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State will expand assistance to towns

The Baltimore Sun

Berlin - In the middle of this Eastern Shore town, where residents eat hamburgers at an old-fashioned diner and get their shoes shined at a shop down the street, Gov. Martin O'Malley announced yesterday the expansion of a state program that aims to revitalize small towns and cities.

Under the Main Street Maryland program, O'Malley said that five communities - Berlin, Annapolis, Chestertown, Middletown and Princess Anne - qualified for grant money and other assistance.

He also announced the creation of the Maple Street initiative to encourage residential revitalization near the business districts. The new funding directed to both programs totals $300,000.

The Democratic governor said the program, established in 1998 under Gov. Parris N. Glendening, had been dormant because of a lack of funding, but that he resurrected it to encourage "smart growth" in existing towns. O'Malley said that as gas prices have spiked to $4 a gallon, more residents will want live where they can shop and gather as a community.

"You can make a place where people want to invest, where they not only want to open businesses but where people want to patronize those businesses," O'Malley said in front of the Atlantic Hotel to a crowd of residents and local officials from across the state. "If you want to go to a strip mall, you can do that anywhere."

The funding comes from the Department of Housing and Community Development's existing budget. O'Malley, who spearheaded spending cuts and $1.3 billion in tax increases late last year, said those efforts to address the state's budget woes have enabled him to refocus on investments in infrastructure.

The Main Street program is based on tenets developed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation that promote design and economic development. O'Malley added a goal of promoting public safety and environmentally friendly goals such as energy efficiency and stormwater management.

According to the administration, 18 communities already in the program have seen the opening of more than 800 new businesses and the creation of 3,350 jobs.

Mayor William G. "Gee" Williams of Berlin said he would use the $12,000 from the state to put up new signs, install bike racks and put cloth shopping bags in stores. Twenty communities will receive $12,000 grants, while Cambridge, Cumberland, Dundalk and Westminster will get $15,000 Maple Street grants.

"Berlin has come a long way on its own, but we understand our town cannot achieve its full potential alone," Williams said. "We know we will need the partnership and support of the state."

O'Malley, who is on the Eastern Shore for the annual Maryland Municipal League convention in Ocean City, also toured downtown Berlin. Most of the town burned in the 1890s and was rebuilt in brick. It fell on hard times again in the Depression and struggled until the 1970s. At that time, a group of business owners banded together for a grass-roots revitalization in the Victorian tradition. Since then, Hollywood movie producers have noticed the quaint locale - Runaway Bride, starring Julia Roberts, was filmed there in the late 1990s.

Yesterday, O'Malley stopped into the Berlin Shoe Box, where owner Jesse Turner told him about the time singer Johnny Cash was in town for a concert and left his boots to be repaired while he walked around town barefoot. The governor also visited Cody's Christmas Shoppe and the Pink Box Bakery.

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