Palmer Gillis: Downtown needs successes, not failures

Q&A Gillis1

Palmer Gillis has been developing property on the Lower Shore for most of the last 40 years. In the 1980s, he stepped up and redeveloped many of the historic building on the Downtown Plaza.

The old Woolworth’s Building was converted to offices and shops and is now called the Gallery Building. The Thomas R. Young Building was gutted and became the Plaza Gateway Building. Before its rennovation, the Plaza Gateway was the location for the Fashion Shop and Guby’s Galleria. In the 1980s, Legends Restaurant was on the ground floor where Cellar Door is today.

As Gillis has said many times, “I just love Downtown Salisbury.”

Beyond the downtown area, his company, Gillis-Gilkerson, is responsible for major construction projects all around the city, as well as the Lower Shore.

A former City Council member, Gillis has been deeply involved in the community as a Greater Salisbury Committee member, vice chairman of the Salisbury University Foundation; vice president of the Salisbury Wicomico Economic Development; president of the Salisbury Downtown Association; and president of the local Jaycees. His business acumen is such that, in 2011, Maryland Capital Enterprises unveiled their annual “Palmer Gillis Entrepreneur of the Year Award” named in his honor.

Gillis is known for having an artist’s intensity when it comes to architecture and development. He is also blunt, outspoken and wholly secure in his ideas. His believers consider him a genius, his detractors regard him as a know-it-all. Everyone agrees, however, that Gillis has a unique passion and love for Salisbury.

Q. We keep hearing that Salisbury is on the brink of a redevelopment boom. Do you see it happening?

A. I prefer small incremental projects that can make a difference.

Peaceful coexistence between pedestrian, bicycle and vehicular movement so that all can work together. If there is a BOOM it will be the cooperative action between our leading institutions, Salisbury University, UMES and PRMC.

They are the economic engines that can and hopefully will make the difference.

Q. The last big redevelopment projects were undertaken by you in the mid-1990s.

A. There have been several initiatives. Bill Ahtes had the courage to step out and make the inspiring plunge with the City Center (the old Benjamin’s) and many other projects. Bill is ALWAYS out there trying to make something happen downtown.

Being inspired by the RUDAT program, Bill Ahtes, Mayor Paul Martin, (businessman/philanthropist) Dick Henson and of course (city engineer) Pete Cooper, lead me to recognize the economic and environmental opportunities that restoring and repurposing buildings downtown could be for our community.

The Synagogue (on the west end of the Plaza) being my first initiative in 1983, followed by other attempts. Then came the Gateway building in 1992 and the Woolworth’s/Gallery building in 1994.

Currently — and finally — the Headquarters Firehouse, and the Feldman’s building, which will be called River Commons.

Man, have I been tired of looking at that (Feldman’s building) for 30 years!

Q. How well do you remember the old Woolworths?

A. Very, very well.  Lunch counter, great lunches, buying pets (tropical fish) and pet supplies, to purchasing kitchenware for my first trailer in Baysinger Trailer Park as my first time home.

Q. What should the city be doing with its surplus parking lots?

A. Not what they are doing. Downtown need success, not failure.

The parking lots are the result of a three-step plan created by the city in the late 1960’s:

1) Identify buildings that need to be removed.

2) Acquire them and convert them to parking while in transition, and then

3) Sell or give them to a development project that will benefit the tax rolls and the city itself.

They got steps one and two correct; they do not know how to do step 3.

An independent, nonpolitical committee should be responsible to advertise and solicit development deals and then make a final recommendation to the city.

Q. Is creating such a committee possible? Is something like that politically feasible? Would there be enough brain power available to make such long-lasting decisions?

A. The city of Baltimore has done it. The town of Laurel in Delaware, on a much-smaller scale, has. They have created a nonpolitical body — both different — to review and recommend projects and developers to recommend to city leadership projects that should be sanctioned and to move forward with.

Many other examples probably exist. With the city of Salisbury owning all of the potentially developable properties, the surplus process gets in the weeds due to the political process and the pontification of elected officials.

It takes political strength to do this. I am not sure that has (existed) or does, or will in the future exist.

There are very narrow windows of political time in a process that can take one to three years to permit and finance just to get to the point where the ground can be broken. All of that is assuming that you have a project that can get a loan in the first place.

Q. Were you in favor of keeping the county library downtown, or do you see better community use for that building?

A. If you look at how this community is formed, it is around a central core. That is Salisbury.

In other counties, using Worcester as an example, they have multiple pockets of development and the need to accommodate those different communities. The Central Core mitigates sprawl.

Moving the library from any place other than downtown would be one of the biggest mistakes this community could make.

Q. Where did to get the historic photographs that grace the walls of the Gallery Building?

A. The (Walter) Thurston collection that Bob Megee (of Lens Art) had. I went through and made copies.

I have had so many people drop old pictures by, from the maintenance man for the Woolworth’s to employees of ours. I love the collection of over 200 downtown shots that we publicly display in our building.

When I pass through there, I especially like to see so many people standing there, looking at the pictures.

Q. You have developed properties in both Worcester and Wicomico counties. Where is it easier to do business?

A. Salisbury and Wicomico by far. The municipalities in Worcester are good, but (Worcester) county is very challenging.

Lots of good staff and people, but an especially challenging and process that do not make sense. It is very political (in Worcester) as well.

Q. There’s been a lot of talk about Salisbury in particular – and Maryland in general – not being business friendly.

A. The state of Maryland is horrible. If I could move my business or myself (to a better state) I would.

The state wastes so much of taxpayers’ money it would make your head spin. No regard for other people’s money, high regard for “feel good politics.”

In Salisbury (though), with the new “parents” — elected officials — the “kids” (staff and administration), it’s (finally) like working in a different town, for the better.

In most cases, when the parents behave well, the kids behave well. No disrespect in any way to the great staff that this city and county have. And I mean that.

I am so glad that we live so close to Delaware and Virginia (for comparison’s sake).

Q. You only own buildings on the south side of the Plaza. Why is this?

A. Simple, access to free parking and permit parking.

Q. Are you in favor of opening the Plaza to two-way traffic?

A. I do not have a dog in that fight. The answer to that question is what and who occupy the buildings along the Plaza.

Q. You purchased the old Feldman’s building in recent years and you’re planning an ambitious project there. Why take on a load like that?

A. To clean up that eyesore that I have been looking at for 30 years!

There’s a lot to be done: Prune the size, it’s done; get a permit, it’s pending; and create retail and office space with a public “river walk” extension from Main (Street) to the Camden Street Bridge’s headwall.

So, one more piece of the puzzle to put into place.

Q. Any interesting “discoveries” in that Feldman’s excavation? I know you’ve found some strange things in previous rebuilds.

A. Putting in the water tap for a sprinkler system, in the street we went from oyster shells to brick to a few layers of black top.

We found abandoned wood sheet pilings. I cannot tell you how many foundations we went through in the demolition process in the building areas.

Several old bottles, an old conveyor wheel — and no dead bodies.

The floor was so bad in the building we removed it and have replaced with compacted fill to fill in the 4-foot crawl space.

We are only now determining how bad the roof and roof structure is.  That will also have to be replaced. We essentially bought four brick walls and some land.

Q. Where will the next urban redevelopment occur in Salisbury?

A. Extend the riverwalk under the railroad bridge (at Route 13)  and connect to the urban greenways trails that exist now in the City Park.

Q. Your son, Brad Gillis, a commercial Realtor and the former Chamber of Commerce president, seems to be getting his feet wet a little more in ambitious redevelopment ideas.

A. He and Joey Gilkerson, now that is a pair. I am so happy to see them involved and passionate about the downtown possibilities

Q. You did a term on the City Council about 14 years ago. That seemed like a frustrating time for you — so frustrating that you moved to Ocean City when it was over.

A. The first two years were actually very enjoyable, pleasurable and collegial. When Barrie Tilghman was elected (mayor), that all changed.

(Being on the council) was a volunteer job in my opinion. I and we do not conduct ourselves in our businesses in the Tilghman management style, so why would I do that as a volunteer.

I decided to move (to Ocean City) when (mayoral candidate) Duke Shanahan lost in District 1 to Tilghman.

Q. There was a lot of disagreement, I remember, but the idea of consolidating the city and county governments — which you wanted — was an especially volatile issue.

A. I wanted to pursue the idea and public discussion of consolidation. I do not claim to know the answer, but Tilghman killed that process and did a disservice to the city taxpayers.

Currently, in spite of a positive nonbinding resolution passed by the voters of this city, not one elected official has attempted to correct the inequity that the city taxpayers face.

No one has even had the courage to discuss or act on that idea.

Q. Some people say that consolidation is an overreaction to problems that might not exist anymore.

A. Show me the discussion vetting this concept out. Give me the facts, not rhetoric!

Q. So, consolidation is a “live” issue?

A. An elected official’s job is to deliver governmental services in the most efficient and cost-effective way possible.  Without pursuit of this idea, how can the city’s elected officials justify having the city taxpayers pay for two police forces — the county sheriff and the city police?

There are examples of it working with great success: In Georgia, Athens city and Clark County went through the process and actually completed the act with public discussion.

There’s no claim that taxes will go down, but they do increase at a decreasing rate.

All that I am advocating is the discussion to see if this is something that we should consider — correct or not.

Consider the Salisbury-Wicomico County Planning and Zoning Office — it’s consolidated and it works. Consider the Salisbury-Wicomico shared Government Office Building.

There was a movement to this goal in the forward thinking prior leadership in the 1950s and 1960s. It got derailed.

Q. Not to belabor this, but you are quite passionate on this issue: So you wouldn’t put consolidation in the same boat as referendums on the city-manager form of government (failed), the revenue cap (passed), the county executive form of government (passed)?

A. Referendums take two forms: binding, which typically follows a petition to take an issue to the voters, and nonbinding, which can be created to test the public sentiments on an issue.   Salisbury’s charter only allows a binding by petition, a nonbinding by leadership consensus.

No elected official has the courage to pursue this discussion that was passed in a nonbinding referendum.

Also see where there was no attempt by the next City Council to repeal the two resolutions, which failed, so the two resolutions still  exist today.

Q. What is your favorite building in Salisbury architecturally?

A. Easy, the county courthouse.

Q. Why the courthouse?

A. The architecture, the fact that it survived the fires and the dam breaking. The history of events there.

As a young person growing up in this town, it’s pretty much the only place that has not changed all of that much.

I do miss the lively conversations between the folks on the street communicating with the prisoners in the third-floor jail in the summertime when the windows were open.

Yes, I am that old.

It’s a beautiful structure

Q. Any thoughts on the county’s recent proposal to repair it? Would you like to be involved?

A. We, as a community, must preserve this structure. It needs to remain in some fashion a public courts-related building

Q. What’s in the future for Palmer Gillis?

A. I will maintain my passionate, junkie desire to make downtown a livable, viable economic engine and centerpiece for our community to be proud of — one puzzle piece at a time until I die.  Some may want that to be sooner rather than later!

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

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