Though it appears to be a divisive issue for Berlin, the Worcester County Commissioners did include in Berlin’s annual grant $122,000 for a potential Flower Street roundabout. Before approving the money, which will provide the town with half of the estimated funds to design and study the project, the commissioners briefly discussed the roundabout’s possibility.
It appeared to be headed toward being cut until Commissioner Josh Nordstrom asked Commissioner Diana Purnell, who represents the Flower Street area in Snow Hill, about her opinion of the project. Purnell did not weigh in on the roundabout concept specifically, but she made a point of saying her opinion was not sought. She did, however, advocate for the funding to be given to the town to further evaluate the roundabout potential, saying, “There is a need. Traffic is bad on Flower Street. They are running 18 buses twice a day … Flower Street is a street that used to be a street … and now it’s a major highway in my opinion. Let’s leave it there and talk to [Berlin Mayor] Zack [Tyndall] about this …”
Commissioners Jim Bunting, Chip Bertino and Ted Elder each opposed the roundabout money being included in Berlin’s annual grant, but Commissioners Purnell, Bud Church, Josh Nordstrom and Joe Mitrecic agreed to leave the funding in the town’s grant. If the town council does not agree to move forward with a study of the roundabout for the Flower Street area, the funding would have to be returned to the county. Mitrecic, who said town council members reached out to him to express their concerns over the roundabout, surmised Tyndall was likely trying to use the county’s funding as “leverage” to encourage the town council to proceed with the study of the roundabout since half of the funding would not be coming from the town. In the past, members of the council have frowned on the roundabout concept as have members of the police and fire departments.
It will be interesting to see whether the council approves the study during the next fiscal year. If the council does not move the study forward, it represents an error in judgment by the town to include the request in the grant because that’s $122,000 the town cannot use since it’s a restricted grant. The situation should have been evaluated further to gain a consensus on the council before the specific funding request was made. It would be a shame to return the funding to the county when the money could have been attached to another request supported by the full council.
Ocean City Councilman John Gehrig deserves credit. He’s become the de facto face of the sports complex project and he’s not even taken a vote on the matter yet. This is solely a county project at this early stage, and the county doesn’t have a lot to say yet because the planning is just getting started. Ocean City has high hopes and aspirations for the complex from an economic development perspective and potentially building an indoor space on the land, but the commissioners are the officials who have pledged to build this facility with county funds through a bond resolution.
There are three camps in the whole sports complex controversy. First, there are those who are all for it and not concerned at all about the site west of the high and middle schools on Route 50. Any reservations about traffic and other impacts are muted by their gusto for a top-notch facility for their kids and community. Conversely, there is the second group on the opposite extreme who want nothing to do with public funds being spent on the sports complex no matter the site. Finally, there is the camp in support of the concept of a sports complex development but with practical reservations about the county’s chosen location.
At this point, I fall into the latter category. Having spent an average of five weekends a year at sports tournaments elsewhere for the last six years, I see the potential for a sports complex in northern Worcester County. It could be a huge benefit to our families from a recreation standpoint and as an economic development engine in needed times of year. Outdoor fields would help in the spring and fall months and an indoor facility could be the answer to the winter doldrums. The selected site is a problem because of the potential negative impacts on Berlin that have not been properly vetted yet. There are many questions in need of answering before this project can move ahead. State highway folks need to be consulted first and foremost. As of two weeks ago, the county had not reached out with traffic routing questions. The 180-day window on the property purchase will likely need to be extended to allow for these questions to be answered.
In the meantime, Gehrig was twice this week in the line of fire standing as the lone supporter of the project at the petition meeting on Monday and the Berlin Planning Commission on Wednesday. Gehrig has made it clear he’s not married to the site and understands the concerns. He has said he thinks the site is too small because it allows no future opportunity to add fields in the future. Nonetheless, Gehrig is committed to the sports complex project in theory and believes it will help the county and Ocean City. At Wednesday’s planning commission meeting, Gehrig agreed with most in attendance who want answers to their questions. At Monday’s petition meeting, Gehrig struck a similar tone, saying, “There are escape hatches … 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.”
Currently, there simply are no answers to the most significant questions, and it will take more than six months – the out clause of the property acquisition – for these questions to be addressed.