SALISBURY – Officials in Wicomico County have agreed to accept a federal grant to develop a public park.
Last week, the Wicomico County Council voted to accept an $820,000 grant from the National Park Service through the Land and Water Conservation Fund to develop a public park at Pirate’s Wharf, a 340-acre property located along the Wicomico River.
In October, County Executive Bob Culver announced the county had received an $820,000 federal grant to develop Pirate’s Wharf, a property the county purchased in 1997. County officials said the goal of developing Pirate’s Wharf is to provide trails, gathering space and water access to the Wicomico River.
But despite support for a low-impact recreational park on the property, members of the county council this week shared their concerns for accepting the grant.
Councilman Ernie Davis pointed out that the grant required $820,000 in matching funds from the county. He and Councilman Joe Holloway questioned how the county would spend a combined $1.6 million to develop a low-impact park.
“When you applied for this grant, where did you come up with the $1.6 million that was needed to develop this property?” Holloway asked.
Steve Miller, the county’s director of recreation, parks and tourism, said county staff estimated the budget needed to potentially build a boat ramp, widen the access road, create parking and more.
“We felt like it was going to be in that ballpark,” he said. “With the federal grant opportunity, part of why we came up with that number is we felt we could comfortably match it without having to ask the council for additional funding, which is where we are today.”
Miller said the county had applied for $515,000 in state grants to offset the majority of the county’s $820,000 obligation. A remaining $354,758 would come from money already in the county’s Capital Improvement Program (CIP) and the recreation and parks fund balance.
Specifically, $100,000 in the CIP will be used to develop a master plan for the park, while the remaining $254,758 generated from hunting leases on the property will be used for the development of Pirate’s Wharf.
“We’ve invested $100,000 and the return will be $1.6 (million),” Miller said. “So we feel good about developing a significant park without asking the county for additional dollars.”
Holloway questioned how the county secured the federal grant.
“You had to have some kind of plan to give to the state or federal government to get the grant,” he said, “but we’ve not seen that plan.”
Miller said the county is currently in the process of developing a master plan for the property, but said the National Park Service supported concepts – such as water access and low-impact activities – presented for the park.
“Those are big initiatives at the state and federal level,” he said. “They gave us $800,000 because of what they saw in that plan … The concepts are solid. What we are trying to do now is to put it on paper and visually see what this thing is going to be.”
Davis said he was concerned the county would commit to matching the grant without having a master plan in place. He added the county would have to foot the bill if construction costs exceeded $1.6 million or if it didn’t receive the state grants.
Officials, however, explained the county was not obligated to spend the entire $1.6 million. Pam Oland, the county’s deputy director of recreation, parks and tourism, said the county could choose not to exceed $354,000 in matching funds and could defer projects that exceed the budget.
“We will not spend over the money we are allocated here,” she said.
Councilman Josh Hastings said he supported the development of Pirate’s Wharf, so long as the public was involved in the process.
“If we move forward with these funds, will there be a strong public process to determine what will go on this property?” he asked.
Miller explained that the public would be asked for input as the master plan is developed.
“Within the next few months as this master plan goes down the road we would present various concepts on paper for people to see,” he said. “It’s not going to be ‘here is the plan, take it or leave it.’ We are going to engage the public.”
Miller added that declining the grant could harm the county’s relationship with the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
“That would harm us for future funding,” he said.
Holloway said he supported the development of Pirate’s Wharf, but not without additional information.
“You are coming to us with no real plans other than asking us to authorize using $1.6 million and we don’t know what we are getting,” he said.
Davis agreed and made a motion to table the decision until the council had a better understanding of what would go into the park and how much it would cost. Holloway seconded the motion.
“I would like to see us table it to get a little more information,” Davis said.
Councilmen Bill McCain, Marc Kilmer, Larry Dodd and Hastings, however, opposed tabling the decision and discussion continued.
McCain said he was comfortable moving forward with a decision and supported the conceptual plans and budget estimates for the park.
“I think this is great for the community and I think it needs to move forward,” he said. “This is a property we’ve had for two decades and we find out we have this opportunity to turn this into a great asset for our county.”
While he said he understood his colleagues’ concerns, Dodd said he supported moving forward with the project.
“I think we’ve been dragging this out,” he said, “but I’m hoping our confidence in our director will help move this forward and keep us informed.”
Hastings agreed, but pointed out the need for public input.
“I don’t want to harm our relationship with the Land and Water Conservation Fund,” he said, “but I do think we need a good public process.”
With no further discussion, the council voted 4-3, with Davis, Holloway and Council President John Cannon opposed, to accept the $820,000 grant.
“I think this is a very unique opportunity for us,” Miller said.
The council last week also agreed to amend the fiscal years 2019-2023 CIP and capital budget to include $820,000 in grant funding and to increase the fiscal year 2019 general fund “pay-go” to $354,758 for the Pirate’s Wharf project.
The county has until September of 2022 to complete the project.