SNOW HILL – Worcester County officials voted Tuesday to cancel the contract to purchase land on Route 50 for a sports complex.
In the same meeting two new commissioners were sworn in and leadership of the board changed from Commissioner Joe Mitrecic to Commissioner Chip Bertino, the commissioners vote 4-2 to end the contract to purchase the Harrison property next to Stephen Decatur High School.
“The purpose of this motion is to cease all involvement Worcester County has in construction of a sports complex in Worcester County,” Commissioner Jim Bunting said. “It is not intended to hinder in any way an individual or entity in privately owning and operating a sports complex in Worcester County and I look forward to them coming forward.”
After several years of talking about the potential for a sports complex in Worcester County, the commissioners voted 4-3 in April to move forward with plans to purchase 95 acres owned by the Harrison family next to Stephen Decatur High School. The three who voted against the purchase, Bunting, Bertino and Commissioner Ted Elder, have been vocal regarding their concerns about the proposed $7.1 million land purchase in the months since.
At the close of Tuesday’s meeting, and with two previous supporters of the sports complex — Bud Church and Josh Nordstrom — no longer on the board, Bunting made a motion to end the contract and cancel any related consulting contracts. The motion also instructed staff to cease any studies or planning related to the project. Commissioner Caryn Abbott seconded the motion but Mitrecic urged his peers to wait before making any decisions. He said the commissioners hadn’t even had a face-to-face meeting with the Maryland Stadium Authority (MSA) since it released its study on the sports complex last week. The study, which was paid for by the Town of Ocean City, indicated development of a complex would cost about $153 million but that there was potential for significant state funding. The study reviewed the costs and impacts of a sports complex consisting of eight to 10 tournament quality fields and a 125,000 square foot indoor facility.
“Everybody up here has said over time they support a sports complex in Worcester County. They just don’t want the taxpayers to pay for it,” Mitrecic said. “If the stadium authority is willing to pay 80% of the cost and there’s a private entity that wants to pay that other 20% and the county could reap the benefits of that, I don’t see why we wouldn’t at least listen to what they have to say.”
Mitrecic said the county’s next budget would be a difficult one to fund. He’s long advocated for a sports complex as a revenue generator.
“We have costs that are going through the roof with the education system,” he said. “We have costs that are going through the roof with our employees in the county to keep them here. We’ve lost how many employees? Over the last eight years that I’ve been here, the number is staggering. They’re leaving every day for private industry where they feel they can make more money.”
He stressed that the commissioners should speak to the MSA before making a decision on the land contract. He added that the county could have purchased the property any time during the last six months when a majority of the commissioners were supporters of a sports complex.
“I refused to bring it forward that way because I thought it was important we heard what the stadium authority had to say and we heard what they were interested in paying,” he said.
Elder said he had opposed buying the 95-acre parcel but felt that Mitrecic’s heart was in the right place. He said the MSA reported state that a complex would likely operate at a deficit.
“That’s the key word there,” he said.
Mitrecic said MSA’s opinion on the deficit was based on the county paying for a $70 million bond to develop the complex. He said that if a private entity got involved the county wouldn’t need that bond. Commissioner Diana Purnell said she agreed with Mitrecic.
“We need to let the stadium authority come in and say what they will or won’t do and make our decision then,” she said.
Commissioner Eric Fiori, who replaced 20-year Commissioner Bud Church, a long-time sports complex supporter, expressed concern about the project.
“I’m an entrepreneur by trade. We cannot be entrepreneurs with county tax dollars. There’s a lot of speculation,” he said.
He said the MSA report was not favorable.
“What happens if this is a losing entity and we’re stuck with this particular property and the debt service and the maintenance that comes along with it” he said. “The problems we are trying to solve we are going to make worse. At this point in time. I just don’t feel like it’s a great idea to dedicate a ton of funds in speculation that this is going to help.”
The commissioners voted 4-2, with Mitrecic and Purnell opposed and Elder abstaining, in favor of the motion to end the contract and cancel related studies and efforts.