by Lisa Moody Breslin, photography by Walter P. Calahan
Before coming to Sykesville, Julie Della Maria lived and worked in Baltimore City. For about 10 years, she conducted cancer research in the radiation oncology laboratory at the University of Maryland. As coordinator for the nonprofit Downtown Sykesville Connection, she leads a team of community leaders who want life to remain vibrant where they live.
How long have you lived in Sykesville and what do you enjoy most about life there? I moved to Sykesville in 2013, after house-hunting in downtown Sykesville for about five years. Before we moved, Sykesville was our weekend destination. We attended every festival, spent lazy days by the Patapsco River skipping rocks. My boy caught his first fish at Piney Run Park. We had our favorite spot on Baldwin’s Station deck and knew E.W. Beck’s menu by heart.
There wasn’t much on Main Street the first time we ventured there and stumbled upon the Easter Bunny, but it had that European feel — that unique look that won me over. I knew we would end up in Sykesville. It was meant to be.
How did life there compare to life in the community where you are now? Baltimore City was an ideal scene for a young couple, eager for new culinary experiences, museum ventures, boat rides, baseball games and other city pleasures. When we became parents we started looking for the ideal place to raise a family, and Sykesville stood out as the perfect location, for so many different reasons. We do miss our old stomping grounds and go back often to visit with the kids, and it always amazes me to see places I knew through their eyes.
Who are the members of your family? I am going to seize the opportunity to recognize the roots of my strength and motivation: my husband, Dan Andersen. He is always in my corner. He is the brilliant mind I bounce my ideas off of. (I know I am on to something good when I hear “Oh boy …”). His true and selfless love of Sykesville is making it a better place. I am also the proud mom of a 5-year-old, Lula, and a 7-year-old boy, Liam. They are the inspiration behind the family spin on most of our events; they teach me what can be improved to allow Sykesville families to hang out together. And we live with our dog, Bowser; our cat, Scratchy; our fish, Mr. Bubble; and our gecko, Url.
The revitalization of Main Street (and beyond) has been an impressive journey. In fact, towns look to you all as a role model. What are three pieces of advice that you would offer someone who says, “I wish our town was as vibrant as theirs.” Don’t forget who you are. Staying true to your identity will make the journey easier and help you to not lose your focal point. Capitalize on the local community’s assets and inspiration; let your people be your strength. Be the tool that enables their dreams and their ideas. Be the mediator that gives them ownership of their street, their town. Don’t be afraid of “public displays of affection”: unique, small and temporary community creations/events (a mural, a sign, a sculpture, a sidewalk art exhibit) are what create place-making and an emotional connection between people and places. Being the platform for such a love affair is an investment your community’s development.
The shift to nonprofit status. Briefly discuss how that idea came about. The fact that you ask me this question confirms how crucial our separation from the Town of Sykesville was for our “well-being.” Not only could we not envision development and reactiveness in a town government setting, but the perception of who we are was also skewed.
We always had a nonprofit status — under the umbrella of the Community Foundation of Carroll County — but our unclear status as a town department overshadowed this fact and confused our followers, making fundraising a real challenge. We are currently seeking our own nonprofit status and have been operating as a small business entirely reinvesting its profit into the community for the past two years. It started by providing free educational programs to the local merchants. We have moved on to larger projects that always incorporate art and placemaking, like our train-inspired bike rack.
We are currently working on three projects that will enhance Main Street’s look. The next few months are going to be very exciting!
What do you all hope will be the biggest benefit of being a nonprofit? I hope that this status will prompt people to invest in us for the benefit of their community. The people’s trust — whether it is in volunteer hours or financial donations — is what we will convert into art programs, visitor activities, or main street assets.
What are the top goals for Downtown Sykesville Connection? We will be working very hard to reach a place where we are not at the mercy of Mother Nature: Our largest fundraisers are outdoor events, meaning that a year where it rains on both could have dramatic effect on our operations. I would love to see us be able to create another job opportunity and grow our team. I also want to have one large project per year that we can showcase, whether is it creating a community space, a mural or a program.
Your role as coordinator — what are your typical duties? My roles are very diverse and I enjoy this aspect of the job very much. I coordinate five committees’ activities, and their volunteers’ needs and requests.
That ranges from planning and running seven large events a year to designing marketing projects and writing grants or looking for creative funding opportunities. I have “jeans days,” setting up booths on Main Street, and “suit days,” attending Main Street programs or sponsor meetings, back to back.
I also work with the merchants of Main Street, various networking groups, and the Town of Sykesville to make sure we serve the whole community the best way we can.
What are three of your favorite community events that unfold during the year? I like them all. I am always happy to see a crowd of smiles on Main Street for festival days. This recharges my batteries for the next endeavor, but some of our events have a special significance:
- The Craft Beer Festival: because as our main fundraiser, its success (fingers crossed for 2018) is a taste of the magnitude of the next year’s events and programs.
- The Farmers’ Market: because this six-month event really embodies what we are: a venue for community gathering, a place for unique finds and access to local and organic food, a destination to browse local artists and nonprofits, and a boost to the local economy for half of the year.
- First Fridays: because since they are merchant-operated, I have nothing to do with these so I can enjoy them.
Others on your team and their roles? The DSC board of directors are key players working alongside with committee chairs and volunteers. All of these people are volunteers working tirelessly to sustain and develop our program. It is truly an honor to work for, and with, them:
- Fred Gossage, president, owner of the Sykesville branch of State Farm Insurance
- Mary Vaccarino, vice president and owner of Revive & Co.
- Rudy Linde, treasurer
- Lisa Berman, secretary
- Helene Taylor, member, owner of the French Twist Cafe
- Michelle Williams, member, business manager at M&T
- Rich Austin, chair of the Economic Restructuring Committee, owner of Trembling Giant Marketing LLC
- Dana Alonzi, chair of the Design Committee
- Rachael Beck, chair of the Promotion Committee, owner of E.W. Beck’s Pub
- Whitney Thompson, chair of the Green Committee, owner of Sykesville Therapy
- Mary Ellen Will, chair of the Organization Committee
- Leo Keenan, liaison to the Town of Sykesville, town councilman, owner of Assist-2-sell and Keenan Law Office
- We also do have a fabulous part-time Farmers’ Market manager: Elizabeth Currence; she is doing a fantastic job with this demanding event.
So far, what has been the biggest challenge? Creating a steady source of income and gaining volunteers. People have very busy lives, and trying to engage them to help us is not always easy, but I am proud to say that the ones that have joined our ranks remain part of our tight team, day in and day out.