Annapolis' Gavin Buckley shares his vision for the city
Jul 01, 2018 12:00AM
By James Houck
He ventured to the United States from Australia, landing in Annapolis in 1992 with $200 in his pocket. Within 10 years, Gavin Buckley would co-create (with friend/business partner Jody Danek) a new restaurant culture throughout the city, most notably with the still-relevant fusion cuisine of Tsunami, and later, with Lemongrass and Metropolitan. The duo’s newest venture, Sailor Oyster Bar, reflects a return to Annapolis’ historical culture; perhaps serving as a metaphorical bridge between Buckley’s avant garde leanings and the long-standing classicism of a City that prides itself on its Colonial roots.
When Buckley announced his candidacy for Mayor of Annapolis, he vouched that he’d serve the city’s residents in bipartisan fashion and work toward fostering community through diverse partnerships.
In the few months since he moved into City Hall at the time of this interview, Buckley seemed unsettled in a good way. On the day we met for a progress report, he’s racing between associates in a non-stop flutter of activity that speaks volumes about the man and mayor Buckley is and hopes to be—a mayor that gets things done. City Hall in Annapolis is abuzz, the city itself is abuzz, and Buckley is leading the charge. How is he feeling about this new venture? Buckley
shared his thoughts in what follows.
Let’s jump back a little bit. Why settle in Annapolis and what was it about this city that stuck in your heart?
What I loved about this place is I settled in and I got a job as a waiter. I had my boat at City Dock. You can step off your boat, you can go to 50 bars. This place is awesome. Within one week, you walk up Main Street, someone toots their horns because they know you. Within two weeks, you walk into a bar, you know the guy playing guitar, and within three weeks, they know your drink. And that’s a great little village. And if you love the water and you love boats and stuff like that…and you layer in the historic district. I lucked out. I met my wife and fell in love, and that’s a big part of it as well.
You were getting to know a lot of people first-hand. What was the inspiration to pursuing the office of mayor?
I think we were building relationships a long time, on West Street, and we had built a city...we built a street for locals. If you take care of the locals first, everything else falls into place. And so, then I look at the city and…I think that we must make it livable for people that live here. You’re a local if you live in Crownsville or Arnold or Edgewater or whatever, it’s still your city and your downtown, you just have to make it special enough for people to want to make the effort and have things for people to do when they get downtown that are not just T-shirt shops and ice cream.
What’s the next step—because you’ve already established in that part of West Street how to bridge people—to building compromise?
I just got out of a meeting for the Annapolis Triathlon. That’s a thing that’s going to bring people together. It’s going to bring the state—the Governor’s office, the County Executive office, and the Mayor’s office—together. We’re going to do a relay. And that’s an example that we’re from different parties, but we’re working together to finish a race and make a statement that we’re not like our national situational. We all live here. We want the best for the city, and here’s an example of us working together. We’re going to do a music festival that celebrates the roots of this city in September. It’s called Annapolis Rising. It’s going to celebrate the musical roots of the city. We have musical roots that towns would kill for.
Does that bridge well with the historic preservationists? Real or perceived, there’s a sentiment that historic preservation clashes with cultural/artistic progress.
I figure we’ve got to stop this mentality that one thing happens at the expense of another thing. Everything can co-exist. You can have murals and have historic buildings. And I’ve said this
all along, that the Williamsburg model is not the model and the reason that I think our shopping is not as good, needs help, and our restaurants could be better, is because we’ve just gone for this kind of old-fashioned model, and we haven’t tried to reinvent ourselves. So, I’m a preservationist,
and it’s interesting, because people see us, act like I’m a threat to the historic district. I’ll preserve every building I can. It’s the most important thing, but you can’t just save the buildings, and then pat yourself on the back, and say my work is done here. You have to make the buildings viable. They have to be workable, as business or residence, whatever it is, so I think we can be a great historic town, but also be a gastronomic destination and an arts destination.
There’s uproar over the tax increase, but you can’t just increase the tax base overnight by approving this project and that project, while maintaining historic integrity and preservation.
We have to come up with revenue in the space of a hundred and something days. I could do everything that anyone says, and still that wouldn’t materialize when we need it. And I could look the other way and not fund pensions, like we have been doing for 10 years. I could look the other way and not address our health costs, but that won’t just go away. I don’t want to be the democrat mayor raising taxes in his first year, but you get in, and you look under the hood, and you’re like, oh my god, you cannot borrow money to get out of debt. It just doesn’t work that way, so I think that we can weather it. People are going to be upset. It can’t just be about raising taxes. It has to be about creating efficiencies.
It has to be about finding other ways to raise revenue, and some of it is going to involve development. Some of it is going to involve the right kind of thoughtful development, that’s going to increase our tax base. There’s a lot of stuff in the pipeline. If we can get people around the table and come up with a workable model, we can be realizing the benefit of that tax base.
And these decisions, I can’t imagine they come just from you. You’re consulting with your council. How’s that interaction been?
The first thing we did, when we realized that we’re facing a deficit, is I went straight to the council and said, “Look, this is not just my problem, this is all of our problem. What’s the decision we’re going to make here together? Is it this year or is it next year? Because it has to be one or the other. Two more cycles of borrowing and we hit our debt ceiling, and it affects your [city bond] ratings and all of that.” We’ve just been borrowing two million, then another two million, then another two million.
Accruing debt is not sustainable or fiscally sound.
I always make this joke, it’s like you get the keys to the car, without any driving lessons, and then people tell you, “Don’t crash the car.” And so, we’re heading for a crash. So even in good times, and these are good times, we have to do something about it. We have had no major developments in the city since Park Place. We had Uptown, which may be 20 or 30 units. We’re in a five-year cycle of trying to get a permit in the town. I’m not saying we have to approve all of those, I’m just saying we have to approve some of them, and time is money, and the sooner we can get the right ones approved, the sooner we can realize the benefit of it.
Movement of any kind is better than sitting still.
When the budget news comes in, we put the budget on the website, front and center. We put all the times of the financing committee meetings, front and center. We want the solutions to come from the public. And then you go to the meetings, and there’s no one from the public there. Online they’re screaming I’m this and I’m that, they’re yelling at me in the street.
Politics aside for a moment, what were some of the few key moments, or inspiration moments, of your life, that really shaped you as a person?
I had cancer when I was 33. That was pretty life changing. I think that makes you appreciate everything. Obviously, marriage and kids, I think, especially during this stuff, you just appreciate how important an amazing partner was and is. But my most recent and best day was at the March for Our Lives rally because I was inspired by these kids that we had failed to protect. And it’s not just mass shootings, it’s guns in marginalized neighborhoods. Kids that grow up and outside the door, someone gets shot. There has to be a trauma that’s associated with that and I was so inspired by these kids because I really think that they are going to make a difference.
Reaching out to the youth and doing more development programs, how’s your relationship with the city police chief and the programs they have?
We’re going to get bike patrol through different communities, not just downtown. We need bikes and the foot patrols and community policing. We need police outside of their uniforms, kids meeting cops in a sports field, to form relationships that way. It’s really important. We’ve got a whole bunch of cookouts happening in spring, in the different public housing areas, and the police chief suggested we roll that into a movie night as well, where we have outdoor movies for kids, and just connect people. It’s about relationships.
What are some of the big things that you’re really eyeballing right now? When it comes to the City Dock area, development, and there was a master plan put out there a few years back.
I campaigned and said, “Look, I’m for a park, and not a parking lot, and I don’t think the best real estate in the city should be a 150-car tarmac parking lot, that rolls storm water straight into the bay.” I’ve got massive plans for the City Dock. First of all, we’re going to fix the Market House, then we’re working on a version of the Torpedo Factory, at the Harbor Square Mall.
We have a mural planned for the
whole exterior of that mall, and it’s going to be called The Cannery. It’s going to be an artist collective, so studios for artists, and retail for artists, and grant writers, accelerator space, workspace; something young and hip.
Then on the other side of the Market House, in between Federal House and Market House, when we tear up the storm drains for the flood mitigation plan, when we put it back down, I want to brick that whole square, so we can look at an area where we do farmers’ markets, special events, like the first block of West Street.
Also, on the other end of the Market House, where the circle is, Memorial Circle, what I want to do is grow and create a T of that area; this is in the City Dock master plan and do a big grassed area up to that circle and make a park called Memorial Park. And in that Memorial Park, we have a little mini bandstand, we have a permanent Christmas tree, we have the flagpole there, and we actually have a space to have a picnic. I’m frustrated that we don’t have a blade of grass there.
And then the big one is the hotel. People are using the hotel as a way to sort of say I’m going to ruin downtown, and I’m like, “Look, I’m not saying a 70-foot hotel.” I wouldn’t support that, but I think we can support a four-story hotel and when the yacht club moves back to its home, we can’t have another underperforming restaurant in that part of the city. And so, if we can get some private money to do a boutique hotel, called The Maritime, which is what we call it; if we can put the parking underground and create a plaza called Lafayette Square, that is a true public space, a hardscape park, we can still park the boat show on it. We can still pull a tour bus up, but mainly it’s a pedestrian area and it’s a programmed pedestrian area. If we did it right, we could build an infrastructure for the boat show and we can actually own the boat show tents, and then we could reprogram the tents for other events, so there’s a lot of potential there.
That sounds promising. How do you fund all that?
Yeah, private/public partnerships, grants. We don’t have any money in the city to do it. I have to do it that way, but I’m good at that stuff. I’m good at finding money in other places. We have the money already set aside for the re-bricking of Main Street, so we’re going to modify that plan a little bit.
When is the re-bricking going to occur?
We’ve done the cuttings for the sprinklers, so those cuttings are happening. That’s planned. But I wanted to modify the plan. And modifying the plan means increasing the sidewalk, taking out the upper layer of parking on Main Street, creating a trolley and a bike path down the right side of Main Street. When we do that, we have a dedicated way to get in and out of the historic district, and then we have a dedicated trolley and bike path, which means that the trolleys can move faster than the cars, generally, on a busy Saturday or a busy Sunday. And then the trolley idea is fun, as part of the experience. It’s an open-air trolley. It’s like a San Francisco feeling, or a Baltimore Zoo thing, or whatever it is, like something where you want to get out of your car as soon as possible, jump into a free trolley, go to gate three of the Academy or go to the Eastport Bridge, or whatever it is.
Beyond the boats and the colonial history, what’s the real Annapolis, to you?
I think artistic people are drawn to this town. I think it’s a postcard town, that creative people are drawn here, but I think that, for a while, there wasn’t really a platform for people to express themselves, and I think we’ve brought a platform here, and we’ve made that more artsy. And so, there are cities—I look at the Burlingtons, the Austins, those cities—where creative people, young people, have more of a voice.
Our town has been a little conservative, and I think people get the heck out of dodge, because there’s not enough for them to do here. I don’t want young people to leave here. I want them to stay here. I want them to start businesses here. I want them to affect the agenda, and run for office.
So, I think the true Annapolis is when Annapolis was the Athens of the New World, when this was the cultural mecca, when there were galas and drunken sailors. And then the founding fathers, they were rebels. They were non-conformists. They were progressives. They started the greatest social experiment in the world. That’s my Annapolis. That’s the one I want to see.
You have some green initiatives as well.
Annapolis is the capital of the Chesapeake Bay. We should be setting the standard, we should be leading the way, we should be doing our part. How we handle storm water has to be a massive priority. I’ve got a mooring in Spa Creek and when I’m out there swimming, people yell at me to get out of the water. But I’m from Australia. Flesh eating sharks or flesh-eating bacteria, I’ve said that a hundred times.
Until you get some real things done, some concrete solutions in place, it’s going to be hard to mitigate.
I don’t care if you’ve treated your sewage, it still doesn’t make me feel better to swim in it. We basically put signs up to say don’t pee in our pool. And it’s just the optics of where people go. I want to go there because I know they’ll take care of their water.
How has becoming mayor affected your time with your family?
Definitely a lot. Like I said, you’ve got to have a great partner and I’m hoping, after the first six months, it settles down. I think that maybe we had an ambitious agenda, so we put a lot of ideas out there very early, so you’ve got to follow up on those ideas. And then I had to learn how to do the job, then I took a lot of meetings because I wanted to learn.
What are some of your other passions or a hobby?
I’ve gotten into snowboarding. I did a couple of snowboarding things this year and then I’ve got the boat, so I get on the water, that’s good. And the music stuff is big, so if we pull off this music festival, I’ll be really excited about that.
In three and a half years, do you see yourself going for a second term?
Yeah, I’m having a good time. There’s always my faithful supporters. I’d like to give it a go again. I want to make sure that I made a difference. If I don’t make a difference, then I won’t run again, but if I feel like we’ve had some good, positive stuff...
We have a lot of untapped potential. I truly think that it’s a great town, but there’s a lot more we could do.