Proposed Convention Center Bond Raises Questions

OCEAN CITY – Tempers flared at the end of Tuesday’s three-hour City Council work session, over recommendations to “get authority to borrow” up to $10 million to upgrade the Roland E. Powell Convention Center, before a single sketch drawing had ever been seen.

“What the hell are we doing here?,” asked a visibly frustrated Councilman Jim Hall. “We haven’t seen a drawing or a sketch or a blueprint of this apparent expansion, and if I were to vote for this motion, and someone were to ask me on the street what I just voted for, I wouldn’t know what to tell them.”

The council voted 3-3 in President Joe Mitrecic’s absence, squashing a proposal by Finance Administrator Martha Lucey to apply for a bank qualified bond, which would obtain a favorable interest rate, which according to Lucey, “needs to be decided on by Nov. 12 so you would qualify to borrow the money by the end of the year.”

The $10 million price tag is not for the proposed expansion, but rather, according to Lucey, is “the limit a municipality can issue in bank qualified debt per calendar year.  The state legislature authorized $5 million in additional debt for the convention center.”

According to City Manager Dennis Dare, who added, “With the amount of business conventions that come to Ocean City, we may need to upgrade the ‘networktivity’ and technical aspects of the convention center rather than an expansion.”

Councilman Joe Hall saw no need for expansion citing that the building was “fully operational” and most of the time “people drive by and see the parking lot two thirds empty.”

 Councilman Doug Cymek urged Hall to hear Lucey’s entire proposal, saying, “No one is trying to spend $10 million right now, Joe, this just reserves us the right to borrow it if we choose to do these upgrades later on.”

City Engineer Terry McGean, who apologized to the council for being “a bit behind Martha on the project,” is scheduled to bring the plans for the proposed upgrade/expansion to the convention center on Monday night.

The Monday meeting proposal seemed to particularly annoy Jim Hall further.

“I’m not even sure this is something we should be talking about in a one-hour Monday night meeting.  This is a major issue, and one that the public has a vested interest in,” he said. “We need to look at it closer than to just hear it at a Monday meeting.”

Councilman Lloyd Martin, who ran the meeting for the absent Mitrecic, said, “we’ll know next week what we are going to be spending money on, but limiting our ability to borrow is the wrong thing to do in this case.”

The specifics of Lucey’s proposal asked for an authorization to issue bonds to get the maximum $10 million in debt from the state by the filing date of Dec. 27. 

“I don’t want you to miss the window to get bank qualified because that is the best rate possible,” she said.

Dare called the bonds “another tool in the box” for upgrades to the center, which was last expanded in 1995, when Ocean City’s partnership with the State of Maryland and the one-cent food tax came into play. When sufficient funds from food tax receipts are accumulated to pay off the $15 million 1995 bonds, state participation in the convention center ends. In April 2008, the state increased the debt limit to $20 million.

Monday’s meeting will see the story unfold further, but some on the council thought that Lucey’s urgency to gain the town good interest rates was a ploy to get the project approved quickly.

“To say we have to do this quick, and vote it through around Thanksgiving and Christmas feels like a big rush job”, said Jim Hall. “If I’m going to vote for something, I’d like to at least see what I’m voting for.”