City, county go after complex separately with different visions

(Jan. 10, 2020) One sports complex, two teams: Worcester County and the Town of Ocean City, both of whom seek to dominate the amateur sports business, but are divided on who is to benefit the most. 

The key issue? Location. 

“That’s [location] going to be probably an issue that will be debated,” City Councilman Dennis Dare said. 

“I think that we need to find an area that we can build it that suits the needs of the county and move forward with possibly a private-public partnership,” Worcester County Commissioner Joseph Mitrecic said. 

The seed for this project came to life when Texas-based sports consulting firm Hat Tricks Consultants reached out to Worcester County Commissioners in the summer of 2014 and proposed a 6,200-seat facility to attract a minor-league hockey franchise. 

Former Worcester County Economic Development Director Bill Badger said in January 2015, the next step would be to gather funding for the Maryland Stadium Authority to conduct a second feasibility study, which was greenlighted that following August. 

A year later, on Jan. 19, the commissioners approved a resolution to accept a $25,000 grant from the Maryland Economic Development Assistance Authority and Fund to help pay for the $47,000 Crossroad Consulting study. 

However, before the study was completed, two events forced the commissioners to alter their original proposal. 

First, in April 2017, Wicomico County Executive Bob Culver announced that the Wicomico Youth and Civic Center would recruit its own minor-league hockey team, effectively killing the county’s aspirations. 

Wicomico County’s hockey endeavor has yet to come to fruition. 

Around the same time, Wicomico County opened its Mid-Atlantic Youth Sportsplex in Pittsville, near the Wicomico/Worcester border, offering six outdoor fields. 

Despite the two unforeseen hurdles, the Maryland Stadium Authority determined an outdoor facility could still be profitable. 

As reported by Ocean City Today in 2017, the stadium authority recommended a minimum of eight fields for soccer, rugby and lacrosse play, as well as an artificial turf, concession space, restrooms, parking and wi-fi. 

This would require a space of at least 40 acres, but the stadium authority suggested an even larger space to accommodate potential expansions. 

The study found that the facility would operate at a loss of $136,000-$155,000 annually, but could bring in $12-14.8 million with $446,000-$551,000 in local tax revenue and between $1.9-$2.4 million in state tax revenue.

The commissioners voted to proceed with finding a location, but according to Dare, the county’s progress seemed stagnant. That prompted the city to pursue the project independently and had its own Crossroad feasibility study for an indoor facility conducted. 

“From my perspective, the county did a study, and they haven’t done anything more with it,” Dare said. “So now we’re having one done, similar but different.” 

Mitrecic agreed and said that the county has made no progress within the past year. 

“I think Ocean City didn’t see the county moving forward in what they felt like was timely manner and they’re going to pursue something on their own,” Mitrecic said. “They see the importance of sports marketing tourism going forward, so this was something that they felt strongly about.” 

While the city waits on the feasibility study, the county has envisioned a possible public/private partnership with big-name sponsors, such as the Baltimore Ravens, Coca-Cola and Pepsi Cola. 

“We have one of the biggest sports gear companies in the world now, certainly top 10, Under Armour as a Maryland-based corporation. Maybe they’d be interested,” Mitrecic said. 

In addition to attracting outside investors, the county may be able to obtain funding from the state’s Project Open Space program and other state grants to avoid relying on county taxpayers, Mitrecic said.

Despite the county’s initially slow progress, it identified a potential location in northern Worcester County as of the end of December 2019, according to County Commissioner Bud Church. 

Meanwhile, the city can do little in terms of location or partnerships without the feasibility study, Dare said, but a resort-based and resort-led facility would be ideal.

“My concern is the economic impact for the town,” Dare said. “Why would the town want to get involved in something [it] would not benefit in?”

Dare explained how in the ’80s and ’90s, economic development on Route 50 in West Ocean City drove business from the resort. 

“You see 94th Street, a shopping center in Ocean City, sit there abandoned and finally torn down. You have a commercial area that at one time in the 1980s flourished,” Dare said. “… Now you have hotel chains going out there [Route 50], and you have a lot of restaurants in West Ocean City, so if you build a sports complex in the county are you going to see more hotels and more restaurants being built there to accommodate, which then takes business away from Ocean City?”

Although the pursuit of the sports complex remains competitive, there is a desire for a more collaborative approach. 

“I hope Ocean City would like to do some sort of partnership with the county in the future in the sports marketing, tourism and a complex,” Mitrecic said. 

Nevertheless, he said that it would take a miracle for the city and county to come together to work toward the complex. 

A request to interview Tom Perlozzo, the county’s director of Department of Recreation, Parks, Tourism and Economic Development, was denied.

Elizabeth covers Worcester County issues for Ocean City Today. In 2018, she graduated from Luther College in Decorah, Iowa with a bachelor of arts. After graduation, Elizabeth spent a year with Lutheran Volunteer Corps in Wilmington, Delaware.

Josh covers everything Ocean City government and crime. He graduated from the University of Richmond in 2019 with a B.A. in French and Journalism.

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