An architect of the pandemic-era Paycheck Protection Program paid a visit to “America’s Coolest Small Town” on Thursday to survey the staying power of Maryland’s small businesses, holding a hearing alongside his congressional colleagues after a tour of Main Street shops.
U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., found new life, not decline, in the downtown area of Berlin, a town of about 5,000 people on the Eastern Shore about 10 miles from Ocean City. Only one storefront on Main Street was vacant and the state’s senior U.S. senator commented positively on something else that was absent in the historic town.
“You’re missing one thing,” Cardin told Berlin Mayor Zack Tyndall, walking down Main Street after a pit stop and scoops of Java Jolt at Island Creamery, named “Best Ice Cream Place in America” last month by USA Today, “you don’t have any chain stores.”
The young mayor said the town has “no ambition to bring them.” Instead, he highlighted and stopped at three other of the town’s nascent local businesses on a walking tour alongside the District Director of the U.S. Small Business Administration Stephen Umberger and Cardin, who chairs the Senate’s Small Business & Entrepreneurship Committee.
Small businesses strengthen communities, Cardin says
At least one of those shops received assistance from the U.S. Small Business Administration during the pandemic. Cardin’s refrain during the visits Thursday was: “What help do you need?”
Emily Vocke, owner of Heart of Gold Kids, a children’s clothing store, featuring everything from jewelry made by her mother, to locally made dresses, and back-to-school backpacks and lunchboxes asked the federal officials to help spread the word on small businesses’ importance.
“You have people (say) ‘Well, I can get this on Amazon,’” said Vocke, a mother of three young children. “For a while, people didn’t really realize how important we are to a community.”
In an interview after the tour and before the hearing on small business resiliency at Berlin’s Town Hall, Cardin remarked on the shop owners’ ingenuity and civic-improvement efforts.
“They are finding creative ways to do things that you cannot find in a suburban mall,” he said. “They’re committed to what they are doing to make the community stronger, not just economically,” noting also the owners’ help for parents and sustainable practices.
Both of Maryland’s U.S. Senators meet for small business hearing
Cardin, who announced earlier this year that he would not be seeking reelection in 2024 after serving over a decade in the U.S. Senate and more than five decades in elected office, led the afternoon hearing which included testimony from members of the Eastern Shore business community. About 50 people attended the session held in the town council’s chambers.
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U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, a Republican whose district includes Berlin, also participated in the hearing, which included discussion of curtailing the Bay’s blue catfish population and H-2B visas for seasonal workers in the seafood industry.
During an interview after the hearing, Van Hollen noted Cardin has been a “national leader and a Maryland leader” on small business issues.
“During the pandemic, he really played a critical role in shaping the federal relief programs,” Van Hollen said. “Maryland has certainly benefited from having Ben Cardin as chairman of the (Senate) Small Business (Committee).”
As for Cardin, his focus was not on his leadership, but on the people who make up Main Street.
“These are homegrown people that are just so proud of Berlin, so proud of what they are doing to make their community stronger,” said Cardin, before the hearing. “These shop owners make this a special place.”