Downtown Plan Divides Salisbury Council

SALISBURY — After the Salisbury City Council chose not to move forward with proposals made by administration concerning downtown revitalization, the minority of council members chastised their colleagues for making the city unfriendly to business.

The council majority defended the direction Salisbury is heading and also charged the administration and the minority with throwing sand in the gears of government with constant infighting.

“I have made every positive overture and accommodation I have and will continue to do so, but will not serve as a rubber stamp,” said Council President Terry Cohen. “The mayor [Jim Ireton] pledged to work with five council members, but is only working with two.  The result has been a hard and difficult time sink for the council, but we have still managed to move forward on numerous issues.”

During a work session Monday, the council reviewed a number of proposals aimed at revitalization and bringing in new business. The first proposal to be floated by the council came in the form of a request for support from the Osprey Property Company.

Osprey Vice President Andrew Hanson came before the council asking for a letter of support to secure tax credits for River’s Edge, a rental complex that would consist of both affordable housing and more expensive units.

The River’s Edge project was projected by Hanson to generate 300 jobs during construction as well as 67 long-term jobs. The 120 apartment units would be available for between 30 and 60 percent of the area’s median income while the higher end units would cost 120 percent of median income, with a total average between them of $635.

While Hanson’s request for support was eventually accepted, there was some pushback from the council. Councilwoman Deborah Campbell wasn’t thrilled with the proposed location and stressed to Hanson that if she voted to support his effort to secure tax credits, that would be the extent of her backing.

While Hanson was satisfied with the council’s current support, he wouldn’t agree with Campbell’s request that Osprey not return to the council in the future for help with the project.

“Obviously we wouldn’t be speaking with you if we didn’t think it’s competitive,” he said of River’s Edge. “I can’t imagine it will be fair to say to you that we won’t come back and ask for anything in the future.”

Councilwoman Laura Mitchell criticized her colleagues for even suggesting that Hanson promise not to return.

“I think it would be unreasonable to ask for any of us to have a crystal ball,” she said.

The council next examined proposals recently made by Mayor Jim Ireton to revitalize Salisbury’s downtown. These include long-term projects like selling excess parking lots, setting up an EDU-free zone and addressing surplus properties, such as “The Bricks”, through tax sales or potential re-zoning.

After weeks of consideration, the council majority finally voted Monday to “focus on things we’re already doing,” according to Cohen, meaning Ireton’s proposals would stall out.

“These things will not move forward at this time,” she said.

As evidence that the city is onboard with productive business programs, Cohen cited some of the projects already available.

“The City of Salisbury has a number of economic development programs already in place, such as the Enterprise Zone, the Manufacturing Tax Exemption, the Downtown Revolving Loan Fund, and financial support for the Salisbury/Wicomico Economic Development Corp. (SWED),” she said.

But the perceived unwillingness to put business creation first for the city with the denial of several of Ireton’s proposals drew the ire of the council minority.

“I apologize to the business community because I think that it’s a damn shame,” said Mitchell.

Councilwoman Shanie Shields questioned the direction the city is going in appealing to businesses and suggested the council observe the steps being taken by Berlin.

“Their town is working for them,” she said.

Mitchell agreed, saying, “They’re making concessions. They’re doing what they need to do.”

Cohen reminded the council that Salisbury has taken its own strides in bringing in new companies.

“I don’t know enough yet about what Berlin offers or what success they’ve had and how that is measured, but looking at their website, I don’t see programs beyond what Salisbury offers,” she said. “They did provide a small tax break to the property where their new micro-brewery [is located].  Salisbury leveraged the code it already has and supported a modest change to state legislation to facilitate the reuse of an old building for the EVO brewery here.”

One edge that Berlin has that Cohen readily acknowledged is a more united government.

“Berlin’s mayor does not spend ridiculous amounts of time and taxpayer-paid staff resources in political press conferences bashing Berlin’s town commissioners,” she asserted. “Berlin’s council does not slap their town with negative, vague labels such as ‘business unfriendly.’  The reality in Salisbury is that there are a number of positive steps that the City Council has supported, but rather than invest in promoting those efforts, some would rather use the media for political purposes, always thinking about the next election.”