Jake Day: ‘Salisburians deserve better than we’ve received’

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A little more than a year into his election to the City Council — and immediate elevation to council president — Jacob Day is winning some rather fawning reviews.

While it is probably too early to gauge Day’s ultimate impact on Salisbury, there’s is no doubt that he has gotten off to glowing start. The tone at the meetings appears more productive. There is more dialogue about the city’s possibilities than a rehashing of its failures. There has been frank discussions about the city’s problems and challenges, but those conversations seem to have more-hopeful tones, with a sense that accomplishment is a possibility.

As Day says himself, he can’t be credited with all of the positive changes. Still, something is going on in the neighborhoods, the business community, on East and West Main streets in the city’s core — and even the Government Office Building. In talking with Day, one might get the idea that the right leadership formula is in place at a time when the economy is improving and the city’s potential is all the more ideal.

An urban planner by training and Army officer, Day was born and raised in the Camden neighborhood of Salisbury, where he lives as a newlywed and owns a home today. Before being elected in May 2013, he has served as an appointed city planning commissioner and Board of Housing Appeals member.

Jake earned a Master of Science in Nature, Society & Environmental Policy from Oxford University. He also earned a Master of Urban Design from Carnegie Mellon University and a Bachelor of Science in Architecture from the University of Maryland.

When he talks about downtown and urban redevelopment, he has the educational chops to back it up. He has worked for the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy, most recently as the Director of the Center for Towns. The Center for Towns is a program utilizing design, planning and implementation assistance to establish vibrant, sustainable small cities and towns on the Eastern Shore. He has worked for Partners for Livable Communities, Becker Morgan Group and Design Collective helping to redesign and revitalize communities.

Q. So, when did it occur to you that you could run for political office, and all of a sudden be a chief decision-maker for the city of Salisbury?

A. Well, it isn’t that I want to be a “chief decision-maker” but that I’m prepared to lead,  to clear a path, to venture forward in a way that many haven’t in this city’s history.

I expect better for Salisbury and I think Salisburians deserve better than we’ve received for most of our history.

When did it occur to me? I guess it always had to some degree, but it wasn’t until I was in Armor Basic Officer Leaders Course in Fort Benning in the fall of 2012 that I knew exactly what I would do upon returning home.

I knew I couldn’t go another day, another electoral cycle without stepping up and leading my community toward a better future.

Q. For people who might not know you, tell me about growing up in Salisbury.

A. I had a great childhood in Salisbury. My parents raised my sister, brother and I right in the heart of the Camden neighborhood, and that’s where I’ve chosen to establish my family.

This town produced so many adult leaders that I remember looking up to. Many of them are still here today – Tom Brown, Tom Becker, Ron Morgan, Bill Ahtes, Todd Grier and so many more.

I had a lot of incredible role models.

Q. We hear about the “Brain Drain” all of the time. There’s a sense that there’s some smart, young people who are staying here and making careers here, rather than the western shore.

A. There are some smart young people staying here.

Listen, we have a production facility (Salisbury University) pumping out smart, talented young people at the intersection of Route 13 and College Avenue. It’s our job to build a cool, exciting, welcoming enough place to entice them to stay here.

The question isn’t “can we attract them here?,” it’s “can we keep them here?”
Talent is no longer deciding who they want to work for and then finding a place to live. Talent is deciding where they want to live and then finding a place to work – or building an enterprise to suit their desired lifestyle.

Salisbury must – first and foremost – be an exciting, cool, welcoming place to live.

The days of spending time trying to attract a firm to your city as your primary economic development activity are over.

Q. The community has young guys leading the city and county councils. Coincidence, or is something going on?

A. Something is absolutely going on. This is simultaneously an acknowledgement from my generation that we are ready to step up and do our part and something more.

We will no longer stand idly by and complain – nor will we tolerate that from others.

You have to be part of the progress of the community. It is also a tacit welcoming of this transition by the generations who came before us.

Together, it represents our entire community saying that we need leadership we can be energized by and unite behind.

Q. Salisbury has traditionally been a community where the service clubs have a lot of influence. They have historically lobbied the political leaders for change. Is that still true?  Which clubs do you listen to as a leader?

A. I listen to anyone who talks to me.

I meet with a lot of people. I’ve visited with the Rotary Clubs and I have friends in all of the social clubs in town – but I think a more relevant way to govern today is through more direct civic engagement through the churches and open invitation.

You may have noticed our “Coffee With Your Council” meetings that invites the public to meet with City Council and to set the agenda. It’s an opportunity for the public to decide what we talk about and to do it where people are already gathering.

Q. Your election totals were significant, overwhelming, in fact. What was the core message that you communicated that voters seemed to embrace?

A. The core message is that they are excited about the idea that they could be proud of Salisbury.

The past is the past and we won’t be looking back. We aren’t holding onto any of it any more. We honor our history but the politics of yesterday, the bickering, the conducting business by sniping through letters, the media, council meetings — those days are gone.

I simply won’t conduct myself that way and I expect that my colleagues won’t either.

And, so far, the City Council can be counted on as a place where we are conducting serious business, aggressively, positively and rapidly.

Q. Your professional history has been in planning and smart growth. How do you apply those skills in your city service?

A. Urban design, architecture, urban planning, placemaking, smart growth – each of these practices and approaches to community is all about enhancing the place where we live. Every day is an effort to plan a better city, and then implement a better city.

I’m not a person you’re going to hear complain about past plans sitting on a shelf, because I understand that planning is iterative and you have to update plans as the context changes. That said, I’m also a person who is going to pull those plans off the shelf and start plucking projects from their pages to implement.

The urban design skill set that I bring to the table is especially important in city governance because at the end of the day the space you’re trying to manage as a city leader is the public realm – the same space that urban designers are trained to shape and enhance.

Q. It would seem that smart growth initiatives would already favor Salisbury’s ability to progress. True?

A. Very true. No city can simultaneously sprawl outward and stabilize or revitalize its core. The greatest economic threat to agriculture, tourism, downtown and Salisbury’s economy is sprawling outward rather than revitalizing.

Initiatives of any institution that subsidize, encourage or enable sprawl are the reason for our tax burden in this county.

Low-density development requiring massive investment in infrastructure with minimal tax assessment is tantamount to stealing from Wicomico County’s taxpayers. Someone has to be brave enough to point out why 30 years of wanting downtown to succeed and simultaneously investing everywhere else has failed.

We won’t be talking out of both sides of our mouth anymore.

Q. There a sense around town that “everything has changed since Jake was elected.” Do you feel that? Is it true?

A. I feel the change. Sure. Not that I have much time to stop and smell the roses.

This is a 24-hour a day job, when done right. Not many people are willing to make the personal sacrifices necessary to live it and breathe it.

That said, is it all thanks to me? No. Of course not.

This is the Capital of the Eastern Shore. This is a city of 33,000; a county of 100,000; a Metropolitan Area of 388,000. There are so many players.

I think we unlocked something through the last election and I don’t ever want to see it bottled up again. This energy is contagious and we’re on the right path. I see an incredibly bright future for our city.

Q. How does your exact, well-defined military experience and sensibilities mesh with small-town politics and the inexact emotions that often accompany local issues?

A. That’s a great question.

My soldiers and fellow leaders, including my commander, have a bit of fun with it. I don’t think I’ll ever get comfortable with the idea of “being a politician” but I am comfortable being a warrior and I’m prepared to fight – without fear – for the things I believe our city deserves.

There’s not a challenge that could be thrown my way in the City that I think we couldn’t develop a response to together and implement a plan together. My time in the Army has also taught me to resource your priorities.

If you constantly starve the things that are most important to you – you are accepting defeat from the very start.

Practically speaking, the Army has also taught me the importance of taking care of your people. I think we have a great team in place in the city right now and if we take care of our people, we’re likely to keep making progress.

If we squander that resource, we’ll regret it.

This is one of the many lessons of small unit leadership that my mentors in the military have taught me.

Q. Ok, let’s get into the downtown. Talk about your vision.

A. Downtown will be a vibrant, diverse place. Period. People expect an answer to that question that follows one of several narrow paths.

Successful downtowns are the places that pushed on all levers and didn’t box themselves in. Several missing – or limited – ingredients are necessary. They include lots of housing; great streets with uniform lights, signs and trees; constant music and arts activity;

Q. The thought forever has been that the medical center and university need to become stakeholders (somehow) in downtown. Is that really doable?

A. It is not only doable, we’re doing it. Monday night (last week) our City Council approved the application for $565,000 from the state of Maryland’s Strategic Demolition-Smart Growth Investment Fund for the ‘Eastern Shore Medical Center building’ – a six-story tower on Carroll Street to be developed by Peninsula Regional Medical Center and in partnership with the University of Maryland Eastern Shore and Salisbury University.

PRMC CEO Peggy Naleppa, UMES President Juliette Bell and Salisbury University President Janet Eshbach are to be applauded for their leadership.

This is a watershed moment for the City and for downtown.

These three institutions have never before partnered on anything; let alone downtown and let alone a building together.

This may be a long process, but today is the day we take steps forward.

Q. There seems to be a growing feeling that Salisbury is either on the cusp of – or already in – a local renaissance. Do you feel that too? Any idea what’s triggered it?

A. It is in a renaissance. Here’s what I know – I know revitalizations. I know downtown. I’ve studied this for most of my conscious life.

Revitalizations don’t stop – and they don’t happen in 12 months.

What we’ve done in the last year is strap on the turbocharger. The next 20 years will be the rest of the story. The renaissance is happening and it needed government, it needed the city, but it isn’t exclusively because of government.

We had to be a part of it and the city as barrier had to be removed. That’s what we did a year ago. We transitioned from city as barrier to city as leader.

But again, the city isn’t the whole story. It’s only one small slice in my opinion.

The philanthropic community, the business community, the nonprofit community, the investment community, the state, the county – that’s the rest of the story.

Q. What problems are on Salisbury’s horizon? What can regular folks do to help the elected leaders tackle these issues?

A. The one that we’re making the most progress on is changing Salisbury’s mindset. We need to become a community of optimists. It will help us with every challenge we have after that.

We’ve already talked about the brain drain – but with our partnerships with Salisbury University, our Youth Civics Council and our downtown efforts, we are addressing it.

Our greatest investment hurdle is in our streets and public space. We have to invest in the public realm if we ever expect private investment in the city. Specifically, this means taking better care of the physical environment – uniform signage, lighting, street trees and more.

This also means connecting our neighborhoods to one another and to downtown. If you look at our downtown, we built amazing moats around it over the last 50 years – Carroll Street, Route 13, Route 50 and Mill Street.

We can turn those barriers into connective tissue to the neighborhoods.

Lastly, and most importantly, we have a heroin problem in this community. We do. This drug problem exists nationwide – particularly in smaller communities. It is growing and it is not getting better.

However, we have to resource our priorities. If we want to address this, we have to continue to resource this fight.

Making the biggest investment in public safety in Salisbury’s history through 15 new police officers was Step 1 – and having the right leaders in place with Matt Maciarello, Barbara Duncan and Mike Lewis helps.

Q. What’s your favorite memory of growing up in Salisbury?

A. I truly miss the days of sledding in the City Park. My dad used to take us to the park when we got what seemed like massive snow storms and we would sled down the hill, coming perilously close to the river.

I also long for the security of playing in the street on Forest Lane in the warm summer nights with my friends – the Halls, the Phillips, the Griers, the Englishes, the Prettymans, the Gilmores.

It seemed like the best place in America to grow up.

Q. What’s next for Jake Day?

A. I get that question a lot. I’m truly happy doing what I’m doing right now and I don’t plan on stopping any time soon.

This renaissance in our city is just beginning and there’s plenty of work left to do. Working for my neighbors and fellow Salisburians is one of the best jobs I’ve ever had – second only perhaps to being a Cavalry officer.

I think the next thing in my future is to be a great husband and (one day) a great dad.

Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at gbassett@newszap.com

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