OCEAN CITY — The long-awaited feasibility study for a youth sports complex in or around the resort has finally been released, and the bottom line is the proposed facility or facilities appear to be economically viable despite some challenges.
It’s no secret Ocean City officials have long been exploring a youth sports complex in or near the resort area to tap into the growing multi-billion-dollar industry. In 2019, the Town of Ocean City partnered with the Maryland Stadium Authority (MSA) to commission an economic impact study for a youth sports complex in or near the resort area conducted by the consulting firm Crossroads.
The pandemic hit in March 2020 and with larger issues on the plate, the sports complex feasibility study was relegated to the back burner. Crossroads did complete the study based on pre-COVID data and assumptions, but its release was apparently delayed for a variety of reasons. Last week, however, the MSA publicly released the Crossroads study and it’s now available for consumption on the agency’s website.
The study is a weighty tome full of charts, graphs and tons of demographic information. However, the executive summary appears to support the development of a youth sports complex in or around the resort area, either outdoor, indoor or perhaps both. In terms of an outdoor sports complex, the study’s executive summary suggests it could provide an economic shot in the arm for the resort area.
“If developed, this facility would allow the Town of Ocean City to attract new sports tournaments and competitions that generate significant economic and fiscal impacts to the area,” the executive summary reads. “The proposed outdoor field complex could serve a diverse set of demand generators at varying levels of competition. Offering multi-purpose fields will allow the facility to host multiple sports such as soccer, lacrosse, rugby and ultimate frisbee that mitigates the reliance on any one sport.”
However, the study suggests time could be of the essence for the Town of Ocean City and its potential partners with the development of a youth sports complex.
“With that said, the supply of comparable facilities is continuing to increase both regionally and nationally,” the executive summary reads. “If the Town of Ocean City decides to move forward with the proposed new outdoor field complex, timing of the development will be important. The growing supply of similar outdoor facilities in the region needs to be closely monitored to avoid market saturation.”
In terms of a potential indoor youth sports complex, the Crossroads study also indicated that project would likely be economically viable.
“The market analysis indicates relatively strong demand exists for a new indoor fieldhouse in or near the Town of Ocean City,” the executive summary reads. “Market research, including input from potential users, suggests that a first-class facility with a minimum of eight full basketball courts and other related supporting infrastructure should place the town in a favorable position to attract new indoor sporting tournaments and competitions that increase visitation in the non-peak months.”
However, an indoor sports complex would likely face some of the same challenges as an outdoor complex, in terms of competition from similar facilities in the region.
“As with the proposed outdoor field complex, a new indoor fieldhouse would face several market challenges such as direct competition from local indoor sports facilities such as Crown Sports Center, as well as regional facilities,” the executive summary reads. “Given the increasing supply of indoor facilities focusing on sports tourism, it will be important for the Town of Ocean City to offer a facility that seeks to differentiate itself from competitors with its building program, design elements, supporting amenities and infrastructure as well as service levels. Despite certain market shortcomings, such as the lack of direct interstate access and direct flights at the Salisbury-Ocean City-Wicomico Regional Airport, the Town of Ocean City is considered an established, highly desirable destination by many event promoters given its beach location and the amount and diversity of overnight accommodations.”
Local resident and former Ocean City Councilman Vince Gisriel for months has been asking to see the results of the Crossroads study to no avail until is was made public by the MSA last week. Gisriel said on Monday he had reviewed the study and warned there were some statistical anomalies in it that needed careful scrutiny.
“I’ve been waiting for months to see the feasibility study for the sports complex,” he said. “The MSA has released the study and some of the basic assumptions from the 2017 county study still apply. There are a lot of pitfalls in this study. You should really review it carefully before you spend our money.”
Gisriel questioned the timing of the release of the study publicly and who had reviewed and when amongst city officials. He pointed out funding for a sports complex was included in the town’s capital improvement plan (CIP) approved last spring, despite claims the Crossroads study had not been released at that time.
“When you approved the capital improvement plan, I don’t remember an indoor-outdoor complex being discussed,” he said. “The MSA has concluded it is economically viable. How did you know in April when the study hadn’t been completed?”
Gisriel said all along he has been told the release of the sports complex feasibility study was tied to the outbreak of COVID in 2020 and questioned when resort officials had seen it.
“I’ve been told the release was delayed by the Town of Ocean City because of COVID-19,” he said. “The town held up the release of the study. When I was on the council, I was on the short end of a lot of 6-1 votes and I know how to lose graciously. What I won’t tolerate is a lack of transparency. Somebody in this town knew the study was done. That concerns me.”
Councilman Mark Paddack attempted to address some of Gisriel’s concerns.
“We know our year-round population is small,” he said. “However, we also know through scientific data how many people come to Ocean City. Providing an opportunity to grab a portion of youth sports is worth looking at. I have not seen this report, but I’m going to take your advice and I’m going to read the details. I appreciate your position, but I want to take a look at that myself.”
Councilman John Gehrig, who in recent years has been perhaps the fiercest advocate for a youth sports complex in the area, said a study just provides guidance and the real work will take place on the ground.
“I don’t know how a study measures effort,” he said. “We know people want to come here. We invested in a high-level position for someone to go out there and get them here. We have seen it just this year with a number of groups that want to come here but can’t because we don’t have the facilities.”
In terms of who had seen the Crossroads study and when, City Manager Doug Miller attempted to clarify the issue. Miller said Crossroads had completed the study prior to the pandemic, and said the consultant wanted to go back and update its findings because market influences had likely changed post-COVID.
“I don’t think they said we held it up,” he said. “As you remember back in January 2020 COVID was first coming out and we kind of shelved it because we were dealing with other issues. I think Crossroads wanted around another $40,000 to update it. We basically said it will only be more positive post-COVID rather than pre-COVID, so we weren’t going to spend the extra money. They were just giving us a qualifier that a lot has happened since the original report.”
Gehrig said regardless of the timeline, it mattered little who held up the release of the study.
“It’s not like we held it up on purpose,” he said. “I mean, I don’t even like the study. I think we guided them wrong, but that’s just one man’s opinion. I don’t think we mandated that they not release it.”
Worcester County is on a parallel course to explore the potential development of a youth sports complex although an exact location has not been identified. Gehrig said a combined effort would likely be the best path going forward to make the project a reality.
“I think the common consensus now is to partner with the county instead of having our own separate indoor-outdoor facility,” he said. “That would be the ideal goal I think, not to pay for our own. Relationships with other partners is the best way to move this forward. That can actually happen in part when you have the state, county and city all working together.”