The sports complex financing referendum’s result is important, but the new makeup of the Worcester County Commissioners will ultimately have more of an impact on the project’s fate moving forward.
Prior to the opening of mail-in ballots and provisional ballots, 52% of the county voters, or 9,424, voted against issuing a bond for the design and construction of a sports complex. The margin between the “against” group and the “for” proponents was just 852 votes with 17,996 votes cast. It’s certainly not a sweeping mandate against financing a sports complex, but there’s no disputing the majority of voters do not want to utilize the bond market for this project. The referendum result is important.
With voters stating their position, the obvious question now is: what’s next for a sports complex in Worcester County? According to current Commission President Joe Mitrecic, who expected the citizens to vote against the referendum, the county will continue to proceed with a sports complex planning albeit with the need for a new funding source. Mitrecic said much of what’s next with the complex process hinges on the Maryland Stadium Authority’s update to a feasibility study as well as what kind of funding would be possible from the state. When asked if the vote this week would result in the county backing out of its contract to buy property west of the high school for the future complex site, Mitrecic said, “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. Right now, I think we need to keep trying to move forward. We have to look at all of our options.”
Along with word from the state on funding and feasibility, a key piece to the ongoing puzzle now is where the new set of commissioners will stand on a sports complex. As proposed, though it will not be financed through a bond, local tax dollars will need to be used to make this project a reality and at some point another vote will take place. The last vote on this matter was the 4-3 decision to buy the parcel off Route 50 – in favor were Commissioners Mitrecic, Diana Purnell, Bud Church and Josh Nordstrom and against were Commissioners Chip Bertino, Jim Bunting and Ted Elder. The detractors all got re-elected in the summer primary, while Church and Nordstrom lost. Newcomers Caryn Abbott, who beat Nordstrom Tuesday, and Eric Fiori, who won a four-way primary to replace the retiring Church in July, have both expressed concerns about the complex project as proposed. Abbott said in an interview before the election she was “against the taxpayers footing the bill,” and “government should not be in the business of running businesses.” For his part, in an interview last July, Fiori said, “I am 100% for the sports complex, but not as it stands. Due diligence needs to be done.” He said he would vote against the project until numerous questions were answered about the exorbitant cost, traffic, Berlin’s concerns and sewer, water and stormwater issues. Fiori said, “A very expensive property that cannot be used for its intended use would not only be a tax burden for us, but for our children.” Another wrinkle is who will become the next commission president. We envision Bertino angling to replace Mitrecic in that critical post.
After this week’s referendum and the makeover shift of the commissioners, the sports complex project appears to be on life support. The process is in a critical phase with many questions to be answered in the coming months. We would not be surprised if the purchase contract needs another extension while the picture clears. Until the many questions are resolved, namely how the site would be bought with county funds, what the project will specifically entail and how much of a partner the state will be in developing it, the sports complex remains a confusing mystery. It could be months before any resolution or direction is decided.