OCEAN CITY – After weeks of delay on the momentum of the Downtown Recreation Complex, the town has received word from the county on a land lease, but with different terms than they had originally anticipated.
For weeks, the Ocean City Mayor and Council have delayed any action in regard to the Downtown Recreation Complex as they awaited the proposal from the county on a lease agreement for the land. The original intention of the town was to garner a long-term lease that would allow the town to go to bond on the $3.7 million project. The thought has been that without an extended lease, a 20- to 30-year bond and extensive work on the land would prove futile.
The town received a response from the county this week with the proposal for a 15-year lease agreement being put on the table. According to County Commissioner Louise Gulyas, who represents Ocean City and is a resort resident, the county sent the town a 15-year lease agreement proposal but has heard word back from the town as of Tuesday.
The plans for the Downtown Recreation Complex were first presented to the Mayor and Council in mid-July. The plans for the new downtown park included expanding the present skate park, merging the essentially separate east and west parks into one, maintaining parking, eliminating the old baseball fields, and slowing traffic along St. Louis Ave. between 3rd and 4th streets. Further additions to the park included a gazebo and a green-space in the center of the skate park.
The plans originally called for the work to be done in two phases with plans to complete the skate park renovations, set for $1.8 million, separately. Ultimately, the decision was made to proceed with the project as one unit to save on time and money.
The Recreation and Parks Committee also suggested at that time that the Mayor and Council seek a written agreement from the County Commissioners for long-term use of the properties for recreation. The City Council said at that time that it did not anticipate the county having any problems with the long-term lease.
Gulyas explained this week that although the County Commissioners were aware that at least a 20-year bond would be needed for the project, the county attorney had made the recommendation for the 15-year lease.
On more than one occasion, the City Council as well as the Recreation and Parks Department Committee has voiced their desire for an extended lease or a 99-year lease that would guarantee full use of the property. The intention has been to obtain proper use of the property before investing in the nearly $4 million project.
When asked about the proposal for a 99-year lease, Gulyas explained that to her knowledge, the county had not been asked for a lease of that length. She did acknowledge however that the county was aware of the desire for a longer lease, but that County Attorney Ed Hammond had advised them that a long-term lease would not be feasible.
Gulyas appeared before the Mayor and Council earlier this month to discuss the proposed parking garage but faced questions on the status of the Downtown Recreation Complex and the lease with the County. The City Council explained to Gulyas at that time that the Downtown Recreation Complex project was hinging on the decision of the County over the lease. Gulyas told the council that she was unaware that the issue was still at bay.
Gulyas explained this week that she had contacted Gerald Mason, Chief Administrative Officer for the county, after the meeting with the Mayor and Council and requested that he fax over a proposal to the town immediately.
A reliable source commented on the 15-year lease proposal this week, confirming that the town had indeed received the lease and that it was far from what they had hoped for. According to the source, a 15-year lease is not feasible with the 20- to 30-year bond that would be needed to fund the project. The source also hinted that the tax differential, an issue that has also surfaced and strained relations between the town and the county for years, was hindering the lease agreement.
Although the source could not comment on how the town would proceed, officials were adamant that the 15-year lease was not one that they could work with or what they had originally planned for.
When asked about the tax differential being used as a bargaining chip, Gulyas said “tax differential hasn’t come before the County Commissioners yet or been discussed.”
Gulyas also maintained that she didn’t envision the 15-year lease being a problem for the town and that she hopes to see the project continue as planned in the near future.
City Solicitor Guy Ayres explained that he could not comment on the lease until it had been discussed with the Mayor and Council, but did confirm that a lease proposal had been received from the county. According to Ayres, the issue would most likely be presented to the Mayor and Council at the next executive session.