A Year to Remember: An Interview with Robert Willey, Mayor of Easton

In anticipation for the new year, the EEDC sat down with Mayor Willey to get his perspective on 2022 and what he hopes to see in the days to come.

 

EEDC: Looking back over the past year, what changes in Easton stand out for you?

 

RW:  The first thing that comes to mind is the influx of federal funds through ARPA (American Rescue Plan). Because of it, we were able to do some incredible things with the money. One was the broadband installations. It didn’t do us any good to squabble about the availability of computers in our schools when students couldn’t use them at home. So that was a priority. We also ordered two new fire vehicles for the Fire Company. This cost about 1.7 million and will be delivered next April.

 

Also, there were a lot of infrastructure improvements, such as stormwater management deals and drainage improvements in the town. Additionally, we’ve been doing a lot of work on paving the Rails-to-Trails.

 

Of course, all this funding has been important and has greatly helped. But the money also did present some problems.

 

EEDC: Really? In what way?

 

RW: Our budget last fiscal year was 24 million. With the influx of the ARPA funding, our budget soared to over 37 million, which is not sustainable for us in the future. We still have a little bit to distribute, but the ARPA funding has run its course; it’s basically over. We’re going to have to figure out what parts of that funding we could keep in place and then work out how to fund it. That’s probably been the number one task of this past year.

 

EEDC: Talk about some of the town’s amenities.

 

RW: Right now, we have one of the finest workforce groups we’ve ever had. We’ve always been fortunate to have good workers, but now we’ve got great workers who can do some of the jobs you’re seeing: the concrete work, the bricklaying, the tree trimming, and so forth, are all done in-house. We don’t need to bring in outside help. We also have a first-rate fire and police department.

 

EEDC: And this past year, you hired a new chief of police?

 

RW: That’s right. Since I’ve been mayor, this was the fourth police chief we’ve appointed. We were fortunate to receive over 50 quality applications from all over. The one we picked was already living in Easton and commuting to Northern Virginia. We were very happy with Alan Lowrey’s appointment.

 

EEDC: You’ve been out there visiting businesses this year. What have you learned?

 

RW:  That’s right; we’ve been asking the merchants how they’re making out, what problems they are facing, and how and where we could be helpful. We’ve found that, for the most part, the downtown area of Easton seems to be going well. But if you look at the area North of Aurora street, even though there are some businesses, there are also some vacant buildings. Another area that we’re looking at is from Dover Street to route 50—areas where maybe we can give some assistance. It might be that we need a change in the Main Street boundaries, or we may need to expand the Arts and Entertainment district. Or it also could be the enterprise zone that might help employers bring in new folks. 

 

EEDC: Affordable housing is on everyone’s mind nowadays. How is Easton addressing this problem?

 

RW: We’ve spent a lot of time and money on owner-occupied homes hoping it would stabilize the neighborhoods–and that seems to have worked out. We’ve done three right now in the Hill District with the help of federal and state funding. And we’ve got two more that we signed contracts on last week that are getting ready to take place. But that’s only five houses, and we probably need 105.

 

EEDC: What progress are you seeing with the building of the new hospital?

 

RW: They’re going through the certification process now, so I think they’ll get replies back probably late spring/early summer next year. If everything falls in line, construction of the building will likely start in 2024 and be completed by around 2026-27. That will create quite an explosion of activity from the hospital standpoint and businesses moving in. And as part of that operation, they’ll be able to retain the doctors we have and recruit more doctors.

 

EEDC: We notice that there has been some development in parks in Easton. Can you address that?

 

RW: We’ve added many facilities to town neighborhood parks that need some equipment this year. We have installed lights on a few fields at North Easton Park, and the possibility now exists to bring in larger athletic tournaments.

 

Easton Village has a six-acre park site that needs to be fitted, and we’ve asked them to bear with us for a couple of years, but that’s on our radar. We also are in the process of acquiring 200 acres off of Oxford road. That will be open space for hiking trails, picnic benches, etc. Also, as the Poplar Hill development goes through, there are some 20 acres of open space. The next big thing you’ll see on the south end of town is how we take the Rails-to-Trails across the Parkway and then continue to the west, which may take us down the railroad bed that connects to Oxford.

 

 

EEDC: Do you have any other specific goals for Easton?

 

RW: One of my targets has been to entice young people to consider Easton after finishing school or military service. To do this, we must create jobs in manufacturing and technical fields. Of course, as we create jobs, we must provide adequate workforce housing. So those are on my mind when we discuss plans and proposals.

 

EEDC: Speaking of, the Comprehensive Plan has been an essential element for the vision and future of Easton. How is that going?

 

RW: We’ve been doing a lot of tweaking of the Comp Plan. The big thing is where we expect the growth of Easton to be in the next ten years. Most likely, it will be to the north and the east. We’ve already played on that a little with the Dollar General going up out there, some renovations to Hyde Park, and possibly adding more industrial land out that way.

 

EEDC: When you reflect on your tenure as mayor, what are you most proud of?

 

RW: It would have to be the stability of the mayor’s office that we’ve been able to bring to it. Taxes were last raised in 2007 to four cents on the dollar, and we haven’t raised them since. That’s not to say at some point in the future, we may need to consider one. But right now, we can do what we want, get what we want, and pay for what we want with the same amount of tax money we’ve had for the last 15 years. I don’t think any other small town in the country has as many services as the town of Easton does. It’s well-regarded. It’s well respected, and we’re doing it with resources that we already have.

 

EEDC: You’re obviously proud of all these accomplishments for your town. Some people may not be aware that you are a lifetime resident of Easton.

 

RW: Yes, I played in the town’s first little league team, played high school sports, and was a Boy Scout. I met my wife, Betsy, in high school, and we married in 1961. We had three children; the oldest boy is deceased. My daughter works for the federal government, and they’ve just moved back into the area. My son started his own business last year. We have grandchildren and great-grandchildren. With the exception of one, everyone is within an hour’s drive from Easton.

 

I have been a member of numerous civic organizations, including 60 years with the Easton Volunteer Fire Department, serving as a firefighter, secretary, treasurer, and trustee. I was the past president of the Easton Kiwanis Club, have been with the Easton Elks Lodge (56 years), am a past member of the Board of Directors of the Safety Council of Maryland, and a life-long member of the First Baptist Church of Easton.

 

EEDC: You’ve been the longest-serving mayor in Easton. What made you want this position?

 

RW: My mother was actually the forerunner of the town manager’s job for 43 years. I kept hearing about this happening or that was happening, and I wanted to be a part of that. She told me, ‘don’t get into it; you just won’t like it at all.’ And I went and ran for election anyway and won by two votes the first time. I liked it and have been going ever since.

 

EEDC: Any thoughts on running again?

 

RW: I am definitely running again. And you know, it’s an overused expression, but there’s still a lot of things that I want to see accomplished. There’s a lot that we’ve just gotten started.

 

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