materials to get two side-by-side tugboats under it.

"We can't control it, but we can hopefully put up the side bumpers and keep it from going out of direction," Martin said about the train bridge project.

"It's going to change our city no matter what. The next decade, this is going to be the biggest thing that impacts our city, right here," the mayor said while gazing at the current bridge from David Craig Park, which was only recently outfitted with new paving and picnic table details.

For now, the city's biggest cheerleader continues to hand out challenge coins, city flags and promote all things Havre de Grace.

"My greatest desire is, when the next man or woman takes over, that they can say, 'Hey, Mayor Martin got the ball rolling,'" he said.

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