Warmest Regards From Frostburg

Excuse me? A whole city too considerate to call people at dinner time? Small wonder folks outside of Maryland want to hear about such a nice place.

April 01, 1999|By ROB HIAASEN | ROB HIAASEN,SUN STAFF

FROSTBURG -- This town is so small the alleys have their own street signs ("Alley 2, Alley 3" etc.). This town is so small when you ask for the chamber of commerce, a local nudges you and says, "What commerce?"

Frostburg is so small the mayor, being the mayor, was entitled to P.O. Box 1. Even Ralph Race, a 91-year-old native, didn't rate in the top five. He's P.O. Box 6. Race is amused by this fact. He might even tell you about the post office situation over the phone, provided you don't call around dinner.

Come to think of it, if you don't know him, think twice about calling at all -- especially if you're selling something.

"It's like entering my home without an invitation," says Race, the sharpest 91-year-old you'll ever meet. "I'm sure people all over the world are not gung-ho about charging into people's homes."

Which brings us to a little story out of Frostburg last month. Call it "The Town Too Nice to Call People at Home." The story -- "and I've been entertained by it," Race says -- was first reported by the Associated Press on March 12, then was picked up by other media and sent out on the e-mail circuit.

Unitel Corp., a Virginia-based telesales company, will move 100 telemarketing jobs from its Frostburg center to Florida "in hopes of finding more aggressive salespeople." Unitel isn't leaving Frostburg; the company plans to add 300 lower-paying jobs handling customer service calls. Unitel reportedly was having trouble finding enough local residents to make outbound calls.

The manager of Unitel's Frostburg center, Ken Carmichael, was quoted as saying, "The folks we encounter here in Allegany County do not prefer to be that type of assertive, aggressive sort of sales person." (Carmichael would be quoted here, but he has not returned our calls.)

The AP reporter who wrote the article, David Dishneau, says, "I knew this would strike a chord with a lot of people. Almost everybody has been annoyed by a telemarketer."

The mayor of Frostburg was interviewed by the BBC in London and on ABC radio. Nice Frostburg was also the subject of a March 17 Washington Post editorial noting the AP story: "It starts innocently enough with people saying `please' and `thank you' around the house. Then remarks will be made such as, `Oh, don't call the Fergusons now, they're probably having dinner.'

"Children hear these things and sometimes imitate such behavior."

Based on the rippling reaction that followed, you would think the story was "Frostburg Scientist Discovers Cure for AIDS." Frostburg's mayor, John Bambacus, found himself inundated with calls and e-mails. Frostburg, an 8,000-plus-population town 150 miles west of Baltimore, had become a celebrity.

Hail to the nice people in Frostburg!

"May I say that Frostburg sounds like a very nice place to live I wish the community in which I live would be accused of such a horrible thing as being too nice," reads an e-mail from West Hollywood, Calif.

"Right on!" from an e-mail from San Diego. "That's great P.R. I never heard of your town before, but $20 million couldn't have bought such great advertising. Hope to see Frostburg some day."

One more: "Any town that is too nice for telemarketers is our kind of town! Next time my wife and I are traveling south from New Hampshire, we will be sure to visit Frostburg."

The town might have a 12 percent unemployment rate, it might be mighty low on commerce, it might have had the same tax base since 1948, it might make the news only after a tornado or flood hits, it might get in trouble when a few kids at Frostburg State University get drunk and rowdy, but dang it -- Frostburg doesn't call people at home to sell them credit cards or voice mail.

"This thing has taken on a life that I could never have imagined," says Bambacus, a Vietnam veteran, a former state senator and a political science professor at Frostburg State, as well as mayor.

But nothing in his full life, perhaps, prepared him for "this thing." The story has reminded him of the power of the printed word.

Bronx cheer

The original AP story ended with these words from Bambacus: Frostburg is not the Bronx. We pride ourselves on being a very neighborly community. If he could take back one word he's spoken in public life, that word could well be "Bronx." Eight e-mails from the Bronx alone lit up his computer. "Hate mail" might be too strong an expression, but the mayor of Frostburg did apologize to each and every Bronx bomber. He even shipped an e-mail to New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani: "Please accept my apology for this thoughtless remark," Bambacus wrote Giuliani. "I am certain the citizens of New York City and the Bronx are as committed to their community as those residing in the City of Frostburg. (P.S. You are going a great job and I support your efforts.)"

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