Despite Referendum Results, Commission President Says ‘Sports Complex Project Continues On’ With Eye On Alternative Funding Source

Despite Referendum Results, Commission President Says ‘Sports Complex Project Continues On’ With Eye On Alternative Funding Source
Campaigns signs, including those for and against Question A, are pictured outside Ocean City's polling site, the convention center. Photo by Chris Parypa

BERLIN – The majority of voters this week did not support giving Worcester County the ability to finance the cost of designing and building a sports complex.

In Tuesday’s general election, 52.37% of voters were against Question A, which was meant to determine whether the Worcester County Commissioners could bond the costs associated with a sports complex. While mail-in ballots have not yet been counted, at this point there are 9,424 (52.37%) votes against the question and 8,572 (47.63%) for the question.

Ocean City resident Vince Gisriel, a member of the group who brought the question to referendum by collecting signatures, hopes the results will put a halt to the county’s plan to buy land for a sports complex next to Stephen Decatur High School.

“I’d hope they’d acknowledge the majority of people have rejected the concept at this time for a variety of reasons,” he said.

In April, the commissioners voted 4-3 to buy a 95-acre site on Route 50 owned by the Harrison family for $7.1 million. Because the county initially planned to make the purchase with bond funds, Gisriel and like-minded citizens of the People for Fiscal Responsibility quickly started a petition to referendum in an effort to give voters a chance to decide whether the project should be bond funded.

Their effort to collect signatures was successful and in July a ballot question was drafted. Voters were simply tasked with selecting whether they were “for” or “against” the commissioners financing a portion of the costs of designing and constructing a Worcester County sports complex by issuing a bond.

Gisriel this week was hesitant to definitively declare victory with more than 4,800 mail-in ballots yet to be counted, but there are currently 852 more votes against bond funding the sports complex than there are for financing it. He noted that while the county is still under contract to purchase the land next to Stephen Decatur, he’s hoping the commissioners will terminate the agreement.

“I’d hope they’d acknowledge the will of the people and consider the matter closed at this time,” he said.

Commissioner Joe Mitrecic, however, indicated in an interview Wednesday the sports complex could still move forward.

“The referendum wasn’t on a sports complex,” he said. “The referendum was on the bond issue. As far as I’m concerned, the sports complex project continues on. We just have to find a different way to fund it.”

Because the referendum question related to a specific bond bill, in theory the commissioners could begin the legislative process again and create a new bond bill related to the sports complex. Mitrecic said he did not expect that to happen.

“The voters have said they don’t wait it funded with a bond bill,” he said. “We’ll have to find another way to fund it.”

He said there were private funding as well as state funding options that could be explored. Mitrecic said he’d expected the majority of voters to vote against Question A but was encouraged by the fact that it was a close vote.

“Considering people were concerned their taxes were going to go up, I knew it was going to lose,” he said. “I was encouraged that it wasn’t two to one, it was fairly close.”

Mitrecic said he didn’t think the county should end the contract to buy the land before the Maryland Stadium Authority released results of its study related to a sports complex in the area.

“I don’t think that would be prudent until we get the numbers back from the Stadium Authority and see if there is a way to move forward,” he said. “Right now, I think we need to keep trying to move forward. We have to look at all of our options.”

Gisriel believes the commissioners shouldn’t make any decisions this month, as two new commissioners — Caryn Abbott and Eric Fiori — are set to be sworn in next month. They take the seats previously held by Josh Nordstrom and Bud Church, both staunch supporters of putting a sports complex on the Harrison property.  Gisriel added that the more than 9,000 people who voted against Question A did so for a variety of reasons. While some were worried about the financial impact of bonding such a project, he said others were worried about rising costs and the location next to the high school and adjacent to Flower Street.

“We felt very strongly there were a lot of reasons to vote against it,” he said.

Gisriel said the months of work put in by the volunteers who collected signatures and talked about the referendum question had proven to be worthwhile, as in the end voters had been able to have input. He added that the commissioners themselves had been split on the issue, voting 4-3 to move forward with the project.

“It was the only way to accomplish rejecting it, by letting it go to the voters,” he said, adding that the people’s power to petition was an important one. “This is a classic example of how citizens can take control of decisions made by government.”

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.