Salisbury Rising: Mayor seeing evidence of city’s positive momentum

Here’s what Mayor Jake Day hears most often when he stops by coffee shops and chats with regulars, or stops to say hello in the supermarket: “I never thought it would happen for Salisbury, but I was wrong. The city is back.”

Salisbury is progressing.

Rising.

And Downtown, the central business district, is at the heart of that success.

In the past several years, millions of dollars have been spent on improving Downtown, with more expected because wise leaders know if there’s a key to a successful city, it’s getting the downtown right.

“And you have to stick to it for decades. It’s not something can pull off in two years,” said an unfaltering Mayor Jake Day, who’s reveling in Salisbury’s renaissance.

“You can’t give up. We have invested a few steady years into revitalization of our core, which is the Downtown. What we’ve seen is the resurgence of small business, of locally owned businesses, of events, beautification,” he said. Among them are old buildings, the Riverwalk and Main Street.

“What you’re going to see very soon here is a new deli and expanded Brick Room,” he said.

The shop Corsets and Cogs is new to the Downtown Plaza and will include a branch of Uncle Jon’s soaps from Berlin. Angello’s Unique Gifts has moved to River View Commons, as has Acorn Market.

“We’re seeing building after building, condo after condo, apartment after apartment sell and more people are looking to be in, or close to, Downtown,” Day said.

Meantime, there are beautification efforts and cultural impacts that don’t have to be expensive or huge to make a difference. Small, strategic pinpoint steps are becoming long-term advances for Downtown improvement, Day said.

“There is just constant development on the next project without ever slowing down. One of the things that marks us as different from generations past is, we’re aggressively progressive,” Day said.

“We started to behave the way other cities have behaved. We are going to commit to giving you things and not giving up when it doesn’t look like it’s working. The first years of 3rd Friday when nobody was coming out, we didn’t quit. We kept going and kept going. My predecessor (Mayor Jim Ireton) never quit. And now look at it,” he said.

Day, a native of Salisbury, never disliked his hometown. Even when he left, he knew he’d return. And he believed in the city.

“It was something about my interest in design. You visualize not just how things are, but how they ought to be. I don’t know if my parents engrained in me that sort of optimistic perspective. You visualize not just how things should be, but how they ought to be.

“Then you break it down. You think, ‘If we’re going to get there, what’s Step 1?’ Then you’ve got to bring people together. I was given a safe space as a kid to believe that was possible. When I look back to Bennett Memorial Garden, or the various projects we did, they taught me somebody will listen to you if you come up with a good idea,” he said.

Today, city leaders are selling the vision of “how good it can be,” the mayor said.

“People are buying it. I don’t have fear of not being successful. I think we know what we’re doing at this point. We know how to do this,” he said.

When he was elected mayor last fall, Day hit the ground full of ideas and optimism.

During his first six months leading Salisbury, he found the city government has a team whose employees are willing to work hard, who want respect, to be listened to and be a part of the solution, who are dedicated to making Salisbury great.

“I think we’ve tapped into and unleashed some of that capability. We are pushing very hard. We’ve got a team that is sweating. The city employees are very eager to transform the city, to put changes in place,” Day said.

Dynamics between Day and department heads were changed. Monthly meetings were scheduled, as well as briefing formats, planned for every other week. At those sessions, goals are outlined and metrics set. There is emphasis on communicating progress toward objectives and what is being worked on.

“Address problems; reduce barriers. That’s why we need to come together. We do need to check in and collaborate,” Day said.

There has been goal-setting and retreats. Day has met with every city employee.

“I wanted to hear and learn what some of the challenges are that they’re facing, what things they want me to fix and what things they wanted to me to stay out of because they were working OK. I think that transparency is going to mark this administration,” the mayor said.

He’s putting out a climate survey, to measure the business climate, or what it’s like to be occupy a city office, what’s successful, what isn’t.

Twice, he has worked in each department for a day and will continue the practice.

Under his guidance, the city has changed its compensation system so staff is guaranteed a 2 percent annual raise, unless the policy is changed by the City Council.

Those in the military are now allowed days off required for service, so they don’t have to juggle vacation time and trade days with colleagues.

There is now a 20-year Downtown masterplan, and another for the Salisbury Zoo. New logos and seals brand the city. There’s a plan to redesign Route 13.

“I intend to keep going at the same pace. A lot of things are happening very quickly,” Day said, but the pace isn’t wearing him out, not quite like being a new father does, he said with a laugh.

“There was a time when any headline about Salisbury was either about crime or political dysfunction because that’s what you had. The last five years you’ve had a police chief who has slashed crime. You’ve had three politicians removed from City Council who were a very negative influence.

“A generation of negative politics was swept out of the city, literally.

“You can’t get to greatness with pessimistic leaders and you can’t get to greatness without people who believe in their city. A lot of people were scared to say, ‘I believe in Salisbury’ because there were so many people who didn’t believe it to be true. It was a safe space to say, ‘No, I don’t believe in this.’ There was evidence to back that up — headlines, crime statistics, economic numbers.

“We climbed out (of the recession) and we quieted a lot of those negative voices. Yes, it took a lot of work, but it’s a simultaneous progression of quieting the negative and producing results.

“What really changes people’s minds is when they experience it,” he said.

“There’s more to do. There always will be,” Day said, but there are successes — Ben’s Red Swings, city parks, the Salisbury Zoo, a growing downtown. The message is, Day believes, seeing is believing.

“You may like what you hear but when you go downtown and experience 3rd Friday it’s undeniable. It’s great,” he said.

Reach Susan Canfora at scanfora@newszap.com.

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