Mears Briefs Ocean City Planning Commission on Major County Projects

OCEAN CITY- Worcester County Economic Development Director Merry Mears last week briefed Ocean City Planning and Zoning Commission on a wide variety of major projects and their potential impact on the resort.

Mears addressed Ocean City planners last week to bring them up to speed on a full range of projects at various stages of the planning process in Worcester, from the proposed excursion train to a major sports arena to an offshore wind farm. While most of the projects are proposed for the county at-large, with the obvious exception of the offshore wind farm, each create potential tourism and marketing benefits and opportunities for increase partnerships between the resort and the county.

For example, while the proposed excursion train would likely run between Berlin and Snow Hill, Ocean City could see a significant offseason benefit and a potential marketing partner for Winterfest of Lights, for example. Mears said she joined other county officials on a tour of “Polar Express” excursion train in a rural town in North Carolina and marveled at the crowds it drew, even after Christmas.

“We went to North Carolina the week after Christmas and the tiny town of 1,400 with not a lot going on when it turned to dusk drew 700 people three times for a total of 2,100 in one day,” she said. “We saw tons of families in town spending money in the shops and restaurants.”

Mears explained the county getting pretty far down the line in bringing a similar experience to Worcester, but there are a lot of moving parts. She said while Ocean City wouldn’t be directly involved, the resort would see some tourism benefit.

“We’re interested in bringing a Polar Express-type attraction to Worcester,” she said. “There are a lot of players involved. Two private parties are interested in upgrading the freight lines to passenger grade, which is an important first step. This is moving forward quietly and we should know more in February.”

In terms of a proposed significant sport arena and outdoor sports complex, Mears told Ocean City planners they should be keeping an eye on any new developments. She said the project was only in the feasibility study phase, but again, there could be plenty of opportunity for cooperation and partnerships.

“A couple of years ago, the county was approached by a private group that told us Worcester County was prime for a sports arena and ready for a minor league hockey team,” she said. “What we found was there are a lot of hockey fans in Worcester and on the shore. When we asked them why Worcester County, they said it was near the beach and close to big markets like Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia.”

Mears said any proposed arena would have to be able to peacefully coexist with major arenas and centers already in Ocean City and on the Lower Shore.

“We really need to understand what the impact could be on other venues in the area like the Wicomico Youth and Civic Center and the Performing Arts Center right here in Ocean City,” she said.

Mears said tentative plans call for an arena that would hold 5,000 to 8,000 spectators with an ice rink for a potential hockey team. The plan also calls for an outdoor athletic complex to accommodate more teams, more tournaments and more leagues.

“We could move forward with any of these components on their own or all three,” she said. “That will all be part of phase II. The biggest component could be where to locate it. Phase I should take six to eight months and phase II should also take six to eight months, so it is a marathon and not a sprint.”

Even closer to home for Ocean City planners and perhaps the largest elephant in the room during last week’s discussion was the future offshore wind energy farm off the coast of the resort. While other east coast states are currently exploring offshore wind energy potential, Maryland is a little farther ahead of most in the planning and development process.

“This is not your typical wind farm,” she said. “It’s of a greater magnitude and there really is nothing like it in the U.S.”

Mears said if the approval process keeps moving forward, there could be wind turbines in the water by 2020. She said the project represents a great opportunity for economic development for Ocean City and the entire county.

“A lot of people are coming,” she said. “We’ll have workers, contractors, welders and many more staying here for months and they’re going to stay in our hotels and eat at our restaurants. We really want to get as many local businesses involved as possible. We don’t want this to become Baltimore-centered.”

Planning and Zoning Commission Chair Pam Buckley questioned the potential impact on the resort.

“What are some of the impacts of offshore wind?” she asked. “Just 15 miles offshore doesn’t sound very far. What are some of the potential impact on the beaches and at the Inlet, for example?”

As for the latter, Mears explained the Inlet depth is already an important issue for Worcester and Ocean City, and the eventual offshore wind farm could present a potential solution.

“Something has to happen with the Inlet dredging because we’re losing commercial fishermen,” she said. “U.S. Wind would have to dredge that to accommodate its own equipment. Each of those turbine blades is a football field long. It’s expected they could be making some upgrades to the infrastructure in Ocean City and in West Ocean City.”

Another shared potential for economic development is the burgeoning craft beer industry in Ocean City, Worcester and the entire Lower Shore, Mears told resort planners.

“It’s important for us to recognize this industry in our comprehensive plans because it’s growing so rapidly here,” she said. “February is Craft Beer Lovers Month and that is an opportunity to market it and attempt to attract visitors in the offseason.”

Each of the county’s ongoing economic development initiatives could present increased tourism and marketing opportunities and shared partnerships for Ocean City, said Planning and Community Development Direct Bill Neville.

“This is in the context with regional tourism,” he said. “People come for more attractions and stay longer and create great opportunities for economic development. We have to watch out for the interests of Ocean City in all of this. If a sports arena ends up on Route 50, it could bog down and impact traffic to Ocean City.”

Mears assured Neville and the Ocean City Planning and Zoning Commission they would be kept firmly in the loop on the major economic development projects.

“Ocean City will definitely need to be at the table when these discussions come around,” she said.