Council’s Inaction May Jeopardize Skate Park Grant

SALISBURY — Complaints that the Salisbury City Council and the public were left out of the loop in applying for a grant for a new skate park, as well as the desire for a better location, continued this week with the City Council still divided during their second work session discussing the issue. However, as some feared, the grant givers have expressed unease with Salisbury’s hesitation to accept more than $250,000 in funding.

Offered by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the $262,000 grant would be used to fund Phase 1 of a new skate park in town, if accepted. When first alerted to Salisbury being offered the money earlier this month, the council majority had immediate concerns about the proposed site near South Park Drive. Additionally, several showed frustration that the grant application was conducted and approved without going on the council’s radar first.

“The problem, I think, is in the process,” said Council President Terry Cohen last week. “By the time it comes to us, everything is a done deal and we’re the villain because we’re not ready to rubberstamp it.”

Councilman Tim Spies chastised the administration for leaving the council “behind … and out of the process” in not just this but all community grants.

“I want to stop having this situation occur … I want to know where it’s going to go way ahead of time,” he said.

Cohen explained that she would like to see the grant process between administration and council become “more collaborative than confrontational.” Councilwoman Laura Mitchell, however, said that she found it hard to believe that no one besides her on the council was aware of the grant application.

“We have some responsibility to find out things ourselves,” she told her colleagues, adding that she was “baffled” by the council majority’s claims to have been completely in the dark. The point was reinforced by Councilwoman Shanie Shields, who said she was aware of the process going on but that even if she wasn’t, approving every single grant application before it goes out is not the council’s job.

“I don’t think we need to look at every grant that comes through here … here we go again, micromanaging,” said Shields.

Spies, however, was dismissive of the assertion that the grant was common knowledge.

“It’s been on such a backburner that we didn’t know if it was lit,” he told Shields.

Regardless of the opinion on whether the council knew about the grant or even if it needed to know, Mitchell stressed that the past was over and by delaying acceptance of the money the city risked losing the hefty DNR grant. Community Development Director Debbie Stam had raised a similar point at the council’s last work session, a worry that has been validated by representatives of DNR recently.

An email from a DNR spokesperson to Stam confirmed that the agency is both surprised and far from thrilled with the city’s hesitation to accept the funds.

“This recent turn of events makes us question your ability to conduct the project in a timely fashion,” said DNR representative Margaret Lasher.

Despite DNR’s concerns, Cohen was adamant that she wasn’t willing to compromise on what she viewed as a location with baggage just to protect the funding. She cited fears some in the South Park Drive harbored about the amount of traffic such a park could generate and the safety of both residents and skateboarders. Cohen hope an agreement with Wicomico County to use a parcel of land near the proposed South Park Drive spot can still be worked out.

Neither Stam nor Salisbury Skate Park Committee representative Bobby Schaller were swayed by Cohen’s reasoning, however. Both pointed out that if the city is always looking for a better property the park will never get built.

“I don’t think that we’re ever going to find a magical perfect site that nobody on the planet has any objection to,” Stam told the council.

Schaller agreed and asserted that “the grass is always greener on the other side.” He urged the council to not think about the politics of the issue and instead just strive to improve the city.

“We have the chance to improve our community. Give Salisbury citizens a reason to stay in Salisbury,” pleaded Schaller.

Cohen was steadfast in the point that it’s not politics but an issue of a less than ideal site that is bothering the council. At this point, an official appeal will be forwarded to the county asking for the land to be donated to the city. If that is turned down, the council has not yet determined whether they’d be willing to move ahead with the South Park Drive site or if they’d reject the grant money.

As a parting note, Spies asked Schaller and the skating community to “stop with the emails” asking the council to support the skate park. Spies reminded the room that the council does unanimously support a skate park, there’s just some disagreement over the location. Cohen interjected that Spies request shouldn’t be viewed as a stop-order against the public contacting the council but instead as an appeal for them to understand the issue.