Ocean City Today

Worcester stadium, sports complex debated

Indoor/outdoor facility was narrowed to outside only as county decides role of gov’t
By Brian Gilliland | Dec 28, 2017

(Dec. 29, 2017) What began as a proposal for a hybrid indoor/outdoor sports complex featuring minor league hockey team as the star attraction was whittled down to just the outdoor portion, after the Maryland Stadium Authority determined that portion could still be profitable.

In February, the indoor/outdoor proposal was relegated to the regulatory purgatory of “very unlikely,” but the indoor proposal in Worcester ended in April with the announcement by Wicomico County Executive Bob Culver that the Wicomico Youth and Civic Center is recruiting its own minor league ice hockey team.

The outdoor complex, featuring at least eight fields targeted to the growing youth sports travel team tourism segment, was determined to be a viable concept for Worcester, based in part on its mature hospitality industry.

At the same time, another outdoor sports complex opened in Pittsville, close to the Worcester/Wicomico border. That facility offers six outdoor fields along with a clubhouse and other amenities.

This was all still a concept until August, when the Maryland Stadium Authority delivered a report on how the complex would work.

The authority recommended a minimum of eight fields suitable for soccer, rugby, lacrosse and related activities, plus an artificial turf field to maximize tournament opportunities along with related concession, restrooms, parking and site-wide Wi-Fi.

This plan would require a minimum of 32 acres on a site yet to be determined for the fields, plus another eight for parking. Any future expansion would also have to be factored in, as well as the accessibility to residents and travelers.

The authority also recognized the facility would operate at a loss between $136,000-$155,000 annually after expenses were covered, but could earn between $12-$14.8 million, bringing between $446,000-$551,000 in local tax revenue and between $1.9-$2.4 million in state tax revenue. It was estimated to bring about 400 jobs to the region, though not necessarily tied to the complex itself.

Possible benefits highlighted by the authority during the presentation include enhancing the quality of life for residents, enhancing the county’s image as a destination, fostering the development of players, broadening the market reach to new visitors and attracting visitors during non-peak months.

For a season ranging from March 1 to Nov. 30, the authority estimated the complex would draw between 17-21 events bringing up to 110,000 participants and spectators to the venue. Those people could generate up to 62,475 hotel stays during events, according to the presentation.

The authority noted 90 percent of event activity would be new to the county.

The commissioners took no formal action following the presentation, instead opting for a work session.

The commissioners faced two main decisions about the complex before the project could proceed. First, the board must actually vote to proceed and second, the commissioners would need to decide on a location.

Before the work session, three commissioners, Jim Bunting, Chip Bertino and Diana Purnell, did not return several requests for comment, other members did, showing there was at least marginal support for the venture heading into the meeting.

“It’s a golden opportunity for the county,” Commissioner Bud Church said. “Between my son and my five grandchildren playing sports, I’ve traveled half of the East Coast, and have seen the opportunities these places bring to other areas.”

Church said he would vote in favor of the complex wherever it may be located, but he favors someplace along the Route 50 or Route 113 corridors.

Representing the southern end of the county, Commissioner Merrill Lockfaw said he would like to see the commissioners consider placing a new amenity outside of the more developed northern region.

“I don’t know that the company reviewing the project took a hard look outside of the north end of the county. I know the other commissioners like the northern end, but we’re putting all of our eggs in one basket, and we keep doing it,” he said.

Lockfaw said plenty of suitable and less expensive land is available along Route 13 and 113.

Lockfaw contended the complex would spur its own development and could spark more interest in what southern Worcester has to offer.

Commissioner Joe Mitrecic, representing Ocean City on the board, said he was highly in favor of the project.

“I hope I’m one of at least four in favor of it,” he said. “If we don’t do it we’ll be behind the trend and end up on the outside looking in. North side, south side — they’re all good for me.”

Mitrecic said he didn’t think the county could build the project and that the infrastructure — like water, sewer and support amenities like hotel rooms — would follow. He also thought the county may have to contribute something toward the effort, like tax increment financing. Private investment is also a priority for Mitrecic, as he said he doesn’t believe the county could run the facility as effectively as a private enterprise could.

Commissioner Ted Elder said he was keeping an open mind about the project, and he was curious to know what the other commissioners were thinking.

“I’m leaning more toward something that is self-sustaining. The county isn’t in the position to commit large sums of money to the project,” he said.

Private industry would give the facility a greater chance at success, he said. Elder also indicated he favored placing the facility at the southern end of the county.

The work session centered on an internal study produced by county staff, after finding the Maryland Stadium Authority’s study to be overly optimistic.

Two schools of thought emerged among the county commissioners during the work session, with some commissioners believing it was government entering into a new business and others considering it an extension of what the county already provides as part of the Parks and Recreation Department.

The commissioners voted to proceed to the next step in evaluating the project, which is identifying a potential site to be evaluated by the state and, at this point, costs nothing. Once the state performs that analysis, some financial consideration from the county is expected, as the study is expected to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, but other funding contributions may be found in addition to county resources.

Commissioner Chip Bertino, a steadfast adherent to the first school, reminded the commissioners of previous discussions where most, if not all, of the others said they did not want to use taxpayer funds to build or manage a sports stadium.

“Why are we revisiting this as a public venture when we said we didn’t want to do it? We made it clear we did not want this as a public enterprise,” he said.

Bertino likened the effort to the county entering into a new business, while the exit of another business, namely the Department of Liquor Control that oversaw wholesale distribution of alcohol and some retail operations in the county, was continuing.

“We’re pulling out of one to jump into another,” he said.

Bertino offered a motion to end the session before it had really started, but it failed because of a lack of a second. Commissioner President Jim Bunting said he concurred with Bertino.

On the other side were Commissioners Joe Mitrecic, representing Ocean City, and Bud Church, representing West Ocean City south of Route 50, who argued in favor of continuing conversations about the complex, but weren’t yet ready to commit money to the effort.

“I said it in the paper before and I’ll say it again, I’ll vote in favor of the project wherever it’s located, but I never dreamed it would be a completely public enterprise,” Mitrecic said. “Parks and Recreation is already in the tournament business, so I don’t think it’s new and I don’t think it’s a business — I think it’s an extension of what we already do.”

Church thought the effort to derail the talks before county staff had even presented their findings was shortsighted.

Church said he heard the concerns about the government growing to encompass such a new venture, but he said he also saw the potential economic advantages.

“At least review what the staff has put together. I think the citizens deserve to hear the proposal — I’d hate to miss an opportunity because we said we didn’t want to hear it.”

Somewhere in the middle were commissioners Ted Elder, Diana Purnell and Merrill Lockfaw.

Lockfaw, representing Pocomoke City, wanted to see the southern end of the county represented in the conversation.

“If we continue the discussions, we need to stop building a one-legged man,” he said. “I’m willing to proceed but I want to be assured that the south end gets proper consideration.”

Both Elder and Purnell expressed concerns about using taxpayer funds for the project, but ultimately voted to allow staff to identify a potential site for the complex. The vote was 5-2 with Bertino and Bunting against.

The outdoor complex would feature at least eight fields set up for sports like lacrosse, soccer, football or Ultimate Frisbee. One field would be designated the “showcase” field, complete with bleachers, concessions and, perhaps, outdoor lighting.

Traveling tournaments would rent the facility in full or in part to host events, and county staff sees potential in sponsorship opportunities, tax revenue from restaurants and hotels and employment gains.

Paige Hurley, the former director of Worcester County Parks and Recreation, said during the work session that he was tired of having the same conversation as he and staff traveled to trade shows and conferences trying to sell the county to sports tournaments.

“The first thing that happens is they ask if we have a space with eight or more fields, and we say no, and then the conversation is over,” he said.

Merry Mears, director of economic development, when asked her opinion of the staff effort said she thought the projections would be based on taking the previous study and cutting the numbers in half. She said the internal study goes farther.

“I feel like we’re undercutting the opportunity. This is a very, very conservative effort but it’s still showing a potential for profit,” she said.

First, it would need to be built. The estimated cost to build an eight-field complex on 100 acres, with concessions, restrooms, stormwater management, storage and other related amenities is about $9.2 million.

Commissioner Diana Purnell asked if the county could afford the cost.

County Administrator Harold Higgins said yes, while County Treasurer Phil Thompson said $10 million concerns him, but funding partners shouldering some of the burden could be “a game changer.”

For the first three years of operation, staff estimated 12-14 tournaments could be held drawing fewer than 40,000 participants and spectators total, and generating between 14,400 and 21,000 hotel stays.

Based on these numbers, county staff projected revenues of $210,000 against $393,000 in expenses, leaving a deficit of $183,000.

For that cost, however, the economic impact shows almost $2.9 million in additional room rentals, $1.8 million in food and beverage sales and about $1.2 million in miscellaneous spending, for a total of nearly $5.9 million in economic activity.

Sponsorship revenue was set at $25,000 for the purposes of the study, while many parties involved thought that number was too low.

The county and municipalities could realize almost $200,000 in additional tax revenues based on the projections.

Based on the findings, county staff supported the project, and concluded it could have a substantial positive impact on the local economy.

The next step, which the commissioners approved by a vote of 5-2, is to proceed to a site plan study, where county staff identifies potential sites for the facility and submits them to the stadium authority to review.

As this process continued, the county had a surprise in November, as the Ocean City Council began investigating its own outdoor complex.

If the resort were to involve itself, it could make use of the Maryland Stadium Authority study, which is a public document paid for with taxpayer money.

Functionally, Worcester County is years ahead of the resort’s effort, as the commissioners have had two studies performed and spent about $15,000 toward the effort, while Ocean City included it in a planning document, tagged for future conversation.

Locally, it would likely find the landscape unchanged from the ongoing county debate, with opponents remaining opposed and proponents remaining in favor.

“If it’s a private enterprise, I have no problem. If some entrepreneur wants to build it, then it’s fine. If it’s a public-private partnership — that I have a problem with,” Bertino said.

Bertino has been on the record as against the project since it began as a concept for a hybrid sports stadium and outdoor field complex about two years ago.

Bunting, similarly, has been against government involvement in the project, and referenced using the mechanisms of government against a resort proposal.

Mears, for her part, feels that the project would be a boon to Worcester wherever it was located.

“Our study said the best place to put the complex was within 10 miles of the critical mass of people, which is Ocean City. If we hang it in the center of that critical mass, I don’t really see the negatives here,” Mears said. “I don’t see pride of ownership, because the rising tide will lift all boats.”

She praised the resort’s assertiveness.

“Traditionally, Ocean City seeks opportunity and capitalizes on it. It’s not surprising. I’d just love to be a part of the development,” Mears said.


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