It was stunning to see the typically conservative Worcester County Commissioners sign off on the purchase of a riverboat to boost south end tourism.
While the goal is noble, even the most ardent of supporters must acknowledge this approximately $350,000 purchase was rushed. The fact an emergency meeting was called to discuss the purchase, which was anything but pressing, confirms there was unusual haste at play.
Though we often disagree with their ultra conservative stances, we side with Commissioners Chip Bertino and Jim Bunting on this decision. There were far too many questions without answers about the vessel and the potential revenues presented this week. This decision clearly needed more time for evaluation, and Bertino and Bunting were right to vote against it.
It was odd to see the commissioners fall for the glib comments about the need to act quickly due to the competitive nature of the riverboat purchase. Forcing a commitment from the commissioners without a full disclosure of all the specifics of the situation was reminiscent of a Realtor or sales person applying pressure to customers under the pretense a decision is needed immediately because another competitive deal is imminent.
While there may have been other interested parties, it’s highly unlikely the commissioners had to decide on the county’s commitment this week or the vessel would be snatched up by another jurisdiction. In fact, another Maryland town just last week passed on the purchase after conducting a much more thorough evaluation of the boat for months.
The county actually spent $5,800 purchasing reports from Leonardtown, Md. where the council decided last week to not purchase the boat after agreeing in principle to a deal in July. Leonardtown had received a $100,000 grant designated to put toward the buy, but ultimately officials decided against it for unknown reasons.
There is no question more time was needed on this purchase, but we surmise the commissioners – who are clearly taking a leap of faith – were not as reserved as normal (remember a split vote over a $100,000 funding contribution to the county’s only hospital nearly derailed the budget this spring) because the funding will come from the federal government in the form of coronavirus funding and a state grant.
In the days since Tuesday’s decision, local fire and EMS officials have questioned why their input was not sought on the purchase ahead of time. These same officials pointed out other nearby jurisdictions are using CARES funds to bolster emergency medical service operations while Worcester is looking to try and bolster tourism. These are reasonable concerns.
Though we don’t understand the rush to a decision, the goal is honorable. It’s going to take something bold to turn around tourism in the south-end of the county. The Pocomoke River is clearly the jewel of the region and highlighting its uniqueness is a smart course of action. Having the riverboat to host special events like weddings, sightseeing trips, civic group luncheons and sunset cruises could be successful over the long term.
It’s an optimistic hope, but there’s a lot of risk with this purchase. It might be a successful or it could be a boondoggle. As County Commission President Joe Mitrecic maintained, “I have my concerns. Don’t get me wrong. But as I just said to Mr. Elder nothing ventured nothing gained. I think this is a venture that’s going to be a big gain for the county.”
We truly hope that’s the case.