(Dec. 25, 2014) The Berlin mayor and Town Council ended months of public speculation on Monday when they voted to buy the former Tyson chicken plant on Old Ocean City Boulevard an eventually turn it into a massive, multi-use public park.
The council voted 4-0 to make a $25,000 down payment on the property, giving the town a six-month window, with an additional three-month option, to commission an appraisal and perform feasibility and environmental studies.
If all goes as town officials believe, Berlin will buy the entire property, which includes more than 70,000 square feet of office and warehouse space and 62 acres of land, for $2.75 million from ownership group Berlin Properties North LLC.
District 1 Councilmember Troy Purnell, who owns a stake in the property, recused himself before the vote.
Mayor Gee Williams said the town was attempting to transform what he characterized as an eyesore into a signature attraction.
The plant “was a major environmental problem and concern in the community,” Williams said. “There was a long period of time when I think most people wondered, ‘Will we ever see the day when we’re in a position to do this?’
“This could be a real potential jewel in the community,” Williams continued, “and it’s going to be up to the community to make that happen.”
While the mayor said a series of strategic planning sessions, beginning in January, would determine the exact use of the property, plenty of ideas have already been discussed.
In October and November, requests a skateboard park dominated town meetings. Berlin resident Lisa Cherivtch, who attended several meetings and worked to organize a nonprofit to raise money for such a park, called the Tyson deal “the best Christmas present in the world.”
Under the agreement with Berlin Properties, the town can build a temporary skate park during the provisional period.
“I think the skateboard park has been talked about in a very serious way,” Williams said. “I was impressed by how young people have come up and spoken to me in groups and individually for at least three years – and it’s not just the same ones.”
A second provision in the deal grants Berlin the right to stage a “3rd of July” fireworks display at the site. This would build on the success of the 20-minute fireworks show in August at the Tyson property.
“It was very successful and people loved it,” Williams said. “It’s an ideal environment. There’s lots of water, and it’s not in the heart of town.”
Williams said other possible uses for the property include outdoor concerts and theatrical performances, with the surrounding woods acting as “noise absorbers.”
Nonprofits could host large-scale fundraisers on the grounds, and existing paths could become hiking and biking trails with little investment.
The site could also become a major hub of the excursion train that is under consideration by the Worcester County Commissioners would run from Berlin to Snow Hill.
“If that moves forward, one of the options [is] they could put the trains right into the building,” Williams said. “It’s tall enough and it’s wide enough that they could service the engines and the passenger cars in a safe environment and not be exposed to weather.”
In that situation, the town would retain ownership of the land, while leasing a portion to a railroad company.
“If 50 years from now the railroad ceases to operate, the town still owns the land and we adopt the uses for the best benefit of the community,” Williams said.
The former Tyson plant could also address Berlin’s parking woes. The property is close enough to the downtown area to serve as a satellite lot for what Williams called “a very large, but very environmentally responsible parking area.”
“There’s potential parking galore,” he said. “You could take a short trolley downtown or, potentially down the road, take the train.”
The possibilities, Williams said, are endless.
“Each area, you could have multiple things happening and nothing interfering with each other,” he said.
Current zoning laws restrict the property’s use to industrial purposes, meaning rezoning for public activity could carry new mandates from the state, including renovating the existing wastewater treatment lagoons and collecting new soil and groundwater samples.
Williams said the town made preliminary inquiries on rezoning requirements.
“Our efforts to be a sustainable community are sincere,” he said. “We believe we can work with the Maryland Department of the Environment and the Department of Natural Resources – remember, they’re in the recreation business – and find ways that can be beneficial without exposing anyone to anything harmful.”
If cleanup is necessary, Williams said the state would likely provide grants to assist in the effort.
“There would be a great deal on incentive to say, ‘Here we’re turning a chicken plant into a public area of multiple uses,’” he said.
In a parallel move, the town also introduced resolution 2014-06 during Monday’s council meeting, annexing 90.5 acres of property on the east side of Seahawk Road with the intent to allow developers to build a new affordable housing complex.
The town is required to publish notice of the introduction of the resolution in local newspapers for four consecutive weeks, and hold a public hearing on the matter at least 15 days after the last notice of publication.
District 2 Councilmember Lisa Hall, encouraged the public to attend the hearing and the planning strategic planning sessions.
“There are two things that are very important,” she said. “They’re going to be permanent fixtures to the town, and we want your input – and not in the grocery store. You do have an opportunity to come and speak … and we want that.”
Both moves bring Berlin closer to Williams’ ultimate vision for the town – in inclusive community rich with diversity, from its recreational catalogue, to its housing options, to the way people move around the town itself.
“I really believe that this Tyson property gives us the potential, if we look at this the right way and we really roll our sleeves up, to take us to a multi-modal transportation community,” he said. “The car dominated transportation and culture in America in the 20th century, but multi-modal communities are the 21st century. I believe that very deeply, and I’m willing to commit whatever time and effort and elicit as many good partners as we can find.”
That includes the state, federal government, nonprofits and private industry.
“If you’re a good partner, you’ve got a good reputation and you’re offering something the town needs we’ll find a way to work together,” Williams said. “People with real money in their pockets are looking at the Town of Berlin.”
Anyone who has paid attention to the history of the town knows this kind of optimism is a stark contrast to the Berlin of the past, when, even a decade ago, most businesses struggled to keep their doors open.
Williams said the turnaround that allowed the Tyson purchase, among other things, to become a reality was “unexpected, but extraordinarily rewarding.”
“I think we’re developing our own Berlin culture, which is very friendly, inviting and tolerant,” Williams said. “We work hard, but everything we do here should always have an element of fun.
“When I became mayor, I thought it would be all work with maybe a little reward here and there,” Williams continued. “It’s ended up being a lot more work than I thought, but with many times more rewards than I ever could have imagined. That’s the way I feel about the job, and that’s the way I feel about where Berlin is. I just happen to be fortunate enough to be mayor when all this is happening.”