SNOW HILL – Citizens will have a chance to weigh in on whether Worcester County should purchase land for a sports complex at a public hearing in April.
On April 19 at 6 p.m. at Stephen Decatur High School, the Worcester County Commissioners will host a public hearing regarding plans to purchase 95 acres adjacent to the school—currently owned by the Harrison family—for a sports complex.
“People should let their commissioners know how they feel,” Commissioner Joe Mitrecic said.
The county announced on Tuesday that the commissioners would host a public hearing on a proposal to purchase 95.521 acres of property next to Stephen Decatur High School to develop a sports complex. The purchase would be funded with a portion of the proceeds from general obligation bond funds of $11,198,830 to fund acquisition, design and development costs.
“The main purpose for the sports complex, which is included in the FY23-FY27 Capital Improvement Plan (CIP), is to provide county residents and guests with more recreational programming and event opportunities by providing additional field space,” a news release from the county reads. “Conceptual plans for this project include multi-purpose fields, with restrooms, parking, and concessions for recreation and travel sports. Additional park amenities would include walking trails, ponds, and a playground.”
County officials have talked about a potential sports complex for years, with studies indicating such a facility could result in as much as a $24 million economic impact.
“It’s going to be an economic benefit to the entire county,” Mitrecic said.
While Mitrecic has been a staunch advocate for development of such a facility, other commissioners have expressed concerns. Commissioner Chip Bertino says there are too many unanswered questions. While he believes it’s a good idea in theory, he said it wasn’t clear how it would be paid for and what use citizens would get out of it, as it’s been primarily referred to as tournament space for travel sports. He doesn’t understand why the county should spend $7 million on land when concrete details haven’t been presented. Bertino compared it to a person buying a mansion on the hope that they’d win the lottery.
“It doesn’t make sense to move forward to me,” he said. “Once we buy this property it comes off the tax rolls.”
Bertino is concerned that once the facility is built, its expenses will eventually be folded into the general fund budget and just become another line item the county is responsible for.
“I have no idea what the costs are going to be,” he said.
He’s also noted that with room and food tax, the facility would generate revenue but that it wouldn’t come close to what the county’s annual debt service payment would be.
Bertino added that the issue of whether the county can use Program Open Space funds from the state for the project—something proposed by Tom Perlozzo when he was the county’s head of tourism, economic development and recreation and parks—has still not been resolved.
“He also told us there were two businesses in Worcester County that were willing to put up $3 million toward this,” Bertino said. “That never came to fruition.”
Mitrecic, however, believes the commissioners have to look at the big picture. Beyond the direct room and food tax income, the county businesses would see increased economic activity and be able to employ more people.
“It’s going to be a revenue generator throughout the county,” he said. “Sports tourism is the future of tourism.”
He added that a facility here would give underprivileged kids who might not be able to travel for sports a chance to play in a tournament atmosphere.
According to Mitrecic, the public hearing will give the commissioners a chance to hear from citizens regarding the plan. Following their input, the commissioners will determine if they want to go ahead and buy the property. Mitrecic said the commissioners would vote that night on whether to proceed.
As far as specifics regarding the complex, Mitrecic said a possible layout was being developed. He expects that to be shared during an informational presentation at the start of the April 19 public hearing. He said a website with answers to frequently asked questions was also under development.
“This is a huge boon for Worcester County,” he said. “With Ocean City wanting to partner with us, it could be huge for the county.”
The sports complex is one of many projects in the county’s $200 million five-year CIP. A separate public hearing will take place during the commissioners’ regularly-scheduled April 5 meeting to receive comments on proposed bond bills for additional CIP projects to be completed in the near term, including the Stephen Decatur Middle School addition, Snow Hill Middle School and Cedar Chapel Special School roof replacement, public safety logistical storage facility design and development, jail improvements, and a belt filter press water and wastewater project in the Ocean Pines Sanitary Service Area.