County’s Divided Vote For $11.2M Sports Complex Proposal Mirrors Crowd; Speakers Evenly Divided For, Against

County’s Divided Vote For $11.2M Sports Complex Proposal Mirrors Crowd; Speakers Evenly Divided For, Against
A crowd of about 100 turned out for Tuesday’s public hearing with about half addressing the Worcester County Commissioners. Photo by Charlene Sharpe

BERLIN – After hours of public input, county officials voted 4-3 to move forward with purchasing land west of Stephen Decatur High School for a sports complex.

The Worcester County Commissioners voted 4-3 Tuesday to proceed with buying 95 acres for a sports complex and to bond $11.2 million for the project. The decision came after more than 50 people — roughly half in favor of the proposal and half opposed — shared comments during a three-hour public hearing.

“This is the right thing to do,” Commissioner Josh Nordstrom said. “Not only for the people who live here but for the people who come here and spend money here and pour tax dollars into this county, which is what we need.”

Chief Administrative Officer Weston Young told the crowd of about 100 at Tuesday’s public hearing, held at Stephen Decatur High School, that the commissioners were seeking input before voting on the acquisition of the 95-acre parcel. He said after two appraisals the county was planning to buy the site for $7,150,000, or $75,000 per acre.

“A contract has been signed to enable the commissioners to purchase the property and it includes a 180-day study period allowing the commissioners to terminate the contract any time before that period ends for any reason,” he said.

While a 2017 market analysis found that a sports complex of eight to 10 fields could be supported by the county, Young said detailed planning had been on hold while a site was selected.

“Should the commissioners vote in favor of the property acquisition tonight, that process shall begin,” he said, adding that things like traffic, water and sewer connections and environmental issues would be studied.

Berlin Mayor Zack Tyndall kicked off the public comments by stating the town wasn’t taking a position on the project and hadn’t been included in any discussions about it. He noted the project would impact town infrastructure.

Terry McGean, city manager in Ocean City, talked about his family’s experiences with sports tourism in places like Virginia and Pennsylvania.

“A facility like this in Worcester County is long overdue,” he said.

Lachelle Scarlato, executive director of the Greater Ocean City Chamber of Commerce, said a sports complex would benefit residents and visitors. Mary Knight, a former council member in Ocean City, said the county didn’t have enough sports fields for its youth and that improving quality of life was a basic function of government. She said the project would also spur economic development.

Berlin resident Trey Stokely said the county needed more sports fields for local children.

“It’s pretty embarrassing the situation Berlin is in when it comes to athletic fields,” he said.

Others, however, said there were still too many unknowns related to the proposed sports complex. Several people expressed concern about the impact a facility would have on traffic at what is already a busy intersection. Berlin resident Ron Cascio said the location was one of the worst that could have been chosen and said that if the project was a good investment, private entities would have pursued it.

Ocean City restaurant owner Garvey Heiderman said he supported a complex because it would bring families to the resort area. He said a lot of the concerns being expressed were similar those shared before the convention center was built in Ocean City and yet that project had been a huge benefit to the area.

Snow Hill resident Jerry Lynch said he supported a sports complex in the county but thought it should be located in the southern end. Susan Jones of the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association said the issue with that was families would stay in Chincoteague and Worcester County wouldn’t see the economic benefit. She said Worcester County could dominate sports tourism with a facility like the one proposed in Berlin.

“Sports tourism is not going away,” she said.

Vince Gisriel, a former council member in Ocean City, expressed concern about the land’s $7.1 million price. He said the county had been offered 171 acres in the southern section of the county for $2.8 million. He also cited a recent study in St. Mary’s County showing numerous facilities have been built in recent years or are under construction around the state.

Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan said the infrastructure that was needed existed in the north part of the county. He said the Town of Ocean City wanted to partner with the county on an indoor facility for the complex.

“This is where we’ve been working to get for many years,” he said.

He added that residents had opposed construction of Walmart and Home Depot and yet now shopped there. “You have to look to the future,” he said.

Terry Hasseltine of the Maryland Sports Commission said the Eastern Shore could use a facility like the one proposed. He said sports tourism was recession proof and grew more than 3% a year.

Amy Peck, a member of the Ocean Pines Association’s board of directors, said the studies that had been done in Worcester included concerning statistics. She said the sports complex market in the area was saturated and pointed out that a 2017 study said visitors to a Worcester complex could range from 89,000 to 819,000.

Resort business owner John Fager said the county should have developed a sports complex years ago and urged officials to consider something even grander than proposed. He said there had been doubts about the convention center and Atlantic General Hospital and both had been successful.

“What is it going to cost the county if we don’t do this?” he said.

Dave Engelhart, planning director for the Town of Berlin, said it was vital that the county communicated with the town on the proposal. He said staff envisioned massive negative impact on the town’s infrastructure with no financial benefit. He said the town needs more information so it can fairly evaluate the project.

Ron Strickler, a Beach Lacrosse coach, said he supported a sports complex because local kids didn’t have enough field space. He said as many as 55 kids could be found sharing a field during practice nights at the complex in Berlin.

Berlin resident Gina Velong said she worried the complex would cost the town.

“It’s my tax dollars that are going to pick up all the annexation costs,” she said.

Jay Phillips said he’d been involved in the development of the Mid-Atlantic Youth Sportsplex in Wicomico County, which had a $5 million economic impact. He said that while a facility in Worcester could have some huge benefits it could also be expensive. He said the county had “no idea” what it would take to run a facility like that.

“If we have something that’s affordable and attractive we have a chance,” he said.

Commissioners Chip Bertino and Jim Bunting, both of whom have been vocal in their opposition to taxpayer dollars being used to fund a sports complex, reiterated their concerns following the public comments. Bertino said the sports complex in Frederica, Del. had been built with no money from Kent County, though it had received bonding from the state after submitting a business plan and sponsorship program. He said it’s run by a nonprofit corporation.

“Government does not belong in business,” he said.

He and Bunting both referenced the riverboat the Town of Snow Hill had purchased with a loan from the county that now needs $600,000 in repairs to be usable. They said more information was needed before the county proceeded with such an expensive venture.

Nordstrom disagreed and said the sports complex had been studied ad nauseum. He said economic stimulus projects like this one were often advanced by government.

Commissioner Joe Mitrecic agreed. He said the county needed more revenue if citizens didn’t want to start seeing services cut or taxes increased. He added that there were funding opportunities available that could help with the project.

“This will not be borne by the taxpayers of Worcester County,” he said.

The commissioners voted 4-3, with Bunting, Bertino and Commissioner Ted Elder opposed, to move forward. Following Tuesday’s decision, the county is expected to arrange a comprehensive environmental study of the property prior to proceeding with the purchase.

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

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Charlene Sharpe has been with The Dispatch since 2014. A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and the University of Richmond, she spent seven years with the Delmarva Media Group before joining the team at The Dispatch.