Threatre Review: Wacky Neil Simon Classic ‘The Odd Couple’ at TAP

Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple,” produced by Tred Avon Players (TAP) and currently playing at Oxford Community Center, may be one of the most successful of Simon’s plays – and considering his long and fruitful career, that’s saying a lot.

The basic concept is simple – two friends who are very different and the conflicts that occur when they become roommates.  One is fastidious, the other a carefree slob. But how many Broadway plays of any era have spawned not only a hit movie but three TV sitcoms – plus various other spin-offs including an animated cartoon and a TV sitcom version (by Simon himself!)

Simon’s play, which premiered in 1965, features mismatched roommates Felix Ungar and Oscar Madison – the one an uptight “neat freak,” the other an easy-going slob.

The original production starred Walter Matthau as Oscar and Art Carney as Felix. The play took home four Tony Awards: Best Actor (Matthau), Best Author (Simon), Best Director (Mike Nichols) and Best Scenic Design (Oliver Smith). Matthau reprised his role in the 1968 film, with Jack Lemmon taking the role of Felix. And in the long-running TV series (1970-75), Matthau was replaced by Jack Klugman and Tony Randall played Felix. For some unknown reason, the TV series changed the spelling of Felix’s name from “Ungar” to “Unger.”  At TAP, they stick to the original.

In this female version, the fastidious roommate was played by Sally Struthers of “All in the Family” fame where she played Gloria, the ditzy daughter of Archie and Edith Bunker and “Meathead’s” wife.  Rita Moreno, who is well-known for her role in “West Side Story” played the messy roommate.  Moreno is one of only twelve performers who have won an Oscar, an Emmy, a Grammy, and a Tony.  This is definitely a story concept with characters that have drawn major talents over the decades.

The plot revolves around the personality clash between the two roommates – Oscar’s life, like his apartment, is a shambles, with unpaid bills, broken appliances, and a failed marriage, but he takes it all in stride, although he gets a bit misty eyed when his five-year-old son calls him on the phone. Meanwhile, his fellow journalist Felix is a hypochondriac who fusses over every detail of his life.  Everything must be  just so! Felix upbraids himself – and everyone around him – when things are not up to his impossible standards.  Every glass must have a coaster. But he’s a terrific cook!  The situation is ideal for comedy – in fact, it’s been used or adapted many times, including in the current TV hit, “The Big Bang Theory.”

Best friends, Oscar and Felix, have at it!    

The play opens at the Friday night poker game in Oscar’s apartment in New York City, sometime in the early 1960s. Four of the six regulars are at the table. The interplay between the characters and several comic bits – the soggy potato chips and “green” sandwiches Oscar brings the other players, due to a broken refrigerator – make it clear that Oscar is a complete slob and living on the edge of financial disaster.  As the evening goes on, it becomes evident that one of the regular players, Felix, is missing – and then they find out that Felix and his wife are getting separated.  Now they’re really worried.

The weekly poker game

But then Felix shows up, quite late, and everyone feigns indifference as he wanders about the room, clearly at his wits’ end. Oscar offers him a bed for the night, and Felix accepts – and after the other players leave, he offers him a place to stay. The basic premise of the play is now set up – in effect lighting the fuse for an explosion the audience senses is bound to happen. But, of course, it would spoil the fun to give much more away.

Cast and crew of “The Odd Couple”

The Tred Avon Players’ production, directed by Ed Langrell, assembles a reliable cast of regulars from local theater productions. Click on link for a Spy interview with the two lead actors, Bill Gross as Oscar and Bob Chauncey as Felix.

Bill Gross takes the role of Oscar,  Loud and physical, he is convincing as a macho ‘60s sportswriter. He does a good job of portraying the character’s growing annoyance with his fastidious roommate, despite his carefree attitude toward most of the rest of his daily life.

Oscar, Vinnie, and Murray the cop listen at the bathroom door, ready to bust in in case Felix tries to “harm himself.”  

Bob Chauncey projects a nice nervous energy as Felix, capturing the suggestions of femininity as the character cooks, cleans, and performs the other duties of Oscar’s missing wife – and reveals an emotional softness that must have seemed far stranger in 1964 than it does now. He is a snappy dresser and his hair looks perfectly sculpted. Chauncey is hilarious when he loudly attempts to clear his sinuses,

While Felix and Oscar get star billing, the rest of the ensemble plays an important part in the play. The four poker buddies – all recognizable New York character types – are very well cast.

Patrick Fee does a fine job as Murray, the street-wise cop with a heart of gold. His mobile face and physical presence are just right for the character. A solid job by one of the Shore’s more versatile character actors.  Most recently, he played Bottom the Weaver in Shore Shakespeare’s production of “Midsummer’s Night’s Dream.”

Felix makes sure that each poker player has a napkin and a coaster – and uses them!

Roy, Oscar’s accountant, is played by Paul Briggs who deftly shows his character’s exasperation and concern about Oscar’s irresponsible finances. Briggs holds his nose and drops the stinky garbage out the window.  But he keeps his feelings  in check when Felix appears, becoming reasonable and pragmatic when it is needed, just like an accountant.

The cynical Speed is played by Brian McGunigle, who is now completing  an impressive run of five roles in a row in plays varying from Shakespeare’s “MacBeth” to Tred Avon’s “A Man of No Importance.” His character’s feigned indifference is well conveyed. But of course, Speed really does have compassion for Felix and McGunigle makes these two seemingly opposite emotions believable.

Zach Schlag is cast as mild-mannered Vinnie, whose henpecked home life is a contrast to the broken marriages of the two main characters. The character’s pliability is the source of several entertaining bits, providing great physical comedy as Vinnie slips and falls while frantically racing around the room to help save Felix.  Although he doesn’t have as many lines as some others, his expressions can be hilarious as he reacts to the other characters.

Felix and the two sisters have a good cry. He’s such a sensitive man!

Lisa Roth and Anna Kusinitz-Dietz play the Pigeon sisters, Gwendolyn and Cecily.  The sisters, a divorcee and a widow,  are originally from England and now live in a neighboring apartment.  They have taken quite a shine to the roommates. Their interactions with Felix and Oscar are a fine bit of Neil Simon comedy, well acted by the sisters as they flirt mischievously or cry copiously.  Their giggles and glances are infectious and the audience loved them. On Thursday night when we were there, the audience broke into spontaneous applause as the sisters left the stage.  It was not the end of the scene.

The set, consisting entirely of Oscar’s living room, is worth walking up for a closer look at intermission or after the play closes – details such as an old manual typewriter and a beat-up baseball glove are letter-perfect. The subtle changes in the room as Felix’s “neatnik” influence begins to be seen are nicely done, as well. The costumes are also right on – especially the Pigeon sisters’ early-‘60s colorful dresses with bright, shiny pocketbooks and knee-high boots, Oscar’s #7 Yankees jersey and Speed’s Hawaiian shirts. The soundtrack – designed by Fee – has a nice selection of period-perfect music. A pleasure to see the little touches so well taken care of.

The 50-plus years since the play was written are evident in many details of the plot and dialogue. For example, it’s no longer that unusual for a man to be a good cook – as Felix is. The sums of money mentioned – 34 cents for a pack of cigarettes, for example — are vivid reminders of what inflation has done, while the characters’ concern over the cost of a long-distance phone call is a historical curiosity in today’s era of unlimited cell phone plans.

And hints – quite humorous hints! – that the relationship between Felix and Oscar echoes their failed marriages, probably seemed edgy if not outright taboo in the early ‘60s.  The uptight culture associated with the 1950s lingered into the early ’60s. Hippies hadn’t happened yet and the sexual revolution was still on the horizon. Simon was exploring new territory. He used comedy to explore relationships and situations that would raise few eyebrows today but were uncomfortable for most people at the time. Divorce, separation, alimony, all these were looked upon very differently then than now. Those who lived through those times will find the contrast from today both interesting and amusing; younger audiences may find it an entertaining history lesson. But this is all subtext, the play is a comedy about relationships and surviving breakups, whether it be with spouses or friends. It asks whether people can change and grow. And it ends with hope and a laugh.

There were plenty of laughs in the large audience for Thursday’s performance, which director Langrell described as a “pre-opening” opening. If you’re in the mood for a classic comedy, with  nostalgia for a different time, it’s well worth the trip to Oxford Community Center, 200 Oxford Road. It’s about an hour from Chestertown or 15 minutes from Easton. The play runs just over two hours.  Remember it starts at 7:30 not 8 p.m.!

“The Odd Couple” is playing through August 20. Shows on Thursday, Friday and Saturday are at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday matinees are at 2 p.m. Admission is $20 for adults, $10 for students. Call 410-226-0061 for reservations – which are strongly recommended, judging by the sizable audience Thursday.  This Sunday’s matinee, we are told, is practically sold out already!

Photos in this article are courtesy of Randy Bachand. Thank you, Randy!

Check back – we’ll be posting more photos.

Felix straightens a picture. It was just a tiny bit off-kilter. And it was driving him crazy!

She likes me!

L-R Standing: Speed, (Hawaiian shirt), Murray, Vinnie, Briggs, Oscar,  Seated – Felix

Murray, Speed, and Oscar

Vinnie tries to sweet-talk Felix into some sense.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Easton Utilities enters Phase III of Sustainability Campus

To continue moving toward resource conservation and protecting the environment, Easton Utilities is pleased to announce the third phase of the Easton Sustainability Campus with the installment of a two megawatt photo voltaic solar array. The solar component of the overall project is being partially funded by a $3 million grant from the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE). “The investment by MDE will enable Easton Utilities to create a unique facility highlighting Easton and Maryland as leading innovators in sustainability and the use of renewable energy,” said Hugh E. Grunden, President and CEO of Easton Utilities. “It is a perfect example of state and local governments working together to protect our environment and serve our community.”

The addition of a solar array to the current renewable energy sources located at the Enhanced Nutrient Removal Wastewater Treatment Facility brings significant benefits to Easton Utilities customers, as well as the Easton community. Utilizing alternative forms of energy helps offset costs allowing Easton Utilities to generate locally instead of purchasing energy off the grid. “With new standards for Maryland energy companies, we are required to provide a significant percentage of our overall portfolio from renewable energy sources annually,” said John J. Horner, VP of Operations for Easton Utilities.

The solar array portion of the project allows everyone to benefit from shared renewable energy and alleviates a national issue on a local level. Regardless of housing situation, location and whether one is a homeowner or renter, anyone can participate without any incurred costs. “The Sustainability Campus is a significant step to demonstrate Easton Utilities commitment to environmental stewardship in our community benefiting all citizens,” stated Grunden.

Prior to the solar array installment, Easton Utilities recently completed the installation of a generator to convert methane gas from the Mid-Shore Regional Landfill to electricity. It is notable, by capturing methane gas and converting it a fuel source, Easton Utilities is removing this greenhouse gas from entering the atmosphere. Methane gas is estimated to have a global warming impact 25 times greater than CO2.

Co-located at the ENR Wastewater Treatment Facility, these projects create a system of multiple, diverse, renewable energy sources within our own community. And there is more on the horizon – Easton Utilities is currently collecting wind data to determine the feasibility of adding a wind turbine to the Campus. The possibility of incorporating battery storage is also being considered.

Easton Utilities is a community-owned, not-for-profit utility and telecommunications company operating the Electric, Natural Gas, Water, Wastewater, Cable Television, and Internet services for the Town of Easton and portions of the surrounding area. Please visit www.eastonutilities.com or call 410-822-6110 to learn more.

Jeff Trice Named Economic Development Director for Dorchester County

Eastern Shore native Jeff Trice has been named Dorchester County’s new Economic Development Director.

Most recently, Trice was the Director of Business Solutions for the Anne Arundel Workforce Development Corporation where he worked with federal agencies, defense contractors, airlines and other businesses to expand the county’s employment base.

An experienced business veteran, Trice has launched workforce initiatives, created training programs and grown jobs at the county, regional and state level throughout Maryland.  He’s also started three businesses during his career.

“We are very excited to have someone of Jeff’s caliber joining our economic development team,” said Jeremy Goldman, Dorchester County Manager.  “We look forward to leveraging his experience and know how to continue the department’s success in developing and recruiting businesses to all of Dorchester County.”

From 2010 to 2016, Trice was Business Services Program Manager for the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing & Regulation (DLLR) Division of Workforce Development and Adult Learning. He also served as Special Project Coordinator for DLLR’s Upper Shore Division of Workforce Development.

Trice, who started his new position on July 1, views the Economic Development team as integral to the economic growth and stability of Dorchester County.

“I live and breathe business, but I also believe in taking a holistic approach and broad economic view of our county’s opportunities and challenges,” he said. “It’s not just about serving businesses. Economic development should include efforts that support career programs in our schools, grow the real estate tax base, create job opportunities and serve the citizens of Dorchester County.”

A native of Caroline County, Trice is now a resident of Preston. He started Marshy Hope Realty in Federalsburg in 2002 and served as President of the Mid-Shore Board of Realtors in 2009.

“It’s nice to be back on the Shore and have the opportunity to have a positive impact where I live.”  I hope to leverage a lot of what we do across multiple counties, cooperating and collaborating to market the Shore.”

Trice served in the United States Navy for eight years and was stationed at Pearl Harbor. He earned a BS Degree in Marketing from the University of Maryland College Park and is currently working toward certification with the International Economic Development Council.

He joins an established County economic development team that includes Business Development Manager Susan Banks, Eastern Shore Innovation Center Manager Steve Dolbow and Executive Assistant Tina Thompson.

Avon-Dixon Moves to Talbot Commerce Park

Easton-based Avon-Dixon Insurance Agency has recently relocated to new office space in the Talbot Commerce Park.

The agency has moved 49 employees from their Harrison Street and Information Lane offices to a 10,500-square foot space at 28640 Marys Court. The agency’s trucking division, Elliott Wilson Insurance has also moved into the new space. The modern and professional new office will provide easier access and ample space, allowing the agency to continue to support the insurance needs of families and businesses throughout the Mid-Atlantic region.

In addition to the new office, Avon-Dixon and Elliott Wilson Insurance have also updated their logo and brand colors to reflect their connection to Freestate and Son Insurance and Jack Martin & Associates Boat & Yacht Insurance, as well as their connection to their parent company, Shore Bancshares, Inc. and their affiliates, Shore United Bank, and Wye Financial & Trust. The common symbol and brand colors across the community of companies demonstrates their united commitment to help propel clients forward to achieve their financial goals through the breadth of services they offer in banking, insurance and investments.

Established in 1850, the Avon-Dixon Insurance Agency is the largest independent agency on the Mid-Shore. Their independent agents have developed strong relationships with multiple insurance carriers allowing their agents to compare coverage and pricing to find the best insurance policies at the best rate. Avon-Dixon is a member of the Shore Bancshares community of companies, the largest independent financial services company on the Delmarva Peninsula to offer banking, insurance and investment services to families and businesses in the Mid-Atlantic Region. The community of companies also includes Freestate and Son, Elliott Wilson Trucking Insurance, Jack Martin & Associates Boat & Yacht Insurance, Shore United Bank and Wye Financial & Trust. Together, their team of experienced professionals is dedicated to helping clients navigate toward their financial goals.

Maryland 3.0: LaMotte Chemical Hits Paydirt

The ultimate goal of a manufacturing company is to develop a product so rare, so specific in purpose, and so difficult for competitors to replicate, that it catapults the business to a new level of profitability and growth. In truth, however, that kind of dynamic force remains elusive for the vast majority of the small manufacturers of the world.

Faced with the day to day business of holding their market position, lacking large research and development budgets, and always needing to adjust pricing to stay in the game, the small manufacturer’s real objective is to remain competitive with what they produce now rather than seek the holy grail of a transformational new product.

And since 1919, the LaMotte Chemical Company in Chestertown has been doing just that; selling high-quality testing equipment for such things as boilers, swimming pools, and drinking water. And while they have had some breakout products since the chemist, Frank LaMotte, started the business, the public perception of the company, especially as it relocated to the Eastern Shore in 1956 from Baltimore, was one of a reliable, if not particularly exciting, venture that makes a small range of products extremely well.

That might be one of the reasons the Arthur H. Thomas Company of New Jersey purchased the family-owned business in 1983. Its “steady Eddie” track record, with modest but consistent profit margins, could only be seen as a solid asset for a new parent company eager to branch out to include water testing in their portfolio of science testing equipment.

At least that was the plan as LaMotte’s president, David LaMotte (grandson of the founder), understood it, but that didn’t stop the small company from thinking about “the next great thing” in water testing. With the encouragement of Thomas, LaMotte staff continued to explore ways to use modern technology to improve the accuracy and speed of their testing methods.

Little did anyone know that after seven years of tinkering, all this effort would produce the kind of “wow” product other firms could only dream about. The development of the Waterlink Spin Touch unit has radically changed the future of both water testing and LaMotte Chemical at the same time.

Looking like an oversized CD player, and armed with specialized testing discs and Bluetooth controlled data collection, the Spin Touch can now test for up to ten different water conditions in less the 60 seconds and broadcast those results to regional and national databases just as quickly. The results have added over $12 million annually to LaMotte’s top line, created the need to add 30 new employees, build a 9,000 square foot expansion to the physical plant, and legally protect the Spin Touch’s design through the development of dozens of new patents. This success has also caused an entirely new spirit among LaMotte’s employees as they see their product become the equivalent of the iPhone for water testing throughout the world.

This video is approximately five minutes in length. For more information about LaMotte Chemical Company please go here

Nearly 200 Stakeholders Discuss Internet Access Equity at Regional Rural Broadband Forum

When nearly 200 business leaders, economic development professionals and state and local government officials came together to discuss bringing affordable, high-speed internet service to rural Maryland, the “why” was not up for debate. However, when it came to “how” the options were numerous and the financing was challenging to say the least.

Josh Hastings, RMC chair, addresses the attendees at the recent Regional Rural Broadband Forum. Photo credit: Harry Bosk.

Hosted by event partners the Rural Maryland Council and USDA Rural Development, the program titled the Regional Rural Broadband Forum was presented recently in Annapolis. The forum unofficially launched the work of a special task force enacted by Maryland’s General Assembly, which was signed into law on May 25.

Charlotte Davis, executive director of the Rural Maryland Council, chairs the Task Force on Rural Internet, Broadband, Wireless and Cellular Service. Over the next several months, Davis and her colleagues will research redundancies and gaps in service and funding options needed to bring digital equity to rural Maryland. By November the task force will report its findings and recommendations to Governor Hogan.

The program included six sessions providing attendees with information ranging from the different broadband technologies commonly used in rural communities to best practices used in New York’s “Broadband for All” initiative.

The day’s discussions often came back to how to create sustainable high-speed broadband access in areas with low population density. “Admittedly for a business whose mission is to turn a profit providing high speed internet in rural areas is a recipe for market failure,” said Davis. “Clearly the solution will be providing incentives and grants to make the project more doable and attractive,” she added.

Attendees at a group session at the recent Regional Rural Broadband Forum, hosted by event partners the Rural Maryland Council (RMC) and USDA Rural Development (RD). The forum included six sessions providing attendees with information ranging from the different broadband technologies commonly used in rural communities to best practices used in New York’s “Broadband for All” initiative.

The tone of the forum remained optimistic despite the acknowledgement that there will be no easy solutions. “We cannot have an equal society without equal access to broadband,” said RMC chair Josh Hastings.

Chiming in on that note was Maryland State Senator Adelaide C. Eckardt. “It is all about getting connected and for us (in rural areas) it is the art of the possible. It all works better when we work together,” she said.

Founded in 1994, the Rural Maryland Council serves as the state’s federally designated rural development council and functions as a voice for rural Maryland, advocating for and helping rural communities and businesses across the state to flourish and to gain equity to its suburban and urban counterparts. To learn more call (410) 841-5774, email rmc.mda@maryland.gov or connect with the Rural Maryland Council at facebook.com/RuralMaryland or on Twitter @RuralMaryland.

USDA Rural Development is committed to improving the economy and quality of life in rural America. RD provides loans and grants to help expand economic opportunities and create jobs in rural areas. This assistance supports infrastructure improvements; business development; homeownership; community services such as schools, public safety and health care; and high-speed internet access in rural areas. For more information, visit the USDA website,

For more information on the Regional Rural Broadband Forum, call (410) 841-5774 or visit their website.

 

Maryland 3.0: WC “Dream Team” Creates Apps in NASA Competition

A group of Washington College students and faculty sat down at the beginning of May to work on “You Are My Sunshine.”

No, they weren’t rehearsing old folk songs. Instead, they were working on a NASA space challenge – an international effort to find ways to educate the public about solar power and its possible benefits both for ordinary people and for a possible exploring party on Mars.

Washington College Associate Professor Shaun Ramsey of the “Dream Team” writes data on the wall of the Hot Desks center as other team mebers watch. From left, Joseph Erlandson,, Luis Machado, Katie Walker and Ian Egland.

Taking part in the project were Ian Egland, a 2016 WC graduate in Computer Science; Joseph Erlandson, a senior Computer Science major; Katie Walker, a Senior majoring in Environmental Studies; Luis Machado, a 2013 graduate now working as a project manager at the college’s Geographic Information Systems laboratory; and Associate Professor Shaun Ramsey, of the Computer Science and Mathematics departments at Washington College.

The group began work at the “Hot Desks” co-working center  at 903 Washington Ave. Michael Thielke of the Eastern Shore Entrepreneurship Center and Jamie Williams, Kent County Economic Development Coordinator, arranged for them to use the facility before the official opening

The “Dream Team,” as they named themselves, went to work  at 8 a.m. Saturday, April 29, for a 48-hour “hackathon.” Williams and Thielke were on hand to assemble furniture for the hot desk center and to provide breakfast and other meals during the project. The team set up computers in the large main room, using the facility’s high-speed wifi connection. They even took advantage of the dry-erase walls to jot down computations, web links,  and other information for handy reference.

Ramsey said the project was related to one that NASA is conducting in Hawaii right now, simulating conditions on Mars. “In space, power usage is variable, and mission critical, and essential to life,” so understanding power consumption is essential, he said. “The app that we’re developing is for everyday people to better understand their power consumption,” he said. Since solar power is freely available in space, the project focuses on that form of energy.

The Dream Team compiled a list of several typical home appliances – refrigerator, microwave, TV, air conditioner, etc. – and listed their typical power usage. In each case, the power draw listed is an average. Older, less efficient appliances will use more than new ones designed to minimize power consumption.

They also looked at the amount of sunlight available in Kent County over different seasons, so as to get a practical estimate of what kinds of equipment could be run on solar alone.

Ramsey said the group was one of 74 different teams from all over the world that worked on their particular problem. Presumably they’d all come up with different solutions, though the teams were allowed to share ideas, and NASA might well choose to combine results from several different teams once the project was completed.

Overall, the competition had five different categories, each of which included several different projects. Ramsey said it would be several weeks before NASA announces the results.

Ramsey updated the status of the project in an email, June 1. He wrote, “In the end, we created two applications that are useful, intuitive and that showcase solar power.” He said he had three goals for the competition: “To contribute to the overall community. To make an application of which I’d be happy to claim ownership. And the last was to have something that could inspire and grow. Something that could spawn other ideas and be developed into something larger if someone were inspired or interested. I definitely feel we accomplished all three of those.”

As of the date of writing, he said, “The awards have not yet been announced. We’re not in the finalists for people’s choice, but that’s to expected with such a smaller network compared to, say, a big school in a big city. It is possible we “win” one of the other awards, but there have been no posted results yet. (…) I do feel like we will be in the running,” he said. He said he would let the Spy know when results were announced.

Ramsey said the Dream Team had posted a brief video telling about their work. They also posted an update with more details. He also provided a like to an overview of the NASA challenge.

Click here for information on the “Hot Desks” facility.

Maryland 3.0: Making Eastern Shore Towns “Cool”

Salisbury Mayor Jake Day, 34, has a floor-to-ceiling erasable board dotted with Post-it notes on the longest wall of his office.

Salisbury Mayor Jake Day

It’s a jarring display of terrestrial organization for a millennial, but Day is hardly old school. He’s got two masters degrees, one from Carnegie Mellon in urban design and the other from Oxford in environmental policy. He is also an officer in the Maryland National Guard and a local boy whose father was recently named COO of Perdue Farms.

“There were moments when, as a 9-year-old living in Salisbury, I was thinking I really want to be mayor in this town,” said Day.

So he’s had plenty of time to think about how he’d change things in a city with a history of helter-skelter development and a stubborn crime rate.

“The biggest thing for us has been arts, entertainment and culture,” Day explained. “Recognizing that those things can be more than an ancillary benefit, but a driver has been big for us.”

Day is staring down a core problem in rural Maryland: People are dying faster than they’re being replaced, and where they’re not the numbers are trending that way. So retaining residents and attracting new ones is vital. Because creating jobs, enticing new industries and rebuilding infrastructure matters little if there’s no one around to fill those jobs, drive on those new roads or enjoy those renovated downtowns.

And cities like Salisbury, Frederick and Cumberland — small urban anchors in Maryland’s rural areas — could be where the revitalization begins.

Or where it’s already underway.

A matter of life and death

Garrett, Allegany, Kent, Talbot, Dorchester, Somerset and Worcester counties all had more deaths than births in 2015, according Maryland’s Vital Statistics Report. Leading the way on the Eastern Shore was Kent, which had a third fewer births than deaths. In Western Maryland it was Allegany, where the disparity was 27 percent.

In Wicomico County, where Salisbury is located, the numbers are rosier. In 2015, births beat deaths by 36 percent. However, in 2010 that number was 50 percent. The same trend is there for Frederick County, where births outpaced death two to one in 2010, but slowed to five for every three in 2015.

Population problems in rural areas tend to get framed in economic terms. The argument goes that young people won’t stay if there are no jobs, but the jobs won’t come if there are no young people to fill them. But the jobs are there.

According to Maryland’s Workforce Exchange, there were more than 600 open job listings in Wicomico County, the majority of which were in Salisbury. The numbers are similar in Frederick and Allegany, with more than 500 open job listings in both counties as of late April.

“The problem is that we’re just not adding people at the same rate that we’re adding jobs,” Day said.

Part of the challenge includes boosting the quality, pay and benefits of available jobs. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there has been a pronounced economic shift in Salisbury over the last 10 years from producing things to delivering services — and with it, more jobs that tend to pay less and come with fewer benefits.

In order to sell employment that might not stack up salary-wise to urban areas, mayors like Day and Randy McClement in the city of Frederick are increasingly turning to what they can offer instead: quality of life.

“The thing we’ve been able to do is make Frederick a destination,” said McClement, who’s been mayor there since 2009. “We’ve done that with a hip feel. Millennials are looking for a livable, walkable city. By delivering that, we’re attracting the younger generation.”

The city of Frederick, basically the model for small to mid-size urban redevelopment in Maryland, has the luxury of being perched at the top of I-270 corridor, in commuting distance to job-rich Washington, D.C., and Montgomery County. Salisbury is more remote, and the people who live near it more reliant on its services.

When asked what Salisbury’s 33,000-odd residents needs most, Day points first to an intangible.

“The thing we struggle to overcome more than anything else is a change to our community self-esteem,” he said. “We look to ourselves in a poorer light than any metric would suggest that we should.”

Day is referring in part to Salisbury’s crime problem. According to the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention, the city’s violent crime rate per 100,000 people in 2015 was almost double the state average, though it has fallen in recent years.

“We’ve had some dark times and those things linger,” said Day. “It’s easy to latch onto them as your identity and it’s a lot tougher to get people to believe that things aren’t so bad.”

Downtown Salisbury

To help put the past behind, Day wants to remake pretty much the entire city. And, thanks to a partnership he initiated between Salisbury and the University of Maryland School of Architecture, Preservation and Planning, he has a blueprint to do it.

It focuses on the city’s urban core, dividing it into seven neighborhoods, and includes everything from streetscape redesign to newly constructed modern buildings and bridges along the city’s riverwalk on either side of the Wicomico River, which snakes west to east through Salisbury’s center.

Day is hyperfocused on the city’s physical appearance, particularly its branding and signage, but also its benches, planters and trash cans, which are not uniform at present and clearly bother the mayor’s design sense.

Salisbury’s master plan has a proposed price tag of about $640 million over 20 years, nearly 75 percent of which is meant to come from private sector investment. The plan is aggressive and maybe unrealistic, but also visionary. And perhaps no surprise from a mayor with an undergraduate degree in architecture and a masters in urban planning.

Day is also pursuing smaller, less costly efforts at rebranding Salisbury, including being a finalist to host the National Folk Festival for three years, a 175,000-person event that takes place over a long fall weekend each year. Prior hosts include Nashville and Richmond, with Greensboro, N.C., as the event’s current location.

Finally, one of the simpler efforts Day and his team are doing is something called 3rd Fridays, where the city organizes arts and crafts vendors and live music in the city’s historic quarter.

“We had to focus on our own market first so we stopped worrying about the beaches and Baltimore and Washington for a minute and tried to figure out how to get local people to show up,” Day said.

Initial funding for 3rd Fridays the first year was around $20,000. In 2016, it was $280,000.

Given the size and scope of his efforts, it’s fair to question Day’s ability to keep all of them on track, including management of Salisbury’s 435 city employees.

But Day is a believer in using data to make decisions and runs his weekly management meetings like a military battle briefing. Each of his department heads have between four and six key metrics that they measure and then provide updates on on a weekly basis. These include things like potholes filled and lane miles paved and travel time on fire department calls.

“We’re measuring constantly and we’re making decisions based on that,” said Day, his enthusiasm growing as he drills down on yet another topic. “The weakness is the linkage to mapping. We need to reinvent our use of GIS (geographic information systems).”

Something Day will probably incorporate into his briefings soon.

by J.F. Meils

Making it Work on the Shore: Ace Moritz and Eastern Shore Brewing

The craft beer business was in its infancy when Adrian (Ace) Moritz started to work in the industry during the early 1990s in one of Vermont’s earliest local breweries, the Long Trail Brewing Company. It was hard to tell then that the local brew industry would become the booming business it has become, but it started a lifetime passion for Ace.

After leaving Long Trail, and deciding to leave a lucrative private sector career in New York, Ace and his wife decided to risk everything when they started Eastern Shore Brewing Company in St. Michaels in 2009 to follow his passion.

And over the course of the last nine years, Ace has learned a great deal about moving from the love of a home brewery to the complications and challenges that come with a full retail and wholesale operation. Those lessons have continuously change the business model as he continues to find the sweet spot between maintaining a sustainable business and remain competitive as craft beer takes over some of the smallest towns on the Eastern Shore.

This video is approximately six minutes in length. For more information about Eastern Shore Brewing please go here.

Stagg appointed as new Easton Utilities Commissioner

Mayor Robert C. Willey swore in William B. Stagg as a new commissioner of the Easton Utilities Commission on May 1, 2017 for a six-year term. Mr. Stagg has 35 years of experience in the mid-Atlantic region providing private and public sector master planning, site planning and landscape architectural design services. He is currently a principal with Lane Engineering, LLC directing much of the firms land development planning, design and engineering efforts.

As a member of the Easton Utilities Commission, Mr. Stagg is charged with governance responsibilities for Easton Utilities. He succeeds David J. North who retired in April after serving for 12 years, including two years as Chairman of the Commission. “Bill’s experience, knowledge and commitment to environmental preservation will be an ideal complement to our strong commission,” said Hugh E. Grunden, President and CEO of Easton Utilities.

Mr. Stagg resides in Easton and is active in the community. He was the past President of the Rotary Club and Habitat for Humanity Choptank.

Easton Utilities is a community-owned, not-for-profit utility and telecommunications company operating the Electric, Natural Gas, Water, Wastewater, Cable Television, and Internet services for the Town of Easton and portions of the surrounding area. Visit www.eastonutilities.com for more information.