County To Discuss Proposed Sports Complex Property Contract Extension

County To Discuss Proposed Sports Complex Property Contract Extension
The land proposed for a sports complex is pictured. Image courtesy of the Town of Ocean City

BERLIN – The Worcester County Commissioners are expected to consider a contract extension related to the purchase of land for a sports complex next week.

On Tuesday, the commissioners are expected to discuss extending the contract related to the purchase of 95 acres next to Stephen Decatur High School for a sports complex. The proposed settlement date as of right now is the end of September. Much works remains to be done before proceeding, according to officials.

“The commissioners still need to identify a source of funding,” Chief Administrative Officer Weston Young said. “They’ll need to extend the contract at the meeting on the 20th or else it will expire.”

In April, the commissioners voted 4-3 to pursue the purchase of a 95-acre site owned by the Harrison family to develop a sports complex. A settlement date of Sept. 29 was set for the $7.1 million sale.

In the months since, county officials had an environmental site assessment completed. While it revealed no major issues with the property, the commissioners voted in August to spent $28,000 to have a consultant evaluate Route 50 access options for the site. There’s also been a change in plans as far as funding for the project. Though commissioners initially planned to buy the land with bond funds, the bond resolution eventually voted on didn’t include the word acquisition. At that point, staff confirmed that the commissioners would have to identify a different way to fund the $7.1 million purchase.

Further complicating the issue is the fact that a successful petition drive has made the issue of whether bond funding should be used for a sports complex a referendum question in this fall’s election.

Despite the array of moving parts, Commission President Joe Mitrecic, who supports the sport complex, said this week the primary reason the county was considering a contract extension related to the Maryland Stadium Authority (MSA). The MSA, at the request of the Town of Ocean City (TOC), is managing a Phase 2 feasibility study for a proposed new indoor fieldhouse and outdoor field complex in Ocean City.

“The Phase 2 study will include an update to the market and economic analysis released in November 2019, a site evaluation of the current site location under consideration, and a cost estimate of construction,” the MSA website reads. “The TOC will fully fund the cost of the study of $49,400.”

Mitrecic said the study was expected to provide officials with the estimated cost of a facility as well as the ideal components of such a facility. He added that the MSA, as a result of bill passed during the last legislative session, also had funding to potentially support the project.

“HB897 allows MSA to borrow up to $200 million for minor league stadiums and other sports entertainment facilities in Maryland and creates a $10 million fund to promote major sports events in Maryland,” the MSA website reads.

Mitrecic said he didn’t know when the study would be complete.

“The wheels of government sometimes grind very slowly,” he said.

He said the project was moving forward.

“This spring we got accused of pushing it forward with no information,” he said. “Now we’re trying to do our due diligence and everybody’s asking why it’s taking so long.”

Mitrecic said on Tuesday the commissioners would be asked to vote on a contract extension, the length of which he said would be recommended by the county attorney.

“It’s a process,” he said. “We want to make sure we’re getting it right the first time.”

Some community members, however, continue to question the county’s actions. Vince Gisriel, chairman of the community group that organized the petition for the referendum, recently wrote again to officials to express his concerns.

“The People For Fiscal Responsibility, a ballot issue committee, was formed to bring the Worcester County Sports Complex issue to the voters of our county,” he said. “From the outset, we have maintained that we are not opposed to a sports complex, but we are opposed to the use of public funds to build and operate it. From its inception, we have seen flaws in the way this project unfolded and was approved by a slim majority of our county commissioners. We are trying to shed light on the myriad of issues associated with this project.”

Gisriel points to the varying costs tied to the project.

“We attempted to have a dollar figure put on the ballot question to give voters who might be unfamiliar with the project some idea of the cost but to no avail,” he said. “The condensed statement on the ballot question is to read ‘The purpose of this question is to determine whether the County Commissioners may finance a portion of the costs of designing and constructing a Worcester County Sports Complex by issuing a bond.’ Why were we denied this reasonable request?”

Young, who noted the county talked about building a soccer complex as far back as the 1990s and allocated funds to study a sports complex in fiscal year 2017, said the referendum question was doing as intended — giving voters a chance to weigh in on the use of bond funding.

“The ballot question, drafted in consultation with state election officials, is a concise and fair summary of the seven-page bond bill,” he said.

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.