BERLIN – With a busy year ahead, as plans for the Tyson property, a new police station and an excursion railroad move forward, Berlin Mayor Gee Williams wants to postpone the much discussed growth planning meetings.
Williams said this week he wants to hold off about a year on the growth planning sessions that were scheduled for late January with consulting firm Environmental Resources Management. He says the town will be in a better position for long-range planning once a number of major projects are out of the way.
“Temporarily we’ve got a lot on our plate,” he said. “I don’t see how we can do that [growth planning] and a bunch of other stuff on top of it.”
Williams outlined a list of eight tasks he believes should be done in 2016 before the town begins any growth planning. Topping the list was the purchase and initial cleanup of the former Tyson property, which Williams is calling Berlin Falls.
“Having a plan for that property is a pretty good task in itself,” he said.
The mayor says the property will lend itself to serving as a “homegrown transit” center for the town. He believes that with the attractions, including a waterfall concept in the center of the property, and parking area the site will one day hold, it makes sense for it to serve as a transportation hub.
“There’s no place to put it downtown,” he said, adding that the Tyson property was not far from Berlin’s historic center.
Third on Williams’ list of issues is the excursion railroad that is being investigated by Worcester County. Williams says an excursion train could be in place as soon as next Christmas and definitely by early 2017.
“There’s no doubt in my mind the train excursion will become a reality,” he said.
Remaining projects for the town to tackle in the coming year are its stormwater improvements, the construction of a new police station and increasing municipal parking. Berlin has also pledged to support fundraising efforts for a new library in town and will also have to pay close attention to the results of a Maryland Stadium Authority study looking at the feasibility of a potential sports arena.
Williams also mentioned the town’s desire to pursue construction of a solar garden in the near future as well as a need to develop a way to address derelict properties in town. He says “demolition by neglect” is a problem throughout Berlin.
“We want to find ways to save those homes to see them become viable parts of town,” he said.
Williams believes that after the municipality has addressed the issues he sees it facing in 2016, it will be in the position to think and plan for future growth.
“We’ve got plenty on our plate,” he said. “I think it makes sense. We can’t do it all at the same time.”
Council member Lisa Hall, on the other hand, believes the growth planning sessions would be best held before the town’s work on the former Tyson property begins.
“We need to hear from residents on how they want us to move forward with Tyson,” she said. “The reality is it’s not what the mayor and council want. We represent the residents. The residents need to give us direction on the growth they want Berlin to go with.”
Hall continues to lobby for the conversion of a portion of the Tyson property to a police station. She believes the town would be better served seeking grants to fund a renovation project for a police station there than spending $2.2 million on a brand new building at the corner of Decatur and Bay streets.
“We need to step back and reevaluate,” she said. “The building at the front of the Tyson property could be converted to a police station using sustainable grant money.”
She says the town has to plan the redevelopment of the 60-plus acre property carefully so that it doesn’t become a financial burden. The property proposed for the police station, which was purchased with casino revenues, could be sold to a commercial developer, said Hall.
“There was a lot of controversy over the purchase of that property,” she said. “The town needs to consider making it commercial and getting its money back. It could save the town four or five million.”
Resident Jason Walter is not sure the growth sessions would be of much use regardless of when they are held. He thought the strategic planning sessions the town held in early 2015 were poorly managed.
“The same crowd — including non-residents — attended multiple sessions to write the same things and ‘stuff the box,’” he said. “Good growth, growth that will actually pay its way, is needed but any public session in this town will slant toward the agenda.”
Walter believes the right kind of growth would financially benefit the town, specifically through Equivalent Dwelling Units and pay for its infrastructure needs, including the recent wastewater treatment plant upgrade.
“Growth is required to cover the debt and operation of plant,” he said, “and a tool to keep our user fees in check.”