OCEAN CITY – The planned redevelopment of the downtown recreation and parks complex was put on pause this week after the contractor bids came in significantly higher than what was budgeted.
In recent years, town officials have been planning for a major redevelopment of the downtown recreation and parks complex along the bayside between 3rd and 4th streets. The large swath of open space in an otherwise densely developed downtown area has served many purposes over the years, but is showing its age and is generally unpleasing and unwelcoming aesthetically.
To that end, the Ocean City Recreation and Parks Department two years ago initiated a process to begin redeveloping the complex. A consultant was hired to redesign certain elements of the park and add new amenities. Those plans have been reviewed and tweaked at different levels during the process, but the town was ready to pull the trigger with funding included in a bond sale for the first phase of the project.
During Tuesday’s work session, the submitted contractor bids for the first phase of the project were opened with disappointing results. Just two bids were submitted for the budgeted $2.2 million project, and each were significantly higher than what was budgeted. For example, one of the bids came in at around $3.8 million, while the second came in at nearly $5 million, or more than twice what was budgeted.
As a result, the recommendation from City Manager Terry McGean was to put the project on the back burner for now in order to better gauge fluctuations in the construction market and rebid the project at a later date. The council ultimately voted unanimously to put the project on hiatus for now and rebid the first phase again later. McGean said there is some grant funding available, but it comes with some contingencies including the town’s financial commitment to the project.
“I think it’s indicative of the market,” he said. “We have some grant funding available, but one of the conditions is the amount of money we spend ahead of time. We can’t get the grant until December.”
As a result, McGean said the recommendation was to simply put the redevelopment of the downtown recreation complex on hold.
“My recommendation is we delay this project for one year,” he said. “I suggest we stand down on this project”
Councilman Mark Paddack, who serves on the town’s Recreation and Parks Committee, made a motion to put the project on hold for now, a motion approved unanimously by his colleagues.
“I know how hard the staff and the committee worked on this,” he said. “These bids are totally way outside our fiduciary responsibility to the citizens and the taxpayers.”
Later that day, during a Recreation and Parks Committee meeting, Recreation and Parks Director Susan Petito referenced the bloated bids for the downtown recreation complex redevelopment again.
“The bids came in way, way high,” she said. “The recommendation was to delay the project and give our contractors more time.”
Petito said despite the setback, progress could still be made on certain elements of the redevelopment project.
“We will continue to work on the skate park expansion aspect of the overall project,” she said. “We’re going to back off of the overall project for right now and we’ll get a better understanding of where we are. We continue doing what we can to keep the project moving forward.”
The park redevelopment will eventually be done in phases, with the first phase covering the infrastructure for both the east and west sections. Included in the first phase will be paths, utilities, stormwater management, landscaping, lighting, the relocation of the basketball courts, the expansion of the Ocean Bowl skate park and the construction of a new skate park office and restroom.
The second phase includes a new playground in the northwest corner of section of the complex on the west side of St. Louis Avenue. The third phase includes new tennis and pickleball courts and new restrooms on the western portion of the complex. The fourth and final phase includes another playground on the western portion of the complex, along with exercise equipment.
For the east section, the plan includes an expanded skate park, relocating the existing basketball courts in the area of the park closest to Philadelphia Avenue and an improved inclusive playground area. The east section would be connected to the west section via the raised pedestrian walkway across St. Louis Avenue. There was some early discussion about closing that portion of St. Louis Avenue, but that idea got little traction.
The section to the west would be less developed and more passive. It includes a vast flexible lawn in the center surrounded by trees for pickup sports and other events, a playground area, a spot for a pavilion or future temporary band stage for future special events and new restrooms for the entire complex. The recreational fishing areas along the bulkhead would also be retained.
A key element in the overall park complex redevelopment is the expansion of the decades-old Ocean Bowl skate park. Again, the plan calls for an upgrade of the existing facility along with the addition of popular street-skate elements. The expansion will take the skate park from its existing 10,000 square feet to 17,000 square feet.