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Ampitheater part of BFPC plans

Members of the Berlin Falls Park Committee last week discuss a list of priorities and “threshold” items.

By Josh Davis, Associate Editor

(June 28, 2018) The Berlin Falls Park Committee last Thursday approved a pair of “threshold items,” but deferred the decision on a third until a future meeting.

The committee unanimously endorsed the concept of an amphitheater and use of the Conservation Community Consulting LLC interpretive plan for the section deemed to remain as a passive-use park.

Undecided was whether to demolish or rehabilitate the main building on the property, as several committee members requested more information.

Park Coordinator David Deutsch said the estimated cost to restore the building to a shell, without electrical work or plumbing, was about $2.1 million. The cost to raise the building was estimated at $600,000, he said.

“If we want to make some plans for the property, we’re going to have to make some pretty big decisions sometime,” Chairwoman Amy Field said. “Otherwise, we might spend time on things that are going to be null and void once we do decide if we’re going to knock down the building.

“I don’t want to make an uninformed decision, but I hope tonight we make a decision,” she added.

Vice Chairman Jack Orris said the building totaled about 65,000 square feet.

“If we decide to keep it and rehab it, that’s what we have, but if we decide to remove it that’s space that’s open,” he said.

To fund either endeavor, Town Administrator Laura Allen said the town received $500,000 more than the purchase price for the property in the original bond acquired two years ago. She said about $400,000 of that remained.

She added that Administrative Services Director Mary Bohlen had looked into “brownfield” grants for redevelopment of the former industrial site, but they were contingent on what contaminants may be found underneath the building.

“The property itself doesn’t have any particular problems [and] wouldn’t qualify as a brownfield, but none of us are really sure what’s under the building,” she said. “[If] we choose to demolish and do a little sampling to identify if there’s something under the building that might qualify, then we could look for brownfield grants.

“We are looking for grants, but we haven’t found anything that really fits just yet,” Allen added.

Deutsch said strategic demolition grants were also potentially available through the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development, but “the hook there is you have to demonstrate some kind of economic development.”

“We may have to get creative on that kind of application, but there is that potential,” he said.

Committee members were divided on which way to go.

Asked by Orris what was their perception of the building, a former Tyson Chicken processing site, Amy Barra replied, “industrial garbage … and chicken murder.”

“I don’t know if that’s the vibe Berlin wants to put out,” she said.

Others, including Kate Patton and Joan Maloof, discussed saving at least a portion of the building because of its unique character.

“The visual perception right now is industrial and garbage, but envision cleaning it up [and] removing part of it. A different type of landscaping and visual approach is going to change that whole feel,” Patton said. “To me, it could be very aesthetically interesting, which captures some history.”

Patton called for “real numbers” on whether it made sense to salvage a portion of the building and demolish the rest.

Allen, in a follow-up interview on Monday, defined what was intended by “threshold.”

“These were issues that I felt really could dictate big portions of the park – things that really needed to be understood and agreed to by the committee before we could move forward,” she said, adding the short list was created by herself, Deutsch, Field and Orris.

The building, she said, fit that description because of how much space it occupies and because it’s “a big-ticket item” in terms of cost, Allen said.

“It’s an issue that really needs to be decided sooner rather than later,” she said. “It would dictate the way that some parts of the park would be used or maybe some of the programs.”

She said the decision to follow the interpretive plan now allows town staff to “move forward with some specifics regarding that area,” while the amphitheater was an idea strongly favored by committee members for some time.

“I felt like there was good progress made during the meeting. They’ve got some solid sense of what they’d like to do in terms of an amphitheater and the passive area of the park,” she said. “What they decided they needed in terms of being able to make a decision on the building was more information.”

Allen said that would be provided before the next scheduled committee meeting, July 19 at 6 p.m. at Berlin Town Hall.

“We’re going to get the additional information for them and the goal is to have them make a decision at the July meeting,” she said.