Ocean City Council Mulls Capital Improvement Priorities

OCEAN CITY — Ocean City officials this week agreed on some capital projects that should be prioritized for funding now and a growing list of other projects that need to be added to the planning pipeline.

In October, Ocean City officials began the long-term strategic planning process with a series of meetings focused on conceptual ideas. While certainly thought-provoking and productive, the initial sessions were long on concepts and short on specifics. This week, the Mayor and Council and various department heads resumed a discussion on identifying the most pressing needs.

After considerable debate, the elected officials and department heads hammered out a prioritized Capital Improvement List (CIP).

In order to gauge the council’s perception of the priority of the projects listed in the CIP, the elected officials were recently asked to rate the various capital projects with a grading system with a green designation marking those that the town must absolutely do. A yellow designation signified those projects the majority of the council would like to do, but aren’t critical for the time being. A red designation signified projects the town’s elected officials had no real interest in doing.

From that CIP expression of interest chart, six projects were clearly identified as priorities that must be undertaken in short order. Included on the list is the development of the new public works facility on recently acquired property at 2nd Street and St. Louis Avenue. Similarly, another project that made the short list of six was the demolition of the town’s existing public works facility downtown known as the Whiteside facility.

Other top priorities included town-wide security improvements including increased surveillance camera facilities and reconfiguring public spaces such as City Hall and Northside Park, for example to ensure they are safe. Similarly, another project that made the short list as a top priority is limiting vehicle access points on the Boardwalk. A day earlier on Tuesday, the council approved funding for the necessary first step in that process.

Another project identified on the short list of six top priorities based on the council’s expression of interest chart included improvements to Baltimore Avenue including streetscapes, wider sidewalks and the undergrounding of utilities, for example. Other top priorities included a continuation of the town’s comprehensive street-paving program and the canal dredging program.

In no particular order, the extended list of projects on the CIP included a replacement of the midtown fire station, improvements to the Inlet parking lot including adjustments to the parking system, a complete Boardwalk redecking, the renovation of the public park complex at 3rd Street and on and on.

After considerable debate, the council agreed the top six projects identified in the CIP should move forward, with a couple of others moved up the priority list.

“I think the expression of interest chart did a good job in determining what our priorities are,” said Councilman Tony DeLuca. “I’d like to do all of these, but from a practical standpoint, we should do the six identified as priorities and maybe that list can be expanded to seven or eight. We have to look at the bonding issues and how we can pay for some of these things. I think we know the things that will have to be done in 2018 and which can be moved to out years. Some of the things on here are already five years out.”

Officials opted to move forward with the funding for the design phase of the midtown fire station replacement and funding for the design phase of the redevelopment of the downtown recreation complex at 3rd Street. In addition, the council directed staff to continue to explore the possibility of a new sports complex to attract youth sports events and tournaments.

Finance Director Martha Bennett said some of the proposed expenditures, such as the design study for the midtown fire station and the design study for the downtown recreation complex at 3rd Street, could be paid for now with funds already available or from the reserve balance.

“I recommend some of these can be cash expenditures,” she said. “With things such as the design studies, I think that would an appropriate use of fund balance.”

After considerable debate, City Manager Doug Miller said Wednesday’s marathon work session provided him and Bennett, along with Budget Manager Jenny Knapp, with the direction needed on how to proceed with projects on the list.

“I think we now have enough information to put together a draft CIP and a draft financial plan,” he said. “I think it’s clear you want to move forward with the six projects highlighted on the list along with the study for the midtown fire station, the study for the 3rd Street park complex and the study for the sports complex somewhere in the north end of the county.”

The following is a list of major capital improvement projects that merited further in-depth discussion during Wednesday’s strategic planning work session:

Mid-Town Fire Station Replacement

City Engineer Terry McGean has recommended spending the already-budgeted $30,000 on preliminary design and engineering work to determine exactly what the town was looking at in terms of the scope and price tag for the Station 3 replacement plan. After considerable debate on Wednesday, the council agreed to spend the budgeted $30,000 on the design study for the firehouse replacement.

“I’d like to see us put the $40,000 back in for the study of the midtown firehouse,” he said. “We need to at least see what it would cost and we can decide on it at a later date.”

3rd Street Park Renovation

The discussion of a major renovation of the downtown recreation complex between 3rd and 4th streets was renewed this week and ultimately it was decided to hire a consultant to explore just how to align the desired amenities in the proposed plan. It’s a complicated project to be sure with an expansion of the skate park on the table including the possible use of the old Dew Tour skate bowl, which the town still owns.

“The basketball courts are at the end of life,” said Recreation and Parks Director Susan Petito. “We talked about moving the basketball courts and adding another tennis court, but basketball and tennis don’t intermingle well.”

Mayor Rick Meehan said whatever path was chosen for the redevelopment of the 3rd Street park complex, removing one or more of the basketball courts should not be an option.

“It’s probably the most used recreational amenity per square foot in the entire town,” he said. “I ride by there several times a day and it is always being used. It would be a real mistake to reduce the number of basketball courts any further.”

Miller said the proposed design study by an outside architect with experience in developing parks and public spaces could provide the answer.

“We need to figure out what we want there and have an outside architect come in and figure out how best to design it,” he said.

Potential Sports Marketing Complex

While Worcester County is pursuing the development of a youth recreation and sports complex, the council made it clear during strategic planning sessions last month embracing a sports marketing program and perhaps a recreation complex of its own was a priority. During Wednesday’s work session, Councilman John Gehrig said any discussion of the CIP needed to include sports marketing and a possible recreation complex expressed as a priority during strategic planning.

“We have to determine if it is our will to move forward with it,” he said. “At some point, we need to make a decision. We all agreed during those three-day strategic planning sessions that pursuing sports marketing was a priority for all of us.”

Miller again said Ocean City should conduct a feasibility study to further explore the issue.

“What I propose is once we know what the general concept is, we need to figure out where we want to build it and put a price tag on it,” he said. “We need to decide if this is something we want to pursue on our own, or partner with the county and state on it. There might be an opportunity for a private-public partnership on this. That’s why I think a feasibility study in the next important step.”

While the proposed feasibility study will likely help define the city’s needs and desires for a potential recreation complex, Gehrig advocated for an indoor facility as opposed to the outdoor facility proposed by the county study.

“Their study is predisposed to an outdoor facility,” he said. “I think that’s 100 percent wrong. I think we’re positioned well for an indoor facility to attract events and tournaments all year long. That’s right in our wheelhouse.”

Lifesaving Station Expansion

Another major project under consideration that was discussed on Wednesday was the proposed expansion of renovation of the iconic Ocean City Lifesaving Station Museum at the foot of the Boardwalk. There are ADA issues that need to be addressed and the historic building is often bursting at the seams with various exhibits, offices, restrooms, a gift shop and other uses.

To that end, the Museum Society Board has proposed a new two-story facility adjacent to and connected to the historic lifesaving museum at the foot of the Boardwalk. However, the new two-story facility is proposed for construction east of the Boardwalk and the existing museum, which will likely result in a complex approval process.

The board estimates the total project cost as preliminarily designed would come in around $1.8 million, but with a combination of potential state grants and an aggressive private-sector fundraising campaign, the city’s contribution could be as low as $600,000 and the town will likely have to pay $500,000 just to make the existing museum ADA-compliant.

When asked about the status of the Ocean City Lifesaving Station Museum project, Museum Board President Nancy Howard said some progress had been made, but the board was largely waiting on some direction from the city on whether or not to proceed further.

“It’s still on hold,” she said. “We’re working through some of the issues with our neighbors because we want to be good neighbors. We’re sort of in limbo because we’re waiting on some direction from the town, but otherwise we’re raring to go. We have people who are ready to contribute from the private sector, but again, we’re looking for some direction from you all.”

Chicago Avenue Bulkhead

Another capital project that needs almost immediate attention is the failing bulkhead along Chicago Avenue and the bay.

“We have a fairly substantial sink hole developing along there,” McGean said. “There is a considerable hole in the sheeting. It’s not a question of if we do this project, it’s a question of when we do it. That’s the bad news.”

However, McGean said there could be the possibility of some federal funding to offset the cost of the Chicago Avenue bulkhead repair and replacement.

“The good news is, I’ve talked to the Army Corps of Engineers and I didn’t get a ‘heck no,’” he said. “They might do this project because it’s part of the federal navigation channel.”

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.