This week’s listening session on the future of Heron Park was productive, provocative and enlightening. The meeting was specifically planned to solicit feedback from the community on selling two parcels of the park property to nearby landowners. The consensus among the citizens was to keep the property near the ponds on the north side of the park and to explore selling the parcels where the rundown buildings are currently.
Before any major changes are considered, town officials and residents would be wise to revisit existing documents and plans on the town website that were created by the Heron Park Advisory Committee, which never should have been disbanded earlier this year. There is a lot to be gleaned from the work already completed by the volunteer group. Documents available to review include a detailed 28-page document outlining potential concept plans; a 20-page interpretative plan for the site; a 74-page engineering report on remedial investigation and cost estimates to deal with the former waste lagoons; and a 46-page report on current buildings’ condition assessment. As I listened to the proposals discussed by those wanting to retain the park, I couldn’t help but note most talking points expressed this week have already been discussed by the advisory committee at length.
Even the most optimistic among us should agree the town is in a terrible situation with the park. I believe good can come from the park, but there is no denying this property acquisition has to date not gone well for the town. Specifically, the significance of the cleanup operation from the 2019 chemical spill cannot be downplayed. It cost the town more than $300,000 to address and equally important the long cleanup process stunted the work of the well-intentioned citizen advisory group. This group was on a good track until the chemical spill essentially grounded the effort. Any hopes of the town spending some money on improving the site were crushed by the costly chemical spill.
After this week’s meeting, a logical next step for the town would be to reconvene the advisory group. While Council members Jack Orris and Shaneka Nichols – who were both advisory committee members — should remain involved, as they invested their times as citizens to be a part of the process, I think some new individuals, such as some of those who spoke this week, would benefit the group. A subcommittee approach to evaluate a possible public-private partnership or an update comprehensive master plan is needed.
Much discussion at this week’s listening session talked about the need for planning and building community support. While all well and good, there is no need to start over here. The work has been done. The town needs to deeply weigh selling Parcel 57 (the old processing plant buildings and office space along the railroad track) to reduce annual debt payments, but much foresight must go into who purchases it. Parcel 410 should be retained to allow for some big-picture plans to be developed for the open space areas.
The advisory committee’s quality efforts and work over three years cannot be for naught. There is plenty to cull from their meetings and plans. There is already a conceptual master plan on paper. It includes a nature center, an amphitheater, outdoor BMX bike trail and zip line park, a central lawn, lakeside trail, pedestrian bridges, a pavilion, a waterfall (hence the former Berlin Falls Park moniker), a potential dog park, an outdoor skate park, a connection to a planned regional bike trail and other passive activities.
Productive work has been done by this team of citizens. Fresh eyes and tweaks need to be made to their plans, which largely focus on circulation of pedestrians and bikers and general wellness. The challenge the town faces is transitioning it from its current passive park status – no amenities, events or activities on site – to some more moderate uses. The town would be wise to avoid grandiose plans that are unrealistic. It’s clear the town simply cannot afford a major investment in the property. The town must live within its means while adding some uses to the site through grants, private fundraising efforts and potentially a public-private partnership of some sort, while also stepping up maintenance at existing parks like Decatur Park. Bringing back the advisory committee to work with the council is a solid short-term step for the town to form a workable five-year plan.
With the tram sidelined last year, Ocean City allowed bikers to ride the Boardwalk until 2 p.m. It was widely well received and obviously the Boardwalk bike rental folks benefited from the extra rental revenue. A biker himself and seeing the popularity of last summer’s move, Mayor Rick Meehan suggested the city consider delaying the start time of the tram an hour in exchange for allowing the bikers to have extra time.
What was initially proposed as an extension till 11:30 a.m. from 11 a.m. is now until noon seven days a week with the exclusion of a few special event weekends. This is a solid move by the city and the benefits provided to locals and visitors is well worth any lost revenue from pushing the tram back an hour. The good news for the city is the change could actually end up saving money in the long run because the expenses associated with operating the tram from 11 a.m.-noon traditionally did not meet the revenue. It’s a win-win for all because it makes the tram more efficient, helps Boardwalk bike merchants and gives bicyclists more time.