William Ahtes, the developer known as the “Grandfather of Downtown Salisbury,” is being remembered as a visionary and gentleman with a good heart who was deeply devoted to the city.
Ahtes, 92, who was also a retired real estate broker and restaurateur, and who received the prestigious Salisbury Award in 2013, died Sunday, Nov. 20.
“Everything he touched made Salisbury better,” his longtime friend and business partner Henry Hanna, a commercial real estate broker on the Shore, told the Salisbury Independent after learning of Ahtes’ death.
“We look at all the change in Downtown Salisbury today, but Bill was promoting that change. He and I talked a few years ago and I said, ‘Bill, how many buildings and projects did you renovate in downtown Salisbury?’ He named 17 buildings that he did renovations on.
“He believed in Salisbury. That was his town.”
Added Hanna: “Did you ever see (the play) ‘Our Town’? That was his view. It was his town. What people see now as the City Center used to be Benjamins fashion store. Hess Apparel on Main Street, Benjamins on Main Street, had a fire. Bill redeveloped that after they had a fire and it had been vacant. He redeveloped most of those buildings Downtown. A lot of them would have been demolished, if hadn’t been for him,” Hanna said.
After he retired, Ahtes volunteered for The Joseph House and often said helping the homeless was the best job he ever had, Hanna said, adding Ahtes wrote his autobiography and self-published it.
John McClellan of SVN | Miller called Ahtes “an incredible friend, fantastic mentor and terrific role model in the commercial real estate industry.”
“Even in his retirement years, as he continued to serve as a volunteer at The Joseph House, he always had time to offer a kind word of encouragement,” McClellan said.
In March, Mike Dunn, President and CEO of the Greater Salisbury Committee, posted a photo of Ahtes walking in Downtown Salisbury. Dressed in tan slacks and a black jacket, his white hair neatly combed, he was leaning on a cane and smiling.
“The legend himself, the man who has given his entire life to being that cutting-edge, forward-thinking city of Salisbury, Maryland, realtor-developer, Mr. Bill Ahtes, strolling Downtown Salisbury today,” Dunn wrote.
About 50 people commented on the post, including Wicomico County Sheriff Mike Lewis, who wrote, “I love this man. They simply don’t come any better than Mr. Bill Ahtes.”
“He is the reason that the Palmer family came to Salisbury and started the Red Roost,” Debbie Wessels wrote.
“Mr. Salisbury was a nickname I heard for him when I started at Avery Hall 24 years ago. Great, great man,” Angela Strouth posted.
“I worked for Bill Ahtes and they don’t come any better. He came to work one morning when it was snowing and I said to him, ‘Isn’t the snow beautiful?’ His comment was, ‘Yes, but you can’t sell a house in the snow,’” Jane Grogan wrote.
Others described him as “great” and “one of my favorite men in the world.”
In a 2014 interview with Downtown developer Joey Gilkerson, posted on YouTube, Ahtes recalled visiting the then-bustling downtown as often as he could when he was a boy of 9 or 10.
Business started declining Downtown after the Salisbury Mall was built and the climax came after the Centre at Salisbury opened. After a 1979 fire, Hess Apparel moved out “and one followed the other and there was empty retail space … that nobody could see any use for,” he said.
Gilkerson said Ahtes “always offered me so much insight.”
“That was the nature of our relationship. He always had great advice. He always was very complimentary, very appreciative, like he thought the Downtown baton was passed in a certain way. He always went out of his way to compliment us,” Gilkerson said.
“He was a lot like me. Technically I am a Realtor, but that is not the primary hat I wear. One Plaza East was one of his projects, a redevelopment much like what we do. It’s harder to find a building he didn’t invest in and flip than it is to find one that he didn’t. It’s astonishing,” Gilkerson said.
“Salisbury is so much better because of him. I’m thankful to have known him.”
Funeral arrangements were incomplete on Monday.