BERLIN — The former poultry processing plant property in Berlin has become the topic of a lot of recent conversations, and the question is whether the property owner and the Town of Berlin would consider turning the 60-acre space into a park or recreational area.
Without making any guarantees, the Berlin Mayor and Council have indicated that the option is possible and a hard look will be taken at the unused site soon after the town’s budget is put to rest this spring.
Left empty for more than a decade, the old Tyson Foods plant property on Old Ocean City Blvd. has been an unproductive splotch on an otherwise booming Berlin. Over the years, numerous strategies for how to revitalize the site have been pitched to the town with no real progress made. Interest spiked last week, however, when a new development plan called “Tyson’s Park” began to make the rounds.
Featuring fair grounds, indoor and outdoor sports courts and fields, an activity trail, club house, amphitheater, skate park, bandstand and multiple piers, the Tyson’s Park plan is a combination of many of the most popular recreational amenities suggested to the town over the last few years. The idea to turn the Tyson property into a park has gotten a lot of attention in Berlin, although it’s nothing more than a simple concept at this point that will take time and money to make happen.
The plan was developed by Vista Design, Inc. but does not include any indication of why it was created in the first place or what the possible cost of such a massive project might be. As of today, Vista has not returned a call for comment as to why the company put the design together.
Converting the property into a park with a variety of recreational facilities would definitely be an improvement, said Mayor Gee Williams.
“I certainly think it would be a much better use of the land for the benefit of the community then going back to some commercial use,” he said, “particularly like ones that we’ve had in the past. I think that it was necessary in its day but I think that the town has changed dramatically since the 50s and up until 10 years ago roughly when Tyson finally closed the plant.”
Something similar to “Tyson’s Park” could happen sooner rather than later. While the Tyson’s Park plan drawn up by Vista seems to have been by and large just a tool to set tongues wagging, Williams confirmed that the council will be looking at the unused property this spring with the intent of making some progress and charting a course.
“As soon as we get this budget squared away for the immediate fiscal year then I think that, along with other projects, we can move them to the front of the line, in terms of getting input and finding out what would be necessary and what are the possibilities and what are the procedures that would be tied into something like that,” the mayor said.
A park similar to what is proposed in the Vista plan is possible but Williams pointed out that anything that massive would have to be done in small steps and that the “low hanging fruit” will be the first target. He also clarified that while a park has been a popular suggestion for the property, and one that he has heard often, he is open to all ideas.
“The key is, I think, having the community conversation, finding out what it is that will require resources and have a strategic plan,” said the mayor.
But whatever the end use of the site, Williams said the community is clear that something needs to be done and soon. Suggestions on how to use the vacant property have increased in just the last few months and especially since Berlin won Budget Travel’s Coolest Small Town in America 2014 title.
“There has been so many more people mention that to me than any other single project, at least, particularly in the last year,” said Williams. “And it has only accelerated since the ‘coolest’ designation. So there’s obviously a grassroots interest in this.”
And Berlin could use more natural space, according to Patricia Dufendach, chair of the Parks Commission.
“We’re always asking for increased space for parks, places for new kinds of parks,” she said. “But it’s all about money and available land. But here’s a piece of land.”
However, the issue is more complicated than just wanting land and having a huge slice available, Dufendach continued.
“I’d hate to put the town in a position where they’re bad guys if it doesn’t go through because we all want the same thing,” she said.
The matter has not been formally brought to the Parks Commission either, so while Dufendach said that she’s always in favor of more park space in town, the group can’t take any kind of official stance on Tyson’s Park at this time because it’s simply a hypothetical.
“It has not come before the Parks Commission, for one thing. And even if we talk about it, it’s not a real presentation. It was brought up,” she said. “[Town councilmember] Lisa Hall brought the idea to us and we bandied it about as neighbors bandy about ideas. But we really can’t take a formal position other than to say that we look forward to having more parks, more places for people to enjoy the outdoors.”
For her part, Hall has made it no secret that she’s in favor of turning the former Tyson property into some kind of productive use for the town, potentially something recreation based. She suggested during a Parks Commission meeting last October that the property would make a good site for a skate park. This week she also pointed out that recreation uses in that area could be a boon for the town and act as a “funding mechanism.”
“It would just be another funding mechanism for the town with the amphitheater that would fund the town which would then in turn prevent property taxes from increasing,” she said.
Besides recreation, there is a stormwater aspect to the Vista plan worth considering, added Hall. The plan features several large bodies of water that could be used for stormwater management.
“We could pipe that under the ground into those ponds. So that’s another thing,” she said. “It’s not all just about the activities and the sports and recreation and the amphitheater and all that kind of stuff. It could really help us with the infrastructure part of the stormwater.”
Though there is enthusiasm for the Tyson’s Park plan, there is some question of how the town would go about purchasing the property as it is owned by Troy Purnell, who also sits on the Town Council. As there is an obvious conflict of interest, the council has to walk on eggshells during the process, admitted Williams.
“That’s one of the things that we would have to know and be fully educated on before we could take any kind of formal action,” he said.
The ethics commission will be asked to look into the matter and the solution could be as simple as barring Purnell from discussing or voting on any matter related to the sale of the former Tyson plant property to the town. Transparency will be critical if the town does decide to make any move toward acquiring the property, the mayor promised.
Purnell also did not return a call Monday for comment regarding the proposed Tyson’s Park.
As the concept circulates in the community, Hall has asked citizens to express their feelings. One such individual was Washington Street resident Steve Farr, who favored the property being developed “into what could be an incredible community resource.”
“The economic, recreational and environmental opportunities for our community associated with this site are tremendous, and the alternative industrial development scenarios are troubling,” Farr said. “I understand there is a need to resolve potential conflict of interest issues with respect to the current property owner’s position on the Town Council, but surely these can be resolved. I also understand and fully support the need to undertake thoughtful and thorough feasibility, economic impact and facility/land planning studies. Equally important will be a robust community outreach effort to ensure the property is developed in a manner that reflects what all sectors of the town want and need.”