County Lease Offer Could Renew Downtown Park Talks

OCEAN CITY — The alleged love loss between the county and the town of Ocean City may not be improving any time soon, as a newly proposed lease agreement reportedly reads much like the ones denied in the past.

Two years after tempers flared concerning a proposed lease agreement between the town of Ocean City and Worcester County for the property on 3rd Street where the Oceanbowl skate park, ball fields and basketball courts are located, Worcester County has sent another offer to City Manager Dennis Dare for a reported 25-year agreement.

Although Dare would not release the letter prior to it being presented and discussed with the Mayor and City Council, he did say that the lease looks “much different than what the town has offered the county for use of our land in the past.”

Simply put, the 3rd Street park and associated amenities sit on land owned by the county, even though the town of Ocean City has always handled the maintenance and upkeep of the facility itself. 

Dare said that there has never been a lease agreement between the town and the county for the property, and in order for proposed improvements to be made to the site, Dare hinted that a lease agreement might be necessary.

“They basically offered a 25-year lease, and we had asked for a long-term lease agreement because we would like to make the park much nicer for people in Ocean City, but in order to pay for it, we’d probably have to go to the bond market, and I don’t think we could do that without a lease agreement,” Dare said.

In 2007, the county had offered a 15- year lease agreement, but the town tabled the projected $3.75 million improvements to the 3rd Street location on the grounds of their desires for an agreement to at the very least, be for 20 years, since the bond that would have to be sold to pay for the project would be a 20-year bond.

Dare said that the project, as proposed back in 2007, includes an expansion of the skate park, a rebuilding of the basketball courts and the essential creation of a recreational park (to be called the Downtown Recreation Complex or DRC) in place of the current baseball diamond.

“Right now, it’s a ball field with a fence around it, and we’d really like to make it more versatile for the downtown area,” said Dare. “We’d still like to keep some sort of an athletic field, but also spruce it up a little to make it a very nice park.  Someday that will happen, but right now, the question is whether or not we can even afford to do it.”

Plans to transform the area into the new park would also call for the closing of Chicago Avenue between 3rd and 4th streets, according to Dare, as well as doing a bit of work on St. Louis Ave. in the same area.

St. Louis Ave., which is currently about 48 feet wide between the east and west sections of the park, and boasts two traffic lanes, two bike lanes, parallel parking and 25 feet of sidewalks, would have to be narrowed to 30 feet, eliminating parking and providing for a shorter walk across the road from one area of the park to the other. It would also provide for a so-called calming of the traffic in that area, according to town officials.

Regardless, the plans for the project have been tabled since 2007, and seemingly are contingent upon the county and the town coming to some sort of a long-term agreement on the property in question.

Council President Joe Mitrecic pointed to several examples where the town has seemingly allowed the county to use its land for projects (such as the library branch on 100th Street in Ocean City) and wonders why the county is not offering a similar deal.

“I still think that the downtown park is a huge project that needs to be done for not only the downtown area of Ocean City, but also for the town as a whole,” said Mitrecic. “I don’t agree with the way they choose to do business in the county, and I think it’s just a matter of them looking at things differently than we do.  But, as long as the town continues to pick up the slack, they are going to keep doing business this way.”

Mitrecic sees a glaring similarity between the recent denial of a financial contribution or involvement from the county regarding the recently approved Ayres Creek kayak launch, which sits on the town-owned former landfill that is located in the heart of the county, and the ongoing distance between the two parties concerning the 3rd Street property lease agreement.

Mitrecic argues that while the town has always paid for and handled the costs to upkeep the county-owned 3rd Street complex in Ocean City, the resort has also absorbed the costs of having to upkeep and maintain the town-owned Ayres Creek landfill, which is located in the county.

“We had to jump through hoops and spend lots of money to get that landfill cleaned up and approved by the MDE [Maryland Department of Environment], but when the kayak venture came forward they didn’t want anything to do with it,” said Mitrecic. “The county is going to put that kayak launch in all of its brochures and advertisements as a new amenity for the entire county, and they will all be at the ribbon cutting ceremony like it was their idea, but they refused to pay for anything.”

Neither Dare nor Mitrecic is willing to speculate on how the entire council will react to the county’s newly proposed lease agreement, but until the Mayor and Council return from holiday break, it appears that the county and the town are still at odds over a seemingly simple “give and take” which, at least in theory, could benefit both parties and the public at large.