SALISBURY – The ball is in Wicomico County’s field, as Salisbury awaits stipulations to be met prior to further consideration of a land donation that would permit the expansion of Henry S. Parker Athletic Complex at Naylor Mill Park.
Last October the Wicomico County Council considered the acceptance of a 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 athletic complex for the purpose of expanding the Henry S. Parker Athletic Complex (HPAC).
At that time, former Wicomico Recreation, Parks and Tourism Director Gary Mackes presented Wicomico’s tourism book consisted of 35 amateur sports events that have generated an overall $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 had grown by 10 percent.
Wicomico County utilizes HPAC as the hub for 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 used 21 fields and lodging demand had grown 50 percent in Ocean City.
The county is confident an expanded complex will bring at least 10 additional events and an increase in direct 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 would add four baseball/softball fields with two being lighted and four more soccer fields as well as increase parking capacity. About $3.7 million has been dedicated to the expansion between county and state funding.
With the many concerns surrounding the project that has been on the table for the past year, Salisbury Mayor Jim Ireton called for a public hearing to be held on July 29 to address concerns over the future of the Paleochannel aquifer, and the approximately 35 acres of forested land adjacent to the HPAC.
However, on July 13, the city released a press release stating, “Wicomico County has withdrawn its request that the city donate 35 acres of forested land adjacent to the HPAC on Naylor Mill Road. In light of this development, the public hearing…has been cancelled. The county has indicated that they are now considering other prospective parcels of land.”
Ireon said, “The importance of the Paleochannel, and the water it provides both city and county residents is an incredibly compelling reason to keep this land in its present form. We don’t have to worry though, for now Wicomico County is searching for an alternative place to expand recreational areas. That’s a good thing. … I applaud County Executive Culver on this decision to seek land elsewhere.”
In response, Wicomico County claimed a miscommunication in withdrawing its request for the donation of land.
“The mayor’s assertion that Wicomico County has withdrawn its request for the land donation associated with the Henry S. Parker complex expansion is not true. The county has not withdrawn its request,” the county’s press release stated.
With the project seemingly still up for discussion, citizens waited for their time to voice their concerns at the conclusion of Monday’s City Council meeting.
“There is a growing concern in the community that the trails at Naylor Mill are going to be turned into playing fields when there are a lot of other resources for that in town … Salisbury doesn’t have a lot of trails for mountain biking, exploring with young children, running and just getting back in touch with nature,” Melissa Wilson said. “This is also where the water comes from for the city, which is a concern … the potential pollution that will contaminate city water.”
Trent Swanson listed many proven economic benefits that trails have on a community, such as increasing the value of nearby properties, increasing the spending at local businesses, and making a community more attractive to live.
“When considering where to live, home buyers consider walking and biking one of the most important features of a new community,” Swanson said. “Having lived in Salisbury, Delmar and now Fruitland, the lack of sidewalks is dangerous not only for myself but for my children, as more and more people are driving distracted by text messaging and talking on the phone. I need a place where I can feel safe to take my kids, family and friends where we can be out and not feel as concerned over being hit by a car.”
Gabriel Matyiko asked the City Council to see outside of the dollar signs.
“A lot of people come here because it is one of the least developed, wild and natural places surrounded by tons of metropolitan areas, and there is a lot of value in that. There is so much open land out there on the Eastern Shore but we don’t have places like Naylor Mill,” Matyiko said. “It’s an asset that unless you have been out there to enjoy it, it is hard to realize. It is a fantastic place. It is beautiful. When you’re out there it looks like you could be in a national park but you’re not, you’re in Salisbury.”
Matyiko pointed out that while USSSA Eastern World Series, which is one of the largest sports tournaments to take place in Wicomico County, has returned the contract does not go beyond a year.
“They could be here for one year, or two years but the next year they may not come, so that money that you’re banking on could be gone,” he said. “For the people that live here to enjoy that [Naylor Mill Park] now that is a sustainable, long-term economic benefit.”
Sarah Halcott has started the “Save the Naylor Mill Forest” petition online at www.change.org. As of Wednesday afternoon, the petition advocating for “other locations” had received 359 signatures.
Council President Jake Day agreed recreation and ecotourism plays an important role in the city’s revitalization efforts, as well as in the importance of water quality, which is why the city has put in place several stipulations for the county to accomplish before consideration of the projects move any further.
“It is my belief if anything moves forward it would be a situation where the trails will be protected and the Paleochannel will be protected. I do not think we would be comfortable moving if those two stipulations are not done,” said Day.
Day recognized the economic impact over $20 million in revenue from the USSSA tournaments has on the city.
“With that being said, $20 million is actually a very small portion of the economic impact of tourism on this community. It is a big number but don’t let anybody tell you that is all of it. It is just a part of it,” he said. “We have also been told that these sports tournaments are a passing fad. I can’t speak to that but we recognize that question of whether this is a lasting economic contributor to our community.”
Day furthered that while the state has committed $1 million towards the project, he believes the past proves there is no rush.
“We have found in this community, such as with the skate park, that if the state is providing funding, and if the due diligence has not been done or the political will is not there to make a project happen that money might stay,” he said. “It stayed for us when due diligence was done and the political will did exist later down the road. I don’t think we are in as much of a rush as our friends at the county claim we are. Two and half years after the state committed money to the skate park, we still had it.”
Day concluded conversations with the county will be held publically moving forward.