State Commits Funds To Convention Center Expansion

OCEAN CITY — The town of Ocean City received unanimous concurrence from the state’s Board of Public Works on Wednesday to expand the size of the Roland E. Powell Convention Center, after months of patient political positioning and preliminary project planning.

Mayor Rick Meehan, Council President Joe Mitrecic, City Engineer Terry McGean and Greg Shockley, owner of Shenanigans, representative of the town’s Tourism Commission and chairperson of the Maryland Tourism Development Board, traveled to Annapolis to plead their case why the state’s Stadium Authority should continue to partner with the town of Ocean City in a split of a planned $8.2 million expansion.

The Board of Public Works, which is comprised of Governor Martin O’Malley, Comptroller Peter Franchot, and Treasurer Nancy Kopp, voted unanimously to approve the sale of up to $4.8 million in bonds to fund the state’s part in the expansion of the Roland E. Powell Convention Center. In addition, the board also voted to refinance almost $8 million of the outstanding balance from the 1995 convention center expansion.

Council President Joe Mitrecic told The Dispatch on Wednesday that he was pleased with the results and was glad that the project had received the final nod of approval after months of speculation and cautious optimism.

“I’m glad we finally got the go-ahead to expand the convention center,” said Mitrecic. “In the end, I think they realized that it’s a project that is going to bring revenue to the town, the county and the state.”

What Wednesday’s decision does not do, however, is fund the planned 1,200-fixed seat performing arts auditorium that was the most controversial and perhaps the biggest selling point of the project when it passed at the Mayor and Council level last year.

McGean said that the town still has a few studies to do concerning the projected $1.6 million performing arts center portion of the project, which would essentially convert half of one of the existing exhibit halls into the auditorium.

Although it has been the strategy of town officials since the expansion project passed at the town level to essentially omit the performing arts center funding from the initial pitch to the Board of Public Works, McGean and others in the local hierarchy stress that the performing arts center will become a reality at some point, and the Stadium Authority may be queried as early as 2011 to split those projected costs as well.

McGean said that the planning of the 20,000-square-foot expansion, which will be added to the rear or bayside of the building, would begin immediately with Salisbury-based Becker Morgan Group signed on to handle the architectural designs.

The design portion of the project will reportedly take six months with the construction hinted to be almost 18 months to build a glass-enclosed ballroom that many on the Mayor and City Council say will “finally take advantage of the amazing bayfront views that we have been seemingly wasting with a loading dock in that portion of the building,” as per Councilwoman Mary Knight at a 2009 City Council meeting.

“To put it into perspective, the first floor of the convention center is about 50,000 square feet of space, and the upstairs exhibit hall is about 20,000, and we are going to be building an additional 20,000 onto the back portion of the building,” said McGean. “The performing arts auditorium would take about half of the existing exhibit space.”

Meehan surprisingly stated at the end of Monday night’s council meeting at City Hall his almost overwhelming confidence that the project would be approved on Wednesday and his proverbial prediction did not disappoint when brought before the Board of Public Works.

Ocean City’s portion of the funding for the convention center expansion is accounted for by the half of a percent food and beverage tax, which was created during the last convention center expansion in 1995 to solely repay the debt incurred by the project.

It should also be noted that the food and beverage tax was cut in half when the Mayor and Council approved the expansion project last year after determining that the project could be sufficiently funded with just a half percent tax. It had been 1 percent since that large expansion in 1995.