Berlin Citizens Weigh In On Heron Park’s Future In Listening Session

Berlin Citizens Weigh In On Heron Park’s Future In Listening Session
Heron Park's Parcel 57 includes the old processing buildings on the left in a file photo.

BERLIN – Numerous suggestions, ranging from short-term solutions to dream scenarios, were made during Monday’s Berlin meeting on the future of the town’s underutilized Heron Park.

The intent of Monday’s online Mayor and Council Listening Session was to gauge the public’s level of interest in specifically selling two parcels of the park’s 62-acre property. Up for the town’s consideration is selling Parcel 57 (the southwest portion of the property off Old Ocean City Boulevard adjacent to the railroad tracks including most of the old poultry processing buildings) and Parcel 410 (a 10-acre rectangular portion of the property that runs behind the Cropper & Sons business that includes outbuildings and open space).

The town has been approached by private interests about possibly purchasing the properties. At a previous meeting, Town Administrator Jeff Fleetwood said a potential buyer had Parcel 410 appraised and the value was deemed at $770,000. The appraised value of Parcel 57 is unknown.

Berlin purchased the park property in 2015 for about $2.5 million from Berlin Properties North, which was owned in part by Councilman Troy Purnell. The buy was financed through the bond market. The property for decades was home to a poultry processing plant operated by Hudson Foods and then Tyson Foods. By virtue of financing the deal, the town annually faces more than $200,000 in debt service in addition to maintenance expenses. In 2019, the town had to spend more than $300,000 to clean up a chemical spill that occurred the demolition of outbuildings on the once-industrial property.  Last week the town learned its request for a $500,000 grant to demolish the existing structures of the property was not granted.

Monday’s two-hour meeting was divided into four pre-planned presentations and public input followed by council comments. What follows is a look at what many of the speakers reported to the council.

‘Heron Park Is A Resource’

parcel park

Parcels 57 and 410 of Heron Park are highlighted in a town image.

First to present was former Berlin Council candidate Tony Weeg, who has been active in the community over the last two years and founded the We Heart Berlin non-profit that originated as a popular community. Facebook page during his at-large district campaign last year. Though he was unsuccessful in his council bid, Weeg has been an active citizen advocating for new, responsible uses of town park land, including Heron Park.

“What I have to say tonight is not really revolutionary. … I believe that what we have in Heron Park is a resource and what we do with resources are we use them for our betterment, for our good,” Weeg said. “It also carries some debt, it carries some trash, it carries some metal and some industrial things that we have to clean up, and everybody knows that, but I tend to focus on the positive. The positive to me is we have some land that we can use that is green, that is beautiful and that is also fronted by some land that we could use for some other things that we do not actually have in Berlin yet. I believe the best course of action forward would be to step back from the process of selling it right off the bat.”

Weeg suggested the town consider holding a design charrette for the property. Design charrettes have been used in the past in the region when developers have sought public input from stakeholders on a proposed development. Design charrettes are meant to include affected community members as well as industry experts in the planning and design process of prospective developments.

Rather than the pursuit of selling individual parcels of the park, Weeg proposed considering the property as a whole for now while understanding the town needs to reduce its annual debt payments on the public property in the future.

“I think we should relook at the front areas where we typically drive in and relook at those areas as how we could design them to be interesting to developers where we could attract beds and heads to Berlin,” he said. “I believe there are things that can exist there like a skate park, an amphitheater, a dog park and many other little things. There are things that can be done on every piece of this map, but we need to recoup some money to make this less of a drag on the town’s budget.”

Weeg said he would support selling portions of the property fronting Old Ocean City Boulevard but with the appropriate permits issued by the town to guide the future decision-making process by the private developers.

“As a town we would say ‘this is what we want to see here, this is how we want to get it done,’” he said. “I think we take a step back, we look at the best use case for Berlin and then move forward once the town says that’s a great idea. Then the developer says, ‘… I can make some money there and Berlin can make some as well.’”

Public-Private Partnership Eyed

Berlin resident Ann McGinnis Hillyer, who operates State Ventures from her office on Bay Street Berlin, and Ocean City resident Brad Hoffman, who produces events like OC Jeep Week through his Live Wire Media business, presented a concept under the auspices of the Better Berlin Group (BBG), which is a name created solely for Monday’s presentation. Together Hillyer and Hoffman have more than 60 years of experience in event production and marketing. The key piece of the BBG presentation involves retaining the entire property.

“We want the town to keep this. It’s a real asset to the town. This is something that can be fabulous for the entire town, not just the handful who are currently using it,” Hillyer said. “I think our group can really come in and do some exciting things. The only constraint is the town has to own the entire property … we are here because we want to get you excited and reinvigorated. … Once it’s sold, it’s gone and so are the opportunities.”

Among the possibilities proposed by BBG was to host local, regional and national concerts as well as outdoor recreation opportunities in green space, efforts all geared toward providing a new family-friendly year-round event space for Berlin.

“Responsible development is on the top of all our minds with this project,” said Hoffman. “Our strengths in marketing and event production and our willingness to roll up our sleeves and bring some amazing events and assets and possibilities to the venue. I know everyone has heard this before … but I think we are a ‘can-do’ team who can bring the light to the end of the tunnel to watch this flower blossom in so many ways.”

BBG’s concept is to transform the park into an “anchor for the north end of Berlin,” generating revenues through a concert venue and fairgrounds by attracting more visitors to town and renting space to other events for additional revenue. In addition, the concept is to partner with the Maryland Coastal Bays Program and Department of Natural Resources to “create a habitat/environmental showcase” through improved walking trails and a bike path and enhance the town’s family-friendly standing.

“We can take an existing drain on the Town of Berlin and turn it into a revenue generator and cultural gem,” Hillyer said. “There’s no reason to stop and wait for more planning. We believe we can get going on this now iteratively. This site can create revenue for the town from concert and event ticket sales and concession contracts starting this year. The town retains ownership, but it can be a public-private partnership that can be the best way to get this work started.”

Hoffman suggested transforming the vision for the property into a “natural amphitheater” through connections with other public and private entities. BBG would work with the town to produce what town residents view as valued, whether it’s a skate park, additional basketball courts, a dog park, recreation rentals and concessions and an open-air pavilion.  Hoffman suggested extending the town’s arts and entertainment district to the park to allow for grant opportunities including purchasing a mobile stage.

“The entrance area would stay the same. There’s a lot we can do to dress it up and encourage people to see what’s going on back there at the park,” Hoffman said. “We want them back into the park… the amphitheater would be placed right off the parking lot with a mobile stage. We would provide an area for blankets and chairs for people up on to the hill like you see at Merriweather … it’s really a natural canvas and I’d love the opportunity to work with the town and Ann and others … to watch it blossom and see it be exciting for the community and a revenue stimulus as well for the town. … Obviously we want to bring business to downtown Berlin. We want to continue to make it an asset that drives economic stimulus to the town and at the same time brings value to the whole community, so they can utilize and access it in the way they seem correct.”

Expanding on the amphitheater concept, Hillyer said the concept is to mirror what works at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts in Virginia where there is no fixed seating.

“People would sit on the slope facing the stage with their backs to the ponds. This is a natural way to have a concert today,” said Hillyer. “There are so many things we can do short term … as we create a shared vision for what that park could become.”

As far as next steps, BBG is looking to form an official public/private partnership with the town through a Memorandum of Understanding, which would identify the roles for the town and BBG as well as a budget framework.

“We want to work with the town to create a win/win for residents, elected officials and businesses. We aren’t just consultants, we have a lot of connections and we will be invested in this,” said Hillyer. “We would only get paid if we generate revenue. We can get the job done.”

Hoffman, who previously rented the park for an obstacle course for the OC Jeep Week event he produces, added, “we are passionate about seeing this project come to life … it’s right there for us all.”

Councilman Jack Orris, who served on the Heron Park Advisory Committee, asked Hillyer and Hoffman why they were not involved in the park brainstorming sessions previously. Orris said the insights would have been welcomed during the group’s three years of meeting. “Where have you been?,” he asked.

Hillyer said it was a great question. She said her feeling was the town had a plan and vision for the park all along. When she heard the town was considering selling a portion of the park, she and Hoffman immediately began brainstorming possible ways to get the best use of the park.

“I think if you sell off any parts of the park for development, particularly residential but any development really, you will shut down your ability to do big things with that park,” Hillyer said. “As soon as you get residents inside that park, they will be able to tell you they don’t want music or something that’s noisy or they don’t like skateboarders. I think that’s why we acted when we did.”

Council member Shaneka Nichols, also a member of the advisory committee, praised the presentation, but she questioned the grand scheme outlined because of concerns over costs associated with transforming park. As a member of the advisory committee, Nichols said funding was always the problem. Social media commenters during the presentation echoed her concerns. Concept plans were created in the past by the committee, but there was no financial way to pull them off within the town’s budget.

“The concepts and thoughts have always been there. I want to be completely positive here, but what does this mean for the town? What could this possibly cost the town?,” Nichols said. “Are you saying there is no additional cost to us at this point and this could happen immediately?”

Hoffman said the MOU would outline all the responsibilities and financial aspects of the public-private partnership.

“We are willing to take our assets and bring our collaborative abilities with sponsors, grant writing, naming rights and not come to the city with big money, but to create an MOU where we have the freedom to do these things,” Hoffman said. “None of this can be done until the Mayor and Council and the community deem it acceptable. … The next step would be to figure out how we do this and that would involve a deep meeting with the Mayor and Council and design areas in the MOU that outline responsibilities of both sides. Everybody winning is our goal in this.”

Property Sale Encouraged

Town resident Marie Velong encouraged the town to sell the property through a photo album showing the troubled site today. The pictures showed the delipidated buildings, standing water on the low lying areas on the site, high-tension wires running through the site, the need for a safety fence around the retaining ponds, questionable water quality in the ponds, lack of emergency medical access for ambulances and debris and hazards throughout the property.

“We have always referred to Heron Park as the ‘scary park,’” said Velong. “The only thing I see the park is good for is to walk your dogs, observe the birds, ducks and geese. I have seen foxes and snapping turtles there, too. The money the town would get by selling this property would reduce the debt and free up the funds for other purposes in the town. Personally, I think the whole park should be sold, but I do understand the idea of preserving nature in the back parcel. My objection to keeping that part is the same as the front parcels. Though the birds and animals adapt to the industrial nature of the land, no one has cleaned up those areas of the many pipes, cement slabs and construction debris that abound in the back part as should have been done before it was purchased for a park. I have no doubt lawn mowers have been damaged by the many pipes left sticking up along the banks of the ponds. If someone slips and falls there is a danger of them seriously hurting themselves. There is no safety equipment to help someone should they happen to stumble and fall into the ponds. What is the town’s liability if any of those things happen?”

Velong supported the skate park concept for Berlin but not at Heron Park.  She said a skate park would be ideally located at Decatur Park.

“We have to ask what age the skate park would be for?,” said Velong.  “Are we doing it to attract business to the town or to give our children a safe place for them to practice their skateboarding skills? I truly believe there is enough land in Stephen Decatur Park that could house a reasonable skate park for our young people. I am wondering, are there objections from the community around Stephen Decatur Park, that keep it from being the ideal place for a skateboard park?”

Comprehensive Park Plan Needed

Ron Cascio, a resident of Berlin and member of Berlin Planning Commission for 15 years, said it’s important for an historical perspective of the property to be shared. The park property was once “the bane of our little town” because of the stench from the former poultry processing plant. Cascio walked through the history of the property and the town’s stated reason for buying it before summarizing, “all we are getting at this point from this boondoggle is a path to walk around the wastewater lagoons.” Since “this property is bleeding money,” Cascio said the town should seriously consider selling the parcels under consideration but cautioned the town would be at the mercy of the buyers.

“I think there is a way to create value in this property of ours. A responsible way to consider selling off a small portion or two that could begin to retire some of the debt service and fund the infrastructure for the kind of place we want for the townspeople in the way of recreation and possibly entertainment,” Cascio said. “And a way to add more commerce and housing in the form of mixed-use development – very similar to downtown. All of this on our own terms. We just need to think like smart developers. We need to imagine a way to create value in this land of ours.”

Cascio offered a means to find the value he seeks through the creation of a comprehensive master plan for the entire property. He said the process will allow the town to identify what parts of the property will be best to sell and which to retain.

“… It would be far better to take the plans we create to permit before flipping it. This is what very smart developers do,” said Cascio, who developed the Walnut Hill residential community off William Street. “This way we get exactly what we want in what will likely become the entrance to the town’s recreational park. We, as owners, have total control. We, as owners, are the primary regulatory body that determines what goes on there – a developer’s dream. Why would we want to lose control that we paid so heavily for?”

Cascio suggested the town hold meetings to evaluate all possible scenarios and hold a design competition, or charrette, to develop a comprehensive plan for the property.

“We need to come together to work on our shared vision, one that creates a situation with the best interest of the people of Berlin in mind,” he said. “Then develop a plan, take it to permit, exercising our right as developers to control what goes on there in perpetuity, even if we still sell off small portions. We claim to be America’s Coolest Small Town. Now let’s act like it.”

Citizen Comments

Kate Patton, long time Berlin resident and executive director of the Lower Shore Land Trust, read from a letter she sent the council earlier this year. Patton served for three years as a member of the Heron Park Advisory Committee before it was disbanded, a move she did not support.

“… Selling parcels 410 and 57 really should not be a consideration. Possibly 57 could be done but only with careful consideration … having that permitted by what we want to see happen in town and designated a specific way is appropriate, rather than being reactive when someone comes with a proposal to the town,” Patton said. “We want to see something that truly does benefit the community. At this point, I encourage you, Mayor and Council members, to consider the future of Berlin … It’s exciting to think, and maybe right now it’s a challenge, what this park could provide for Berlin.”

Berlin resident Edward Hammond called it “unfortunate” the town is in the current position with the park property. In his comments, he sought more information from the town on who is seeking to buy the two parcels in question.

“I think it’s appropriate for the town to solicit and entertain offers on the property, but because it’s a park – that’s what we call it – there’s a very strong public interest in the ultimate use,” Hammond said. “We can put covenants and restrictions on what the future buyers can do, but … I’m ultimately confused because I thought I would hear tonight what these prospective buyers had in mind. I would really like to know who the bidders are, what they intend to do and what the town can do to ensure that use and the money would be appropriate for what we see as a potential future use of that land.”

In response, Mayor Zack Tyndall attempted to provide clarity on the current process.

“We had a group of people approach us about the property and the different parcels and this is just the first part of getting to hear what the public has to say …,” said Tyndall. “It’s the very early stages and it’s not saying that’s the route the council will go, but it’s something we wanted to hear from the public about.”

Resident Tyler Betz supports retaining the park. His family currently enjoys it and he sees value in the open space. Betz said he was among the citizens who turned out six years ago to encourage the town to purchase the former poultry plant property to prevent the wrong use of the site. He said he was surprised to hear the town was considering selling any part of the park.

“Like many people, we thought there was a committee and there was a plan. We were waiting for the vision to be executed on this property … This property was purchased on a vision and I just assumed as a person who lived here I didn’t need to participate because you had the committee …,” Betz said. “There have been all these ideas that have come out tonight after the council simply broached the subject of gathering input. We have heard some great ideas … I support the concept of a comprehensive master plan for the park. …”

Resident Gina Velong asked the council to exercise “fiscal responsibility” when evaluating the future of the park. She said the council needs to improve existing infrastructure, better maintain its current parks, address stormwater issues and update roadways.

“I think we should sell the park, or at least the bulk of it,” she said. “… this was supposed to be passive. It was not supposed to affect our budget according to what was said at the time of the sale. Now it is. We have all the control as to who buys it. We can set the parameters. … There are other things we need to reallocate our budget for to make this town look just as pretty on the outskirts as it does on Main Street … let’s get all the other streets up to par before we start looking at bigger and better dreams. Let’s take care of what’s here now.”

Former Heron Park Advisory Committee Chair Amy Field supports retaining Parcel 410 because of its proximity to the pond area at the north end of the property. If Parcel 57 or other sections were to be sold, Field agreed securing permits for the future use would be wise before selling it to a developer.

“We need to control what that looks like and have as many people as we can weigh in on that in a strategic way in a vision of our town,” Field said. “Those of us who have been on the park advisory committee we know you can go in a lot of different directions with this park. You can think long-term, short-term, big ideas, what can be done tomorrow. Through the discussion tonight, it’s clear a lot of people care about this property and want more information about it … I encourage folks to look at the interpretative plan from 2017 that’s on the town’s website. It goes through all the reasons why the park is what it is and why some trees are not cut in some areas, there’s a strategy behind it to protect native species … ultimately, I think for our town to have the green space and the variety of parks is going to increase value of our town and our properties … Personally I love walking back there and feeling like I’m a world away from the downtown area that I love as well. It’s very special and a huge asset to our town. We should be very slow to give up control of that property.”

Berlin Skate Park Unite Director Alexander Mitchell, an Ocean Pines resident, supports installing a pop-up pump track for kids to ride bikes and skateboard.

“We have a simple plan that is just moving dirty around. I’ve already done one for Worcester County, but it didn’t come to fruition,” Mitchell said. “The topography you have there really lends itself to a pump track … it can just be nestled right into the facility there. Funding yes it costs about $20,000 for a track but maybe we can get a low-interest loan, or a grant or try and raise the money. … We are a non-profit who would like to help.”

The council also heard from Mark Stevanus, who owns Heavy Metal Playground in Boonsboro, Md. Stevanus has been looking for a site in Worcester County for his business, which allows patrons to use heavy equipment – a Bobcat 335 — to dig dirt, stack tires and smash things. He said he was interested in being included in the discussions of Heron Park’s future or anywhere else in Berlin.

Council Comments

Each elected official thanked the citizens of Berlin for taking part in the session and for offering their insights and suggestions on the park.

From his communications with citizens, Councilman Jay Knerr believes a majority support retaining Parcel 410 closest to the ponds and selling Parcel 57 where the existing buildings are located. He said about 75% of the people he talked with want to keep Parcel 410 with the remainder wanting to sell it all.

“I think we need to have further discussions and look at both options,” Knerr said. “If we do sell 57, we need to look at what potential development would go there and how we can control what goes there. It’s extremely important rather than blindly selling it to any developer. We also need further discussions to explore all options presented.”

About The Author: Steven Green

Alternative Text

The writer has been with The Dispatch in various capacities since 1995, including serving as editor and publisher since 2004. His previous titles were managing editor, staff writer, sports editor, sales account manager and copy editor. Growing up in Salisbury before moving to Berlin, Green graduated from Worcester Preparatory School in 1993 and graduated from Loyola University Baltimore in 1997 with degrees in Communications (journalism concentration) and Political Science.