BERLIN – Concerned citizens launched a petition effort aimed at making the county’s use of bond funding for a sports complex a referendum question with a meeting this week.
Roughly 50 people attended a meeting hosted Monday by the People for Fiscal Responsibility, a citizen group organizing a petition to trigger a referendum regarding Worcester County’s use of $11 million in bond funding for a sports complex on Route 50. Vince Gisriel, chair of the petition committee, said the group had to get 2,500 signatures by May 27 to keep the referendum effort moving.
“There’s only one way to bring this to the voters,” he said. “Signing the petition is not a vote for or against the project. All it does is bring the issue to the voters.”
Talk of a petition effort began in the weeks following the Worcester County Commissioners’ 4-3 vote to use $11 million in bond funding to purchase a 95-acre parcel west of Stephen Decatur High School for $7.1 million. In a meeting at the library in Ocean Pines Monday, Gisriel and other organizers said they were concerned about the use of public funds to buy the land. They’re hoping to collect 5,000 signatures so that the question of whether the county should use bond funds for the project will go to referendum this fall.
Though Gisriel has worked on successful petition efforts in Ocean City in the past, he said this one was slightly different in that he’d had to work with the state as well as the local board of elections during the process. The petition language was approved May 6 but Gisriel said he was still waiting on answers to questions about exactly the number of signatures needed to meet the threshold of 10% of the county’s voters. He said that if the petition got half the required number of signatures by May 27, an extension could be applied for, which would give the committee until June 30 to reach the estimated required 5,000 signatures.
Ocean Pines resident Slobodan Trendic, another member of the petition group, said the 4-3 vote by the commissioners was a red flag. He said there were countless ways a project like the sports complex could be financed that didn’t involve public funding.
“It’s not the project but the funding that’s an issue,” he said.
When invited to share their input, those in attendance voiced various concerns with the proposed sports complex. Some brought up traffic, others brought up the fact that the complex would eliminate future expansion space for Stephen Decatur High School and others cited the immense costs that would be associated with developing such a complex.
Bishopville resident Richard Addis said a Delaware project similar to the one Worcester County proposed had cost $27 million, and that had been after the land had essentially been donated. He added that didn’t include an indoor facility like the one Ocean City wants the county’s complex to include.
Snow Hill resident Virgil Shockley said the 95-acre site by the high school would probably only fit eight fields, as stormwater management could require up to 10 acres and there would still need to be room for parking. According to Shockley, a former commissioner, the county considered building championship quality fields at John Walter Smith Park in Snow Hill 20 years ago but never followed through. He added that traffic at the proposed site would be a nightmare once the complex was built.
Berlin resident Connie Pena said the complex proposed was too big for the area. She said she moved to Berlin after spending many years in Montgomery County.
“I’ve never witnessed so much back handed maneuverings and shenanigans as I witnessed reading The Dispatch and the other newspapers in Worcester County,” she said. “I am not for this project. It’s huge and it’s in Berlin. It’s going to dramatically change the character of the area I live in.”
She added that the complex would be right next to Briddletown, a historic African American community.
“Anytime there’s a big project all throughout this country they stick it in the poor people’s backyard and in their community,” she said. “It’s usually in a Black person’s community and that’s what’s happening here. You know what? Those people, the black, brown low-income people will not be able to afford to go there.”
Addis, noting that Ocean City Councilman John Gehrig and Ocean City Tourism and Business Development Director Tom Perlozzo were in attendance, asked them to address the concerns raised. Gehrig prefaced his comments by asking for an end to any division between Worcester County and Ocean City.
“We’re all one county,” he said. “This division between Ocean City and the county, that has to go.”
He said economic development would benefit the entire county and was needed.
“Given the backdrop economically that we’re talking about, if nothing is done from an economic development standpoint your property taxes will absolutely go up,” he said. “The cost of everything is rising… The elected officials need to be bold.”
He added that the state was willing to invest in sports tourism and that he’d identified numerous other potential funding sources.
Gehrig said he knew there were questions but that they would be answered now that the vote to move forward had been taken and that the county could stop the purchase if issues were identified.
“There are escape hatches…,” Gehrig said. “If it’s not going to work, no one wants pain. You hit the eject button and it’s done. That’s really where we are.”
Commissioner Chip Bertino, who was in attendance with Commissioner Jim Bunting, said he’d made his opposition to the project as proposed clear.
“I think it’s very telling this evening that a representative from Ocean City is standing here telling us what the county should do,” he said.
Bertino said he didn’t discount the economic development benefits a sports complex could bring but that the south part of the county needed that help most. He said this was one of the biggest projects the county had ever undertaken.
“I don’t believe public money should be used in this venture at all,” he said. “If we were going to look at this as economic development, why aren’t we looking at the most depressed area of our county, and that is the southern part of the county.”
Bertino said there were too many variables involved in the project and too many unanswered questions. He said economic development wasn’t necessarily a government responsibility.
“We don’t build restaurants and then have somebody come in and manage them for us,” he said. “That’s not what we do … If anyone’s looking for ideas, here’s an idea — stop spending taxpayer money on things that should be handled by the private sector.”
Perlozzo, who headed the county’s recreation and parks, tourism and economic development departments for a few years, said the commissioners had been talking about a sports complex for six years and had five studies done.
“These two commissioners here, they’ve done exactly what you wanted them to do — roadblocked everything as it relates to providing you the information,” Perlozzo said. “We’ve got 50 million people within five hours. I’ve got private money as well. We proposed private money. They’ve not wanted to listen.”
Audience members pointed out that the majority of the commissioners had voted for the complex.
“Let’s build it,” Perlozzo said before abruptly walking out of the meeting.
Tony Christ, one of the meeting’s organizers, thanked attendees, particularly those running for office.
“You’ve got competing candidates in the same room because they have real feeling for the community,” he said. “Rather than bickering amongst themselves about the election, seeking out votes, they’re here on this issue.”
Following the meeting, Bertino questioned how he and Bunting could be putting up roadblocks when the sports complex was moving forward, just as Perlozzo and other Ocean City officials wanted it to.
“I think it’s unfair for him to say that we’re obstructionists when he’s gotten everything he’s wanted,” Bertino said. “He might not like what we have to say but that’s just the way it is.”