Northside Park, Facilities Provides Major Value For OC; Ocean City Complex Undersized For Sports Tourism

Northside Park, Facilities Provides Major Value For OC; Ocean City Complex Undersized For Sports Tourism

OCEAN CITY — While sports complex hopes in the north end of Worcester County had another setback this week, the decades-old Northside Park in Ocean City continues to provide a model of what could be on a larger scale.

The Worcester County Commissioners voted 4-2 to cancel the $7.1 million contract for a property purchase adjacent to Stephen Decatur High and Middle Schools for a vast proposed indoor and outdoor sports complex.

A revised Maryland Stadium Authority (MSA) study commissioned by the Town of Ocean City released last week estimated the total cost of the indoor-outdoor sports complex at $153 million. The study anticipated the proposed facility hosting as many as 64 tournaments a year and generating as many as 100,000 new room nights in the resort and surrounding areas.

The release of the MSA study last week and the subsequent vote this week by the commissioners to cancel the contract for the purchase of the property was cause for a deeper dive into the history of Ocean City’s Northside Park, an idyllic gem along the bayside in the uptown areas that for decades has hosted a myriad of youth sports tournaments, both indoor and outdoor, sports leagues, summer camps and a wide variety of recreational opportunities for residents and visitors alike. In addition, Northside Park has become a cultural hub for the town over the years, hosting the popular Sundaes in the Park event, the ArtX event, concerts and other activities including, currently, Winterfest of Lights. The short answer is there is no quantifiable study on the direct and indirect economic impact Northside Park has on Ocean City and the surrounding area.

Business and Tourism Development Director Tom Perlozzo, who, as Recreation and Parks Director for the town decades ago, was instrumental in the steady evolution of Northside Park, said this week the original intent was to create open, green recreation areas for local residents and grew to become the hive of activity it is today with numerous tournaments, leagues, camps and other activities. Perlozzo said the town and its recreation and parks department does an excellent job of filling Northside Park and its amenities to capacity, but it is undersized to meet the growing demands of the growth in the youth sports marketing industry.

“I am not sure there is any such study on Northside Park, but the metrics of benefits can be monetized within the town,” he said. “First and foremost, Northside Park is offered as a recreational amenity for residents first with some opportunities for tournament-type play and events. Unfortunately, the facility is too small and filled to capacity for use as intended with a new sports complex.”

As large as Northside Park appears, it would be dwarfed by the proposed sports complex in the north end of the county. For example, Northside Park is a 58-acre complex with three lighted softball-baseball fields, a lighted soccer field and a multi-purpose field. The original community center to the east includes a 14,200-square-foot gymnasium and the annexed gymnasium and multi-use area to the west includes 21,000 square feet.

By comparison, the proposed new sports complex in the county adjacent to the schools would rest on 95 acres with eight outdoor fields and a 125,000-square-foor indoor facility. The acreage of the complex and the combined number of fields would be roughly double that of Northside Park, while the square footage of the proposed indoor facility would be roughly triple the size of the combined indoor facilities at Northside Park. Given its size limitations as an open, green area in a resort destination, Perlozzo said Northside Park achieves its desired goals in terms of recreation opportunities along with economic impact.

“I believe that recreation as offered currently still provides the economic benefits in town as many events and programs indicate the same behaviors as travel teams, etc.” he said. “On any given date in the park, hundreds, if not thousands, of residents participate and provide a steady flow in and out of the park, along with visiting any and all businesses during their trip to the park.”

Perlozzo said short of tapping into a future sports complex out in the county, the town is doing a good job of taking advantage of opportunities it has on the island. The success of Northside Park speaks for itself, and the town is in the process of redeveloping the downtown recreation complex including an expansion of the skate park, for example. He said the town has also been exploring ways to tap into the growing pickleball phenomenon.

“I think pickleball alone will be a real eye-opener,” he said. “Youth sports such as soccer have a large contingency of residents, and those who are considered non-residents to keep costs affordable and the opportunity for field teams, etc. Sometimes, I think it’s been Ocean City’s best-kept secret for years, but the word is out, and the assets of Ocean City sell most opportunities, for example the beach, Boardwalk, hotels and restaurants. I was lucky enough to be part of the development of the park during my tenure as director and saw first-hand the maturity of things as they are.”

Recreation and Parks Director Susan Petito also said there was no formal study available on the direct and indirect economic impact of Northside Park, although there are some metrics available to suggest how many visitors, including participants, their families and spectators come to the various tournaments and events. Petito said there has been some effort to conduct an in-house study, but the process has been challenging.

“I agree that would be a great project and is something we have talked about internally for the past couple of years,” she said. “Trying to tackle that project in-house, however, has been a challenging prospect. We were going to try and begin with quantifying economic impact for the tournaments we hold at Northside Park, but the staff member tasked with that hasn’t been able to sink her teeth into it based upon existing workload.”

Petito said while a larger sports complex continues to be explored off-island, a study of what Northside Park brings to the town and the area could be valuable tool. Naturally, because of the size and capacity differences with the proposed county complex, the comparisons would be somewhat apples and oranges, but there could be value in pinning down just what NSP means in terms of economic impact.

“Though there is no official study of the value of Northside Park at this time, I am excited, and have been, about the possibility of what such a report may show,” she said. “I do think it will take a very long time to do all of the research to collect accurate results, but once that is accomplished, it would be an extremely valuable tool.”

Former Councilman and long-time city manager and city engineer before that Dennis Dare this week recalled the nascent days of the NSP site before it became what it is today in the late 1980s.

“I was the city engineer at the time and then-City Manager Tony Barrett told me to go up to Northside Park and look around because we wanted to build an indoor basketball facility up there,” he said. “I turned down 125th Street and there wasn’t much there. The Montego Bay Shopping Center was there, but basically, it was just an abandoned construction site.”

Dare explained how a developer was in the process of developing the vast site when he ran afoul of state wetlands regulations. A lot of the bayside areas in Ocean City developed over the years were the result of in-filling wetlands and creating lands on which to build vast residential projects.

However, with an increased awareness of the importance of preserving wetlands and critical habitat at the time, state and federal agencies instituted stronger wetlands protection laws. The property on which Northside Park was ultimately developed was slated for development, but the expiration date for the existing regulations expired mid-project, according to Dare.

“The Army Corps of Engineers came down on them pretty hard at the time,” said Dare. “The city agreed to buy the land and restore the wetlands. That big lagoon and the canals throughout the existing park were restored wetlands. Before that, locals were using the area as a dump. There was broken concrete all over the place, stacks of old air conditioners and appliances. It really was kind a wasteland before the city embarked on building a park there. All of that dumped concrete and that other debris was buried under what are now those lush, green sports fields.”

Dare said the design and construction phases of Northside Park were carried out over time before the facility came to be what it is today. He said the original vision was to provide green recreation areas for the town’s residents in an increasingly urban and suburban area but has steadily grown to become a revenue generator through the many leagues, tournaments, camps, youth programs and other events the site offers.

“We started on the design in those early years, then Tom Perlozzo came along as recreation and parks director and we did it a little bit at a time,” he said. “Barrett was fond of saying recreation is something we do for ourselves. The beaches, Boardwalk, all of these other things, we do for the visitors. This park is something we do for ourselves.”

Over the years, Northside Park has hosted youth sports tournaments, adult and outdoor tournaments, lacrosse tournaments, basketball, volleyball, softball and on and on. However, the size restraints of the swath of open space on the barrier island has essentially reached its capacity in terms of attracting tournaments the size of which are envisioned with the proposed sports complex in the north end of the county.

To be sure, the town in recent years has hosted sports tournaments, wrestling matches, volleyball and basketball tournaments and cheer and dance competitions at the expanded convention center, and there has been an increase in the number of sports tournaments and events on the wide beaches in the downtown area, which clearly put heads in beds and fill area restaurants and other businesses and amenities, but a new larger sports complex out in the county is likely needed to take the area’s youth sports marketing vision to a higher level.

“Northside has been a small sports complex, and we’re using the convention center more and more,” said Dare. “We’ve dabbled in sports tourism, but not to the degree we anticipated.”

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.