UPDATE: Commissioners Vote 4-3 To Help Fund Proposed Arena Study

UPDATE: Commissioners Vote 4-3 To Help Fund Proposed Arena Study
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SNOW HILL — While the project is merely conceptual at this point, Worcester County officials this week agreed to fund in part the further study of a potential 6,200-seat multi-purpose arena.

Worcester County Economic Development Director Bill Badger on Tuesday presented the County Commissioners with a proposal from Texas-based Hat Trick Consultants about the possibility of developing a multi-purpose sports arena that could be home to a minor league hockey team and would host, for example, regional high school and college sports events, boxing matches, conventions, concerts, graduations and other events. Hat Trick has already conducted its own feasibility study for the proposed arena in Worcester with favorable results, and the next step in what would likely be a lengthy process would be a similar study conducted by the Maryland Stadium Authority (MSA), which would be the state partner in the private-public partnership.

The MSA study would validate Hat Trick’s own study and would also review the impact of the project on surrounding MSA investments, including the Roland E. Powell Convention Center’s new Performing Arts Center, which just opened, and the Wicomico Youth and Civic Center, for example. Badger on Tuesday urged the commissioners to fund Worcester’s portion of the MSA study, and after considerable debate, the commissioners agreed to pony up its $12,000 portion.

The breakdown for the MSA study, estimated in a range of $15,000 to $20,000, would be 60 percent for the county and 40 percent for the state, although Hat Trick has agreed to contribute $5,000 toward the additional MSA study.

Badger told the commissioners Hat Trick contacted his department about the possibility of a 6,200-seat sports and multi-purpose arena last summer. With a minor league hockey franchise as its centerpiece, Hat Trick projects the arena to host as many as 125 events per year with over 400,000 attendees. Hat Trick projects the facility would support an additional 100 full-time jobs and would contribute a direct economic impact of $19 million per year to the county. Interestingly, Badger said Hat Trick, which has built similar arenas all over the country and is always looking for new locations, fixated on the greater Ocean City area after watching another significant event in the resort last summer.

“It’s interesting how they picked the Ocean City area,” he said. “They watched the Dew Tour on television and thought to themselves ‘oh my, what an opportunity.’ I would hope we would proceed at least with a study. They seem very legitimate and the idea has merit.”

Hat Trick envisions bringing a minor league hockey team to Worcester as the primary tenant for the new facility, likely a “AA” level team in a major developmental league for the NHL. Hat Trick currently owns the rights to the Brahmas hockey club, which will play in either the Eastern Hockey League (EHL) or the Central Hockey League (CHL), both of which play at the AA professional level.

Hat Trick projects a 6,200-seat arena that could be expanded to 8,000 seats for larger events. In addition, the venue would feature outdoor sports and athletics fields to host regional events, a business park and some retail elements. Of course, the potential location was a big question for the County Commissioners on Tuesday. Hat Trick’s presentation simply puts the arena complex location within the limits of Worcester County visible to a major interchange.

Clearly, the company is hoping to take advantage of the millions who visit the resort area, suggesting the location would be in the north end of Worcester. While it didn’t cite a particular location, Hat Trick is looking in the area where the existing infrastructure could support the facility, likely in the area of the Routes 50 and 113. However, some county commissioners winced at the idea of another “jewel” for the north end.

“We need another leg in Worcester County and we need to grow in all areas,” said Commissioner Merrill Lockfaw, who represents the Pocomoke area. “We can’t keep putting all of our eggs in one basket. We need something else on this end, and we need to focus on a little wide range. Nothing against Ocean City, I’m in full favor of a study, but let’s try to move something down this way.”

Commissioner Joe Mitrecic, who represents Ocean City, said the north end was the likely landing spot for the potential facility because of the existing highway network and the proximity to the resort area.

“I don’t disagree with the need to make the county whole,” he said. “Probably the best location would be somewhere in the area of the Route 50 and Route 113 intersection. I don’t know what they’re thinking, but that’s what I would do. I’m just not sure Pocomoke and Snow Hill have the infrastructure to support this. I do think it’s a great idea though.”

Whatever potential location is chosen, Hat Trick certainly has an ambitious schedule in mind for the new facility. The company projects construction would start in the summer of 2015 with a targeted completion date of fall 2016, in time for the 2016-2017 hockey season. Of course, the project is merely conceptual and even completing the appropriate studies by this summer seems far-fetched, much less what will likely be an extensive process for zoning, permitting, public hearings, water and sewer considerations and myriad of other hurdles.

Commissioner Diana Purnell also questioned the possible location and asked Badger who had been involved in the initial conceptual meetings. Badger told the commissioners he had preliminary meetings with Hat Trick along with other stakeholders, including, among others, Realtor Peck Miller and Ocean City Chamber Executive Director Melanie Pursel.

“Everything is going north and nothing is coming south,” said Purnell. “You said they met with community stakeholders. What community stakeholders? We need to be up front about the budget. Do the study, but don’t put us on the hook for the full amount.”

The facility is expected to cost in the $40 million to $50 million range, which would be funded by a private-public partnership including Hat Trick, the state of Maryland and Worcester. Badger said the onus would be on Hat Trick to develop the facility with some investment from the state and county.

“It would have to be a public-private partnership, but Worcester County is not going to be the savior on the financial end,” he said. “We made it very clear from the beginning there would not be a big financial commitment from the county.”

In one of the lighter moments during the discussion, Purnell referenced the private company’s name.

“I know hat trick is a hockey term, but I don’t like any tricks when it comes to the county budget,” she said.

Commissioner Chip Bertino, who represents Ocean Pines, said he would like further exploratory meetings with Hat Trick before committing the county to the project and voiced some concern over the possible impact on traffic.

“I would like a presentation for the commissioners,” he said. “I’d really like to meet these folks. I’m not entirely comfortable with this. I have real concerns about traffic, particularly along Route 589 and Ocean Pines.”

Badger explained any future arena development would take traffic issues into consideration.

“Whatever happens, they would not take an existing traffic problem and make it worse,” he said. “They would be very careful with the location. As far as a presentation, they’re very anxious to move forward and I’m certain they’d be glad to meet with you.”

The discussion went back again to the location and consideration for a possible south end site.

“I’m reluctant to support this,” said Lockfaw. “I really think we need to consider the south end. The property would be much easier to acquire. We keep funding study after study, but we’re not seeing anything go to the south end.”

Commissioner Ted Elder made a pitch for a possible Snow Hill location.

“The Snow Hill area needs this more than the north end or even the south end,” he said. “The traffic situation in Snow Hill will be better when Route 113 is finished, the real estate situation is favorable and we might even have that excursion train coming by at some time in the future.”

In addition, the commissioners appeared bent on meeting the Hat Trick consultants in person before committing even to the MSA study, but Mitrecic said the information provided already was solid enough to commit the $12,000 to the MSA study.

“To make them fly up here might be overkill,” he said. “Everything you need to know at this point is in the packet.”

The commissioners voted 4-3 to approve the county’s $12,000 investment in the MSA study and agreed to invite the Hat Trick consultants for further meetings.