Spirited Debate Ensues Over County Operating Sports Complex; Commissioners Vote 5-2 To Explore Sites

SNOW HILL – Local officials will continue to explore plans for a multimillion dollar sports complex in spite of concerns voiced by several county leaders.

On Tuesday, the Worcester County Commissioners voted 5-2 to have county staff identify the best potential site for an eight-field athletic complex. While several expressed concern over the cost of such a complex — which would be county owned — the majority of the commissioners said the concept was worth further investigation.

“I don’t want to be shortsighted and not look at opportunities the county has,” Commissioner Bud Church said.

Early last month, the commissioners were presented with a report from Crossroads Consulting Services outlining a $25 to $30 million county-owned outdoor sports complex and the economic benefit it would bring to the area. On Tuesday, county staff presented what they called a more realistic overview of the project.

“We’ve determined that while there’s some good baseline data (in the Crossroads Consulting report) we do believe the projected economic impact is overly optimistic,” said Kelly Shannahan, the county’s assistant chief administrative officer.

He said that because county staff thought the economic impact would not be as significant as Crossroads Consulting proposed, they favored the idea of a complex with grass fields rather than one with turf fields.

“That natural surface, Bermuda grass, is readily available in our area and would be a fraction of the cost,” Shannahan said.

Commissioner Chip Bertino was quick to express his concerns regarding any further investigation of an outdoor sports complex.

“When we first talked about this, we said the county did not want to be in this business,” he said. “We said it before the previous study. We ended up paying for a study that told us exactly what we didn’t want to know because we said we didn’t want to be in this business. Why are we revisiting this as a public venture?”

Shannahan said Crossroads Consulting presented the sports complex as a public project because that was the only way company staff could “make it work from a financial standpoint.”

“They determined that the project alone would not make money,” Shannahan said. “There’s no business man in the world that we’re aware of that’s going to be willing to take on a project that we know out of the gate is going to lose money.”

He added that county staff believed the tax revenues from the facility would offset its annual losses and that the project would benefit the local economy.

Church, who has been in office since 2002, pointed out that the county’s department heads had put a lot of time into the report they were ready to present.

“Nothing is ever cut in stone. I’ve been here longer than most of you,” he said. “I think we should at least hear the advantages and disadvantages to the county.”

Commissioner Joe Mitrecic also expressed interest in the report. He said that while he’d never envisioned the proposed sports complex as a county operation either, sponsorships could help fund it.

“I think to shut this down because we don’t feel it was looked at right would be wrong,” he said.

Once the majority of the commissioners agreed to hear the report, Paige Hurley, the county’s director of recreation and parks, described the complex staff envisioned. He said a facility with eight natural grass fields — which cost $250,000 each while turf fields cost $1 million each — would require 40 acres. He said if the county purchased a 100-acre property, however, it would allow for future growth.

“Youth sports has become a $15 billion industry,” he said.

Hurley said Worcester County, as home to beaches and related tourist attractions, was the ideal location for youth sports tournaments.

“It’s an opportunity for a ‘playcation,’” he said, adding that families these days were combining their vacations with trips to children’s athletic events.

Hurley said he thought that in its early years the facility would host 12-14 tournaments a year. He said there would likely be 600-750 participants at each event.

County officials estimate construction costs for the proposed facility at $9.2 million. Annual revenue is estimated at $210,000 while annual expenses are expected to near $400,000. Staff suggested the facility’s annual operating loss would be near $183,000.

Nevertheless, staff outlined various economic benefits associated with the project. Finance Officer Phil Thompson said a dozen tournaments a year would result in an estimated 14,400 room rentals. Between room rentals, food and beverage sales and miscellaneous spending, he estimated the economic impact on local businesses would be about $5,850,000.

“I think you’re going to extend the season of a lot of facilities,” he said.

The sports complex would result in $195,850 in additional taxes.

Commissioner Jim Bunting pointed out that total included $129,600 in room tax when in fact the county would not receive that much. Thompson confirmed that and said that of the $195,850 in additional tax revenue the sports complex would produce the county would receive roughly $75,000.

Thompson said that overall, county staff supported the concept of an outdoor sports complex.

“Subject to state cost-share opportunities the facility can be planned, constructed and operated at a reasonable cost to local taxpayers,” he said.

Bertino again voiced his objections.

“You put me in a difficult position because I respect all of you but I disagree with you 100 percent,” he said. “I don’t believe there’s anything in here that makes this a value to the taxpayers of Worcester County. For county taxpayers to be asked to pay for an entity that doesn’t make money to me is wrong.”

He said he also didn’t think the county should be in business and pointed out that it was in the process of getting out of the liquor business. He went on to make a motion to discontinue any efforts associated with the sports complex. It failed to get a second.

Church advocated for further exploration of the project.

“This is a golden opportunity for the county …,” he said. “You have to use a little foresight.”

Church said the report had hardly touched on the potential for business sponsorships that would be associated with a facility like the one proposed.

Merry Mears, the county’s economic development director, said she thought the economic impact outlined by Thompson was extremely conservative.

“Those numbers feel very safe,” she said.

Mears encouraged the commissioners to look ahead. She said that regardless of the project’s direct financial impact, it would help make Worcester County more of a destination. She said it could spur development of the West Ocean City corridor, an area targeted for growth.

“It may not be immediate but it will happen,” she said.

Commissioner Merrill Lockfaw, whose constituents are in Pocomoke, said in spite of various references to the project being near Ocean City, he wanted to see the south end of the county considered as a location.

“Everything that comes up seems to be focused on Ocean City …,” Lockfaw said. “We need to look at the south end of the county and quit building a one-legged man.”

Lockfaw also reminded his peers that the county was already facing future debt associated with school construction.

“This complex is not a guarantee,” he said. “Expenses are a fact. We’ve got to consider these things.”

Mitrecic said he didn’t care where in the county the complex was located but stressed the potential of a youth sports facility. He asked what needed to be done next in the process.

Mears explained that another study, estimated at more than $300,000, would take place if and when the county selected a potential site for the complex.

Mitrecic said that considering it wouldn’t cost the county anything to identify an ideal site, he wanted to see Mears, who has already received interest from landowners, begin to develop a list of possibilities. He made a motion to have county staff identify a piece of property for the complex.

Church expressed his support.

“This is not a motion to spend money this is a motion to proceed,” he said.

The commissioners voted 5-2, with Bertino and Bunting opposed, to approve the motion. Bertino maintained that taxpayer money shouldn’t be used for speculative purposes. Bunting said the commissioners had made it clear as soon as the concept of a sports complex came up that they were not interested in a county owned operation. He also expressed doubts about some of the figures in the staff report.

“There’s more holes in this than a piece of Swiss cheese,” he said.

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

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Charlene Sharpe has been with The Dispatch since 2014. A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and the University of Richmond, she spent seven years with the Delmarva Media Group before joining the team at The Dispatch.