South African born Gavin Buckley, the recently-elected Mayor of Annapolis, was raised in Perth, Australia, by his single mother and attended Belmont City College along Australia’s southwest coast — before beginning the journey that led him to the top spot in Maryland’s capital city.
Buckley departed Perth by boat in 1984, visited a few continents and eventually dropped anchor in Annapolis’s Spa Creek in 1992. He fell in love with the city, then with Julie Williams; they married in 1997 and are raising sons Dash and Miles.
From his first local job waiting tables at the Middleton Tavern, he quickly displayed an entrepreneurial spirit, learning the business, raising capital and navigating bureaucracy to open Annapolis’s first coffee shop, The Moon, in 1993.
He eventually saw potential in Inner West Street, an area where drug deals and prostitution were common, and opened his pan-Asian restaurant, Tsunami, in 2000. Accepted by a diverse crowd, Tsunami’s success encouraged Buckley to establish more restaurants, including Lemongrass and Metropolitan, in 2005; and Sailor Oyster Bar, in 2016.
All four of his ventures are located on West Street in Annapolis, and his dedication to the town’s key avenue inspired him to help create the Sunday Arts Festivals, followed by the Annapolis Fringe Festival, the Chocolate Binge Festival, the Annapolis Color Run, West Street Holiday Light Canopy and Dining Under the Stars.
Buckley, a Democrat, ran on a platform of preserving Annapolis’s history, but with an eye toward the future. He has served on various boards, is a member of the local NAACP chapter and champions public art and local musicians.
Do you think your global travels help when making business decisions?
Yes, and I think everyone should do that. I’ve spent time in Asia, Europe and Bermuda. I’d use Miami as a base for my trips to Bermuda, and then one day I decided to sail up to the Chesapeake Bay, because I knew of its reputation. I got here with $200 in my pocket, ended up selling the boat and staying.
That’s what’s great about traveling; you can bring what you see and learn back to home. That helps with innovation.
What were your biggest challenges in dealing with planning and zoning when you were establishing your restaurants?
We were made to feel like we were sitting in the principal’s office. It’s been better lately, but we have to take responsibility for our reputation. We’re doing something wrong for our city when everyone feels like a victim, whether it concerns building a restaurant, a home or a new deck in the backyard. The city is in the service business, but it often hasn’t felt that way.
I’m not suggesting that we give away the farm, but we need to work as a team to move projects forward. That’s how we can create jobs and increase our tax base.
What’s next for the inner and outer sections of West Street?
I was one of the first people to see opportunities along West Street when I opened Tsunami, against all of the experts’ advice. It’s been a success, as were the next two.
There is a renaissance happening on West Street. We have seen additional restaurants and galleries opening, as well as investment in additional office, retail and residential space. The Light House Bistro that helps with job training for the residents of Light House Shelter has been a great success. Hilton will be opening a renovated hotel soon and there will be additional townhomes built soon, as well.
What spurred you to run for mayor?
I think Annapolis has a great deal of untapped potential, but it seems that whenever someone has a new idea, people shy away from it. We need to look at what’s happening in other tourist towns, like Charleston, S.C.; Asheville, N.C.; Burlington, Vt.; Boulder, Colo.; and Austin, Texas. Food and art and making those towns current and transformative.
We’re a little stuck in the Williamsburg — where they actually have characters and close at night — model. However, I think we can embrace both modes of marketing our town.
What are your thoughts of transforming the parking area in front of the Harbor Grill at the City Dock?
I think we should make it a hardscape park, name it Lafayette Square, build a boutique hotel adjacent to it and call it The Maritime. We’d have to keep that [mostly] a hardscape area to accommodate the tent setup for the Annapolis Boat Shows, as well as create underground parking and storage. We’re aiming to have the project done for the boat shows in 2020.
How do you plan to further boost the arts community to attract more people downtown?
We’re working on a plan for the failing mall by the Harbor Master’s office called The Cannery, which would be similar to the Torpedo Factory on the Alexandria [Va.] waterfront. I’m meeting now with [First Lady] Yumi Hogan to see what we can come up with. [County Executive] Steve Schuh’s wife loves art, as well.
If we can re-energize that building and the Market House, that will re-energize the City Dock area. Then we can work on that 140-room (or so) boutique hotel.
What’s the latest on the Market House?
Renovations by the vendor team are coming along and they expect to open in late spring. For the first time in a very long time, operations at Market House will be cash positive and an asset to the city’s budget. Just as important, the heart of our history downtown will once again be open for business and attracting people to shop, dine and enjoy our city. It will be a communal gathering place for locals, as well as tourists.
Do you think local tourism officials are doing enough to attract visitors to the city?
Last year, if I’m correct, was a great year — maybe even a record year — for hotel reservations in the city and surrounding areas. I think the tourism office is doing a great job promoting our beautiful places. Our administration will build upon the great festivals and events that have drawn hundreds of thousands of visitors here.
In addition to recent events like the Military Bowl and Parade and the amazing Capitals-Toronto hockey game at U.S. Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, we’re planning a music festival for September, and the U.S. Naval Academy and Department of Defense will be christening a new ship this fall. These two events will bring thousands of tourists to town.
What’s the state of the city’s budget?
I have proposed a .13 increase in the property tax rate to increase revenues to help address several items. We have been borrowing money for projects for too many years, and not paying the obligatory contributions to public safety pensions and to retiree benefit programs. We cannot borrow our way out of debt. The fiscal 2019 budget eliminates the structural deficit, fully funds required public safety pension contributions for the first time in 10 years, funds 12 firefighters currently protecting our citizens through a grant that is expiring, and increases funding to reduce the $50 million liability for retiree health insurance.
Raising the tax rate is the only revenue source the city has direct control over. We will do a line-by-line review of the budget during the Finance Committee hearings and City Council meetings. Our process will be public, of the utmost transparency, and we will encourage public feedback.
What are your key environmental concerns?
My ultimate goal is to make all of Annapolis waters swimmable and fishable again. We can do this through innovative partnerships with county, state and federal partners, as well as with our outstanding environmental nonprofit organizations. And our administration will have a renewed focus on integrating not just environmental protection, but restoration and enhancement to every project we do.
Transportation is also a key element of environmental protection. Our administration will be increasing options for transit, as well as building a network of bike paths connected the jewels throughout the city. We will also increase efforts to get people out of their cars before they get downtown and expanding bike paths and trolley paths. And most importantly, we will transform the parking lot at City Dock into a vibrant community space that could maybe even include a few blades of grass near the water for a picnic. This will help reduce the stormwater runoff that currently rushes off of the parking lot and into Spa Creek.
How can the city improve parking options?
We need to do a better job of encouraging people to park in our municipal garages outside of Main Street that are not full on weekends. Also, the State Garage on Calvert Street is free after 5 p.m. on Fridays, yet is mostly empty. We will be increasing the use of our Circulator to move people around from these garages to points of business on Main Street, Maryland Avenue, West Street and more.
What’s your take on crime in the city?
We need to invest in areas that have been forgotten for 50 years. I’ve been studying different models in affordable and public housing. We need people who live there to tell us what they want. Most of them want a home, an opportunity and a job.
The current head of public housing is working on a rebuild for Newtowne, and we need the same for Robinwood, Eastport Terrace and Harbour House. There are only 750 units left under the Housing Authority of The City of Annapolis. That’s a small number who need help. The rest of our citizens who are living in projects are under Section 8.
What’s surprised you most after your first few months in office?
The scheduling of every hour, on the hour, each day has been a bit of a surprise, but the budget was in worse shape than anyone expected. I also wasn’t aware of the phase-in schedule associated with the revised assessments or the interesting financial practices the city used.