SALISBURY – An extensive public hearing was held on Tuesday morning before the Wicomico County Council regarding the donation of land to expand the Henry S. Parker Athletic Complex.
The hearing was on the resolution to accept the donation of property from the City of Salisbury, consisting of 34.94 acres located on the north side of Naylor Mill Rd., adjacent to the Henry S. Parker Athletic Complex (HPAC) for the purpose of expanding the sports facility.
Wicomico Recreation, Parks and Tourism Director Gary Mackes presented Wicomico’s tourism book now consists of 35 amateur sports events that have generated $43.1 million in economic activity. This is composed of 30,000 hotel room nights and close to 200,000 visitors. Compared to the previous year, Wicomico’s tourism initiative has grown by 10 percent.
Currently, Wicomico County utilizes HPAC as the hub for 15 regional events held in the county. Some events are so large that they exceed the county’s field and lodging capacity. In fact, the summer World Series event uses 21 fields and lodging demand has grown 50 percent in Ocean City.
With fiscal year 2014 ending on June 30, the total economic activity generated by these events was marked at $26.2 million with a direct economic impact of $16.4 million in direct spending of lodging, food, retail, transportation and entertainment. The indirect economic activity is an additional $9.8 million annually. Indirect impact is spending derived by those who benefited from direct spending, such as employee compensation, goods, supplies and services.
This growth in sporting events has also mobilized a partnership with Ocean City and Worcester County to form the Mid-Atlantic Amateur Sports Alliance to leverage all assets, such as facilities and accommodations to event organizers. The counties are the first in the nation to put together a sports alliance.
.Staff has the confidence with an expanded complex that is estimated to be completed in 2017 it will bring at least 10 additional events and increase in economic activity from $26.2 million to $32.2 million with an annual growth of 25 percent.
By 2020, the county will benefit from additional growth of 15 percent, or $5 million, to an accumulative total of $11 million, or 40 percent when compared to the present.
Currently, the HPAC has four softball fields with three lighted, one lighted baseball field, four lighted soccer fields, two full service concession stands with restroom facilities, a shaded playground area, plenty of spectator seating and free parking for 720 vehicles.
The expansion will add four baseball/softball fields with two being lighted and four more soccer fields as well as increase parking capacity. Sports organizers target “fields of eight” when looking to book venues, Mackes explained.
Brock Parker of Parker and Associates, which designed the expansion, reviewed the environmental impacts involved with the expansion that included existing bike trails in the area, forest conservation, stormwater management and sediment control, protecting the paleochannel and regulatory compliance. All items are on the radar as the plans for the expansion move forward.
So far $3.7 million has been dedicated to the expansion between county and state funding. The county has budgeted $1.4 million in the current Capital Improvement Plan with $450,000 coming from tourism surplus. The state has already committed $1 million with an $850,000 grant in the works, leaving $350,000 more to complete the funding.
The first to come before the council and the only voice of concern was local environmentalist Sam Gibson.
“This is a nice bio-diverse forest, an old growth forest, where you have oaks, pines and every kind of wild life and trees existing there now. You go to other forests in the area all you see is loblolly pines, and that is not conducive to great bio-diversity for our environment, for our stormwater drainage, for water retention, and all the other stuff that impacts the wetlands that occurs in that area and the paleochannel,” Gibson said.
Gibson specifically addressed the biking trails that have been developed and maintained by the Eastern Shore International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) within the forest surrounding HPAC unbeknownst to the city prior to the evaluation of the land for the purpose of expansion.
“These trails are probably the best trails that we have for hiking, walking and mountain biking and to destroy those while we have plenty of flatland that we can build something comparable to, it doesn’t make sense environmentally,” he said.
Local hotelier Bak Patel stressed the economic impact the expansion would bring to the county.
“We have a pretty saturated hotel market here in the area, but if we don’t hold events like this it will greatly impact our hotels’ ability to collect room tax that supports over 300-400 jobs in the area. With this expansion, we will be able to hold events, create a greater economic stimulate to our area, generate a lot more tax dollars, and support the local community,” he said.
Stewart Davis spoke on behalf of Local Owner Restaurant Association (LORA).
“The economic input that it has for us as far as restaurateurs and individual privately owned restaurants is of great, great value. People that come to the shore want to find out what Eastern Shore food is like, and what we do down here other than the big box stores. We have the opportunity here to generate a lot of business,” he said.
According to Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce Chair Tony Nichols, the chamber reviewed the expansion by asking three questions; is it good for the chamber? Is it good for the community? Is there a return on investment?
“A return on investment from the chamber’s perspective doesn’t necessarily mean a monetary investment but is there an intellectual return on investment? Are people growing? How does it benefit the individual and businesses? We can answer yes to all of those things … with this in mind the chamber supports the Henry S. Parker complex expansion,” he said.
Anne Webster, manager of the Country Inn and Suites and the Holiday Inn Express, has taken the time to speak to guests in town for sports tournaments and the most common response received is they want the tournaments to be more centralized.
“I don’t think people understand how many people are here today representing the tourism industry that is pro having the expansion done to bring more jobs,” she said. “You represent us as a whole, as a county, and the best interest in bringing the most money in, creating the jobs, looking at things in a positive aspect, this will do it. This will make us the place where people want to come.”
Councilwoman Sheree Sample-Hughes questioned a letter from Salisbury Council President Jake Day that speaks to a potential Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Eastern Shore IMBA that would make it responsible for maintaining the bike trails surrounding the complex.
According to Mackes, a MOU is a moot point until the council approved the donation of land.
“I would hope that they continue the stewardship. They have for years. In all honesty, that land was developed without permission, and all of a sudden it became an existing condition because the people who had interest in that pursuit developed and are maintaining those trails, so I would be amazed they don’t continue that act of stewardship no matter what we do,” he said.
Councilman John Hall visited HPAC on Sunday with a friend who is an environmentalist.
“What we understood was 40 percent of the forest will be clear cut that is not all old growth but it is bio-diverse, there is no question about it. One of the statements provided by the city is to protect older and significant trees wherever possible, and I feel we are responsible enough that we are actually going to do this. We have an agreement with the city to do the best we can with the trails that exist … we have been asked to look at this from a holistic point of view. We have talked about the environmental impact, about the economy, about the athletics, about the whole project and we have vetted it completely from a holistic point of view, and I think it is the right thing to do,” he said.
Councilman Bob Culver asked the council to slow down with the decision until further environmental studies can be conducted and the MOU with the Eastern Shore IMBA is finalized.
“We all know government doesn’t move fast, so let’s just slow down a little bit and address concerns,” he said.
Councilman Joe Holloway was in agreement with Culver in waiting or the MOU to be final, as well as questioned why the Westside Park that has 100 acres of clear land could not be developed into athletic fields.
“We are very conscious of money,” Mackes said. “To duplicate Henry Parker and everything there you are talking $8 to $10 million plus. When we go in a farm field with no trees it is going to take 20 to 30 years to get that character that Henry Parker already has. I can’t say this enough. Fields of eight is what these event organizers want.”
The remainder of the council was ready to move forward with approval.
“I am pleased to hear we have taken the maximum requirements necessary with Maryland Department of Environment in really looking at the concerns over soil and water, so at this juncture and working with those regulations it has eased some of my concerns. However, I know that regulations don’t always speak to what can happen in the future,” Sample-Hughes said. “I frequent the complex with my son playing soccer, and on a Saturday morning I am pleased and proud to see the level of comradery from the citizens in the community. It is a good feeling to see everyone out there improving the quality of life on the Eastern Shore. It is important to continue that way of life here. I see us moving in a direction economically, but I also see this on a social life with families continuing to bond and build relationships in a facility such as this.”
The council voted 5-2 with Culver and Holloway in opposition to accept the donation of property from the City for the expansion of the HPAC.