Details Emerge On Center Upgrade Process

OCEAN CITY – The devil might be in the details about whether the City Council will approve the proposed $5 million upgrade to the Convention Center, but there seems to be one facet that has been overlooked until now.

City Solicitor Guy Ayres recently sent a letter to the Mayor and City Council informing them that even if they decide to approve the first phase of the upgrade/expansion, they would need to ask Worcester County to amend a 1996 resolution capping the amount of money that Ocean City was allowed to borrow during the last expansion at $15 million.

“Last year, the Mayor and City Council went before the General Assembly and asked for the right to borrow an additional $5 million in bonds and they were granted that and the deal was amended,” said Ayres; “The county, however, still has not amended their original resolution which says $15 million, and Mayor and City Council would have to get them to increase the amount from $15 million principal plus interest to read $20 million principle plus interest.”

Ayres explained that there is a state constitutional law that prohibits a single municipality from holding a single tax, such as the food and beverage tax that adds a penny to the state sales tax on every dollar spent in town. The conduit that enables Ocean City to enjoy the aforementioned food tax is the fact that Worcester County was one of two counties that met all the conditions to be granted taxing power, which in essence, means they collect the tax and award Ocean City the money, according to Ayres.

The convention center expansion debate has seemingly split the council as Jim Hall, Joe Hall and Margaret Pillas have all voiced their disdain on the platforms of timeliness, cost and necessity since City Engineer Terry McGean and Tourism Director Mike Noah pitched the idea in late November.

“The upgrades to the heating, water and electrical components of the building makes sense to me,” said Councilman Joe Hall. “Enclosing the back deck and making a bay front dining hall makes sense to me, as does providing wireless capabilities for computers, but I don’t buy the merits of a business center or a performing arts center. I haven’t been sold on that yet.”

It seems that the main gripe from opponents of the expansion is the proposed 1,700-seat performing art center space that would take up half of the main ballroom, vastly altering the current space, but only losing a mere 2,000 square feet in total exhibit space when one accounts for the square footage being gained by enclosing and redoing the back deck area, according to McGean’s proposal.

Opponents like Hall, say that “cutting that space in half when the Crossroads study says we need more exhibit space, seems like the wrong bang for our buck”, and a few exhibitors that use that space, namely reps from the Seaside Boat Show and custom car show initially complained about the idea, but later had a “change of heart once it was explained to them further”, according to Noah.

The council, on the other hand, voted to have Mayor Rick Meehan draft a letter to send to the Maryland Stadium Authority (MSA) requesting a continued partnership with this new part of the convention center expansion. The MSA is the 50/50 partner in the convention center and is scheduled to pay off its part of the $15 million bond in 2015. In comparison, Ayres said that Ocean City would have enough money to pay off the initial $15 million in borrowed bond money from the 1996 expansion by March 1, 2009.

Proponents of the expansion, like Councilwoman Mary Knight, say that because the expansion would be paid for by the food tax, thus not effecting taxpayers directly, she feels that it’s a necessary expenditure for the town to undertake at this time.

“You may spend $5 million, but even if it only makes $10 million, that’s a good investment,” Knight said. “This doesn’t raise taxes, and it doesn’t take money from the general fund, and it will help bring things to the area like performing arts that people want to see.”

In the council’s last work session, Knight motioned to go forward with the proposal for the $5 million expansion and in the opinion of some on the council and in the audience, had the majority vote to get it passed, but chose rather, to pull the motion off the table.

“I thought it was too important of an issue to see a 4-3 vote. If council members have questions, then that means their constituents probably do as well, and we weren’t ready to vote on it on that evening. I think we’ll get a stronger vote than 4-3 in the end,” she said.

Both sides of the issue seem to be gaining some sort of public support as Joe Hall claims that “almost 8 of 10 people” he talks to support his opposition of the expansion/upgrade and Knight and Meehan have been receiving personal nods of approval on the issue from citizens.

Meehan feels the county will cooperate on the food tax situation and that formality should not be made into a big issue and should not increase the pressure for the council to make a decision one way or another.

“If in fact we decide to move forward, I think the county will work with us, as they have in the past. I think we still have a lot of discussion that needs to be done and we have about a 90-day window to weigh all the pros and cons,” Meehan said.

Worcester County would need to amend the resolution by March 1 in order for Ocean City to get the bond of $5 million if the City Council decides to green light the project, and a “game changer” in the debate, at least for Joe Hall, would be if the MSA decided to partner with the town and split the cost of the $5 million.

Meehan praised Knight for pulling the motion off the table at the last meeting calling it a “responsible thing to do at this stage in the discussion” and mentioned that in the end, the key will be to inform the public about the details of the plan and erase misconceptions of the project thus far.

“Everyone keeps calling it a performing arts center, which makes people think it’s a grandiose stand-alone facility. In reality, the proposal calls for an auditorium or multi-purpose room that would be able to host a number of different events including performing arts. I think that fact is getting lost in everybody doing the Ben Franklin scale of weighing pros and cons”, he said.

Council President Joe Mitrecic said that he is going to try and hold the issue off the agenda for at least a week or two to give the MSA time to respond to Meehan’s letter.

“We need to weigh all the options and make the best decision for the town and not make a decision based on the advancement of personal agendas,” Meehan said.