Resident Raises Questions About Complex Talks

OCEAN CITY — Ongoing discussions about a potential youth sports complex outside the resort area sparked an interesting debate last week about who is participating in the meetings and should preliminary discussions be in the public forum.

It’s no secret Ocean City officials have long been exploring a vast youth sports complex to tap into the growing multi-billion-dollar industry. In 2019, the Town of Ocean City partnered with the Maryland Stadium Authority (MSA) on an economic impact study for a youth sports complex near the resort, the results of which have not yet been made public.

When pressed for the study results last year, City Manger Doug Miller said the consultant, Crossroads, had completed the $49,000 study, but the results had not yet been published. Miller said at the time COVID came along and the consultant was unsure if certain assumptions made in the study were still valid So, Crossroads was deciding whether to publish the results with the caveat the not all the assumptions made were still valid post-pandemic, or to go back and rework the study.

It is uncertain which direction the consultant went on that decision, but the results of the study commissioned by Ocean City have still not been released or made public. Meanwhile, potential youth sports complex discussions continue in both Ocean City and Worcester County, sometimes in public forums, such as a meeting last week between the county commissioners and a potential consultant and developer.

In Ocean City, conceptual plans for a sports complex, either one for the town itself or in partnership with Worcester County, have been routinely discussed over the last several months during talks about the budget, the capital improvement plan or room tax, for example. However, former councilman and fiscal watchdog Vince Gisriel pointed out his requests for the town’s feasibility study have been unrequited and suggested there have some meetings about the potential project behind closed doors. Gisriel referenced the town’s monthly department activity reports regarding meetings between town officials with the Baltimore Ravens owner and the president of Under Armour, a meeting with the Worcester County Commissioners president and the county’s chief administrative officer, and other meetings with potential sports complex developers.

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“A while back I asked if you could release the economic impact study and I’ve yet to receive it,” he said. “The point I’m making here is this thing is obviously on a fast track. It’s been discussed in private among the commissioners and it’s obviously been discussed among staff. The public has no idea what is going on. It behooves you to release that study, I for one, want to know what the impact is.”

While no specific parcel in northern Worcester County has been identified as a final location, it is believed the focus is on a parcel in the area of Routes 589 and 113. Whether or not that is the case, the process would have to include reaching an agreement with the property owner, gaining appraisals for the parcel, and completing the transaction, among other details large and small. Gisriel said last week if that parcel or another in the area has been identified as a potential site for a future sports complex, it would be appropriate to have financial discussions in closed sessions, but overall discussions about the future project should be held in a public forum.

“It’s perfectly legitimate to talk about land acquisitions in closed session,” he said. “When you’re talking about a project that impacts the economic feasibility of this town, it’s imperative that you release this study, so the public can have some input.”

Gisriel than issued a veiled threat about the thin line between open and closed meetings. The former councilman in the past has successfully challenged Ocean City’s apparent Open Meetings Act violations and said he was exploring the possibility of some of the meetings involving a future youth sports complex.

“Just a reminder, while I’m not certain and I haven’t done the research yet, you may be very close to some open meetings violations,” he said. “If not here, certainly in the county. I don’t believe you can have subcommittees working on a major project like this without full disclosure. Land acquisition is a totally different ballgame. A discussion about the economic feasibility of a project belongs in an open forum.”

Later in last week’s meeting, Councilman John Gehrig dismissed some of Gisriel’s assertions about the meetings involving the future sports complex.

“Usually, I’m grateful when you come up and give us something to think about, but a really don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. “Have there been secret meetings about the sports complex I’m not aware of? It’s been as out in the open as we can possibly make it.”

Gehrig said the Mayor and Council have had numerous open discussions about a potential youth sports complex at various levels and at different times.

“Obviously, there has been a lot of discussion about the idea, and the $20 billion industry that it, and how many kids want to come to Ocean City to play ball and how we can maximize that, but to get your name in the paper and keep sensationalizing these things about open meetings and conspiracy theories about how we’re meeting in private, it’s just false, so I have to call you out on it,” he said.

Gehrig also dismissed Gisriel’s assumptions about the town’s taxpayers ultimately paying for a future youth sports complex. Through the months of debate, there has been discussion about state funding through the MSA or perhaps Program Open Space, for example, or even a dedicated percentage of the town’s room tax, or other creative methods.

“First of all, nobody is talking about property tax revenue footing the bill, either in the county or in the city,” he said. “In both cases, there are other options. We’ve made it abundantly clear multiple times that there are other ways this can be paid for by our tourism industry and not by our property owners.”

As for the release of the economic feasibility study, Gehrig dismissed any clandestine notion for why it has not yet been released.

“To come here to get your name in the paper, I have to respectfully disagree with what you said,” he said. “The Maryland Stadium Authority will publish the study. It has taken a while, but it will be on the website when it is ready.”

At last week’s commissioners meeting, it was acknowledged the county’s discussions about a potential property acquisition in the north end of the county have stalled. An independent appraisal of the property is the next step in the early process and the property owner has reportedly not returned communications from the county.

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.