BERLIN– Concerns regarding the county’s plans for a sports complex dominated a Berlin Planning Commission meeting this week.
Berlin residents and commission members expressed worries regarding the impact a sports complex next to Stephen Decatur High School would have on the town. With two county commissioners and an Ocean City councilman in attendance, several of those present urged both jurisdictions to find another site. Resident Tony Weeg said the impact on Flower Street would be huge.
“For that reason alone you guys should just cut the chase,” Weeg said. “The dream, keep it rolling but get it rolling somewhere else… This message that needs to go back to the county is we want to be good neighbors. We want you guys to try again. We want to find a different spot for you guys if that’s what needs to happen, but that parcel, from the bottom grassroots level of Berlin, is a nonstarter.”
Planning Director Dave Engelhart told the commission Wednesday he wanted their input regarding the sports complex Worcester County plans to develop on the 95-acre parcel adjacent to Stephen Decatur. Last month, the Worcester County Commissioners voted 4-3 to use $11 million in bond funding to purchase the parcel next to Stephen Decatur High School for $7.1 million. He said he was sharing concerns with the county and working to ensure the town was involved in the process, as its infrastructure—potentially water and sewer as well as roads and public safety—would be impacted. Commission member Ron Cascio said a major issue should be access, as he’d been advised the State Highway Administration currently wasn’t allowing any more access points between the high school and the shopping center on Route 50. With Worcester County Commissioners Chip Bertino and Jim Bunting in the audience, commission members asked how the county had settled on this particular site.
Bunting, who with Bertino has been vocal in his opposition to the project, explained that three appropriate sites had been identified in the north end of the county but that one had been sold and one’s owner had not returned calls.
“This wound up being the last site,” he said.
Resident Gina Velong said a sports complex on that site would go right through the area featuring the Briddletown historic marker. She also expressed concern regarding the parcel’s expensive $7.1 million price tag.
Though not present, in submitted comments commission member Matt Stoehr expressed both interest and caution regarding the project. He said as a former Decatur athlete he was excited about the possibilities of the complex. He’s also interested in its power as a revenue generator.
“I’m always a big proponent of growth for Berlin,” he said. “I still believe our tax base can’t handle our current Expenses/Overhead, and shrinking our expenses is something the government does not specialize in. Although an unpopular opinion, I think maintaining our stagnant tax rate during a time of high inflation, and large future capital expenditures was made in error. I believe we will be paying for this mistake in the near future.”
Nevertheless, he said the project as proposed didn’t seem to benefit Berlin.
“I don’t think Berlin needs to stick its neck out to watch Worcester County/Ocean City profit at our expense–with Berlin taking on a heavy portion of the risk,” he said.
Ocean City Councilman John Gehrig, a longtime proponent of bringing a sports complex to the Ocean City area, told the commission he was pushing the concept as an economic development initiative. He said youth sports was a huge industry that Worcester County had an opportunity to get involved in. He pointed out that Ocean City didn’t pick this particular location but that the resort wanted a complex near Ocean City. He said the questions being asked by the community regarding the cost, location and plans for the facility were all good ones.
“We have 180 days to get all these questions answered,” he said, referencing the fact that the county had a six-month period prior to settlement during which it could get out of the contract to purchase the land.
Gehrig said that while he was passionate about the idea, if problems arose with this particular site another option could be pursued.
“It’s not like there’s a shovel going in the ground tomorrow,” he said.
Bertino said the only entity that had any standing to talk about the sports complex was Worcester County, as at this point it was solely a county project. While there have been mentions of Ocean City providing funding for the construction of an indoor facility at the sports complex site, he said no formal discussions had taken place. He added that when other large projects, he referenced a widening of Route 589, had taken place, there had been stakeholder meetings for the community to weigh in. With this project, he said there had been no community discussion.
“We’re all the poorer for it,” he said.
Chris Denny, chairman of the planning commission, said this situation reminded him of when the Town of Berlin had annexed hundreds of acres for a tech park more than 20 years ago with no specific plan in place.
“It’s still sitting there,” he said.
Denny also pointed out that decades ago, golf had been a huge industry. In the last few years, he said four area golf courses had closed.
Weeg said he’d looked at the sports complex issue from every angle and spoken to various citizens about it. While many support the idea of a complex in Worcester County, he said they didn’t want it at the proposed site between Route 50 and Flower Street. He said there were multiple other possible locations.
“We need to look elsewhere…,” he said. “Forget this whole Berlin spot. It’s just not going to work.”
Pocomoke resident Caryn Abbott said she wanted to see a complex in the south end of the county.
“I’m here to advocate for the southern district that needs it the most,” she said. “I know there’s land down there.”
Commission member Pete Cosby said Berlin needed something like a YMCA to provide residents with opportunities to stay active and healthy.
“in the winter all we do is rot and fester,” he said.
Cosby said that with the symbiotic relationship between Berlin and Ocean City, he understood why land in the north section of Worcester was proposed.
“Why is Berlin doing so well?” he said. “We’re cute and we’re doing a good job of trying to make it fun but it’s close to Ocean City. that is an attraction. Why is snow hill struggling? because they don’t have the client base we’ve got right next door.”
He said that like Gehrig, he felt that if there was an opportunity the parties involved should try to work out the difficulties not shout each other down.
“I don’t want to see Berlin become an enclave of apartment buildings surrounding the town,” he said. “What’s this farm field going to become in the future? There’s a huge pressure on us to give housing.”
He said he thought the proposed complex should be explored but that the town should demand it include a YMCA or something similar.
“I think everybody ought to open their minds and realize this is a symbiotic thing with Ocean City and Berlin that could really take us into the future,” he said.
Berlin resident Corey Davis said he felt officials needed to get their questions answered and consider all the pros and cons of the complex before proceeding with the project. Resident Kate McCloskey said she was embarrassed the complex had gotten this far without Berlin being involved in the process.
“It’s the worst location I could ever dream of,” she said, adding that a committee should be created to explore potential sites.
Vince Gisriel, an Ocean City resident chairing a petition effort to bring the county’s bond bill for the complex to referendum, encouraged everyone to read the studies that have been done regarding a sports complex in Worcester County. He said youth sports participation rates were down. Gehrig said that was because fewer kids were doing recreational sports as they transitioned to travel sports.
“People will travel 15 hours for these tournaments,” he said, adding that the state was interested in supporting youth sports projects. He encouraged everyone to keep an open mind as their questions were researched and answered during the 180-day study period.
“The government doesn’t move very fast in anything,” Davis said. “Will we get answers in 180 days?”
Gehrig said it was the responsibility of elected officials to get those answers. He added that Ocean City wasn’t set on this site but did want a location near the resort.
“You know how hard it was to get Town of Ocean City elected officials to be willing to partner in investing outside the town limits of Ocean City?” Gehrig said. “Think of this like a puzzle. It’s in a box. We’re dumping out all the pieces and turning them over and going to put them together. The picture’s not all together yet. We’re going to piece it together. Will there be a partnership? There may be, there may not be. That’s another question that needs to get answered. Let’s just get the questions answered. The Town of Ocean City is unlikely to invest in an indoor complex the farther away it gets from Ocean City.”
Bertino said nothing had been fleshed out at this point and that the only thing that was certain was that the majority of the commissioners had agreed to bond $11 million for a complex.
“Right now the only purse that’s open is the county taxpayer purse,” he said.
Cascio described the complex as a mega facility being foisted on the Town of Berlin. He said the business interests of Ocean City were driving the plan, not the county. He added that proponents of the project cited its benefit to the youth.
“But the reality is, it’s for someone else’s kids, not Worcester County kids,” he said. “It’s our kids who attend Berlin middle school and Stephen Decatur High School. When this community inevitably grows, we’re going to have to expand both of those facilities. With this location, both schools would be hemmed in, with nowhere to go.”
He said traffic was also a huge concern, particularly on Flower Street.
“Someone is going to get hurt,” he said. “And we know it. This is unacceptable, and why we need to say no to the scale of such a facility at this location. Just like we would say no to any other developer trying to get something over on us.”