Infrastructure Boom to Impact Economic Development
In his work as mayor of Havre de Grace, Bill Martin serves as CEO of that city. However, beyond his business duties, Martin holds a sincere passion for the history and culture of this historic, waterfront town, which remained a viable contender for our nation’s capital city following the Revolutionary War.
The Founding Fathers knew a good thing when they saw it. So does Martin.
“I believe that Havre de Grace is probably one of the greatest towns I’ve been in,” says 43-year-old Martin, one of the state’s youngest mayors. Growing up and traveling with his family antique business, he shares that he’s visited 49 out of 50 states, primarily stopping in or passing through small towns. “I’ve seen a lot of small towns,” he says. “I love Havre de Grace. It’s been a best kept secret for a long time.”
In recent years, the secret is getting out.
Now, Havre de Grace gets described by some as “Mayberry on steroids,” according to David Glenn, city council president.
A lot of growth is coming fast to this small town. At its helm sits Martin, now in his second term as mayor. In 2008, he commenced working in local politics by serving on the city council. Through his years of government service, he’s honed a vision for the city.
“We want people to know that Havre de Grace is open for business in a 21st century-thinking way,” says Martin. “We can be a cutting-edge city, and we’ve made major strides to get there.” When asked what skills he brings to the table, he replies, “my vision of where the city needs to go – and I am not afraid to take it there.”
Already his administration boasts town improvements and upgrades. Among them: implementing a recycling system; converting city power to solar; creating a state-of-the art, handicapped-accessible playground at Tydings Park; and renovating the 1870 Opera House into a modern performing arts center, the only one in Harford County.
It’s a green-thinking administration, too. Last year, Havre de Grace earned distinction as a Designated Maryland Sustainable City, “a very prestigious state designation for which we met environmentally-base criteria,” says Martin.
“I want to leave as little as possible carbon footprint,” says Martin. Fittingly, a couple government-owned electric cars are parked at city hall. Plus, the town installed its first electric car charger at a local park. Martin desires travelers going up and down Interstate 95 to know there exists a charging station in Havre de Grace – and stop by to see for themselves what the city offers.
Among the offerings: a new dog park, murals around the city, a war memorial upgrade, better lighting and community gardens. A trolley system to circulate people around town remains in the works. A high probability exists, too, for a boutique hotel with a conference center in the future.
For now, events like the First Friday festivals, from May to October, draw up to 10,000 people, according to Martin. Other destination events like Octoberfest, Oyster Fest and Winter Wonderland Holiday Village make their mark, too. Martin’s administration has served as an incubator for such enrichments.
It’s all done in the name of making Havre de Grace a destination city. “Tourism is really a major part of our life blood in the future,” says Martin, who wears a city uniform shirt with the slogan “Discover Your Maryland in Havre de Grace.”
He paints a picture: when “traveling from New England to Florida on I-95, the highway crosses the Susquehanna River. You look to the left and see the Chesapeake Bay. ‘It’s beautiful,’ people say. ‘Hey, I’m in Maryland now!’ They get off at exit 89 – Havre de Grace – for a travel break and a crab cake, or crab soup. You can walk the wooden promenade down by the lighthouse and see the water. You can smell the brackish water. We have the Chesapeake Bay and the Susquehanna River. We have historical homes and historical walking trails. We have amazing restaurants and arts. Outdoor recreation includes hiking, fishing, kayaking and parasailing. You may just be driving through, but this is where you want to stop,” says Martin.
“His passion for the city is matched by none,” says Glenn, city council president.
“As mayor, he’s outstanding. Unparalleled. He’s very committed, always accessible, good at problem solving, and doesn’t push things aside. He reaches out. Builds bridges. Gets things done. He gives so much back to the community. He sets a standard for other mayors to emulate,” Glenn says.
Not only Glenn feels that way. In May 2017, Martin earned re-election with 63 percent of 2,500 votes, compared to the 2015 local election, which elected Martin for his first term as mayor, where he won by 51 votes with 2,000 votes cast.
But Martin is no career politician. Even while serving as mayor, by day he teaches at Aberdeen Middle School, where he instructs eighth graders in U.S. history. He loves his teaching job, with no plans to stop. Although two full-time jobs remain “a balancing act,” Martin credits the staff at city hall as the key to making it work.
As Martin fulfills his second term as mayor, he sets his sights on the city’s future while embracing its past. “Our future is absolutely amazing, but it does amaze the past we had in this city,” he says. “I believe that Havre de Grace is caught right in the middle of a confluence between past and the future. But I believe it is possible for us to be a 21st century city and keep our 19th century charm,” says Martin.
Long ago, the town’s economy sprang from a racetrack, fishing industry and duck hunting. Martin’s seen photos of Babe Ruth duck hunting in Havre de Grace, known as the duck hunting capital of the world and host to the well-visited Havre de Grace Decoy Museum. But many such economic drivers are long gone.
“Cities must reinvent themselves if they want to survive,” says Martin, whose efforts focus on making Havre de Grace a tourist destination as well as continuing to stimulate residential and commercial growth.
“We want business to know that Havre de Grace has a very business-friendly city hall, giving tax credits for businesses in our city. Anyone who wants to invest here should know that we have an excellent economic development department that has access to a lot of resources for companies both small and large.”
The message is getting out.
“Within the next decade, there’s so much ascending upon this city,” says Martin, who estimates tens of millions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure coming into the town. “We are going to be on the national stage for a while with all the construction coming this way. We must be a 21st century-thinking city to be able to receive what’s coming to us in a way that marvels the people around us.”
The scheduled and completed construction projects in and around Havre de Grace impress for what some consider a quiet hamlet. In June 2016, an $11 million, nautical-themed, state-of-the art library opened. Directly across the street, this summer the newly renovated 1870 Opera House opens its doors as a $4 million modern performing arts center. Soon, construction begins on a $100 million combination middle/high school complex. Coming next, a modern medical facility gets built as a hybrid-use hospital and medical center.
To top it all off, a $1 billion train bridge construction project remains on track to replace the aging, two-track train bridge across the Susquehanna River, between Havre de Grace and Perryville. It counts as the most expensive public works project ever for the region. The multi-year effort allows the Amtrak-owned train bridge to better accommodate its high-speed trains, which now must slow their speed on the existing bridge.
Martin reports that bridge construction begins within three years. First, a brand new, two-track train bridge gets erected. Then, the old, aging bridge gets torn down, and replaced with yet another new, two-track bridge. “The two bridges will be built so close together it will look like one bridge,” says Martin. “The fall out of a $1 billion project of this magnitude on our shore is phenomenal. I don’t think people realize the impact yet.”
But it all fits in with Martin’s vision for his city as well as his long-standing interest in history and government. “I’ve always been inspired by government accountability to its people. It owes to citizens the best it can provide to them in terms of thinking ahead,” says Martin.
He’s doing just that.
“We care about nature and about being good stewards of Chesapeake Bay. We care about efficiency in government. It’s a message we are proud to share whether you visit us for a day or are looking for a place to live.” I95