(Jan. 9, 2015) While many people cheered the town’s purchase of the former Tyson Chicken plant in Berlin, with intention to transform the former “eyesore” into a massive public park, some in the community criticized the $2.75 million buy as extravagant and superfluous.
The property, on Old Ocean City Road across from Burley Oak Brewing Company, has been dormant for more than a decade after functioning as a chicken processing plant.
Berlin Mayor Gee Williams said the town has always endured criticism, during periods of growth, when pursuing ambitious public projects.
“It might as well be 1975,” he said. “These are the same things I’ve heard forever. There are people who believe in the town and believe the town should invest in itself, and there are people who do not. And that will never change.
“The majority of the people in the town have to decide, after working so hard to get where we are, is now the time to stop? Now that opportunities are blossoming all over the place, now that we have potential commercial and residential development beyond anything we could possibly hope for even five and 10 years ago, is now the time to stop? I don’t think so. We are spending the money now so the town controls [the site] and its future use, and the town is no longer left to deal with property that is beyond our control.”
Williams remembers the ecological nightmare the site presented the town in the 1960s and 1970s.
“From a lifetime of living in Berlin and a lifetime of living in the immediate proximity of that property, people who know what used to be there, I think, will greatly support [the purchase],” he said. “And I think people who don’t want us to spend money on anything, that’s just the way it is. I can’t change that.”
The mayor also refuted the notion that, by buying a former industrial site, Berlin was stifling possible industry.
“There is good industry and there is bad industry,” he said. “Not all business is ideal for our community. We’ve had to learn that the hard way; we’re not going to go back and learn that a second time.”
Finance Director Natalie Saleh is exploring three different options for purchasing the site, likely including the $230,000 the town annually receives as part of the deal to bring the Casino at Ocean Downs to Worcester County.
“That’s certainly going to be a contributing factor,” Williams said. “We took that money for things we never otherwise would be able to do, and when this obligation is met I hope our future mayor and council take advantage of some other unique opportunity. It is not there to replace income that citizens are normally responsible for.”
Williams expects Saleh to present her findings during a public meeting in January.
The mayor and council unanimously approved the purchase of the site from Berlin Properties North LLC, with a $25,000 down payment and a six-month study period, during a meeting on Dec. 22.
Under the contract, the town will commission an appraisal and conduct a Phase 1 environmental assessment of the property to determine if it is suitable for public recreational purposes pursuant to the state Department of the Environment regulations.
Deputy Town Administrator Mary Bohlen said there are several contingencies in the contract that allow the town to receive a refund of the down payment.
“If some reason were to come up, say the environmental study proved that we were not able to use the property as we would like, we would be able to get the deposit back,” she said.
The contract also allows the town to pursue construction of a temporary skate park on the site, and transfers 2.903 acres of property on the east side of Flower Street to town ownership. Bohlen said the additional property would likely serve as a town parking lot.
Development of the former Tyson plant into a multi-use facility, possibly including indoor and outdoor recreation as well as festival grounds, will likely carry a hefty price tag.
Economic and Community Development Director Ivy Wells, who brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants in her former role in Sykesville, Md. expects Berlin to pursue several endowments to fund the purchase and development of the site
“Typically the perception is we’re going to have all this debt, we’re going to get this property and then where does the money come from, but a lot of time people don’t realize that there’s so much grant money out there,” she said. “There is grant money out there that allows you to do the things you want to do without having to spend town money.”
Wells said the type of grants used on the property would depend on the town’s intended use.
“That would help us to determine which grants to apply for,” she said. “If it’s going to be a park, there’s Community Parks and Playground money. If you’re going to do some construction with the building, there’s Community Legacy money that you can use for that.”
Berlin has enjoyed a cultural and economic upswing dating back several years and culminating in the Budget Travel designation in early 2014. Revenue is up, and optimism is clearly enjoying a period of renaissance.
Williams said the Tyson purchase is proof that the current leadership is not content to rest on their laurels.
“Our job is to work on the future, not live in the past,” he said. “The community has to decide, do they want to basically shut down or do they want to prepare for the next level of prosperity and success, which is literally knocking on our door.
“This is the time you make these investments, not after the property values start shooting up,” Williams continued. “We want to do everything we can to make sure we do not leave a piece of property that could become an environmental and economic development nightmare when we have the opportunity to do something very special with it.”