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Future use of Heron Park in Berlin uncertain

By Ally Lanasa, Staff Writer

(March 18, 2021) The Berlin mayor and Town Council heard a variety of ideas Monday night about the future of Heron Park, with some residents in favor of selling parcels 410 and 57, while others suggested transforming the property into an entertainment venue.

Berlin resident Tony Weeg began the discussion by proposing that the town should conduct a design charrette.

“A design charrette is something where we take a lot of people who can design properties and other civil engineering projects put them in a room for a couple of days, look at this project as a problem and how they would best use this for the town’s benefit,” Weeg said.

He also suggested evaluating the property on Old Ocean City Boulevard as a whole, rather than focusing on selling parcels 410 and 57. He considered leaving the areas with the ponds for Berlin.

“Then, we took the front areas where we typically drive in and re-looked at those areas as areas we could design to be interesting to developers,” Weeg said, adding that a skate park, a dog park or an amphitheater could be built in the front of the property.

However, Weeg was realistic about the financial burden of the park on the town.

“We need to make this less of a drag on the town budget,” he said. “So, I’m all for selling parts of it, the very front parts of it.”

Weeg said he believes the front parcels should be permitted to developers.

The Better Berlin Group suggested during the public listening session on Monday decorating the former Tyson operating plant on parcel 57 at Heron Park on Old Ocean City Boulevard with artwork until it could be demolished.

Then, Ann McGinnis Hillyer from State Ventures LLC. and Brad Hoffman from LiveWire Media & Events presented themselves to the council as the “Better Berlin Group.” Their concept for Heron Park involved retaining all parcels of the property.

“This is going to become a concert venue to generate revenues and it could start really small. It may not make much money, but it will contribute some money,” Hillyer said. “It could become the anchor for the north end of Berlin.”

She added that concerts could increase tourism to Berlin and economically benefit local businesses. She also said an event stage at Heron Park could expand existing Berlin events, such as the Fiddler’s Convention, the Christmas Parade and New Year’s Eve celebrations.

“We create these third places for the residents of Berlin. We’d have outdoor recreation space, and we can partner with a lot of different people to get some money and turn this into an environmental showcase as well,” Hillyer said. “We could create buffers around the outside to prevent dangerous situations with kids falling in water. So, there’s all kinds of things we could do from an environmental perspective.”

The Better Berlin Group plans to get the project done iteratively.

“As money comes in, we can do more, but we can start tomorrow doing concerts,” Hillyer said.

She added that grants could be acquired for the bicycle and walking trails.

The Better Berlin Group proposed that the town retain ownership of the site, use the property for its own events and rent it out periodically to generate revenue.

Hoffman added that the town could begin hosting smaller, family-friendly entertainment and evolve into hosting larger, ticketed concerts.

“We’re trying to explore the use of the park as it sits today and look at opportunities to create this natural amphitheater, to utilize the asphalt and the cement areas [and] the parking area to allow the park to be a platform and a canvas for events that we would create, that the town may need to utilize and the big word is working with partners outside that haven’t looked at the venue as an attractive venue for them to come and place an event in,” Hoffman said. “I’m very versed in bringing partners that are good for the town into this site and making their events happen there.”

He added that the Better Berlin Group could also help the town produce what residents desire to see at the park, such as a skate park, a dog park, additional basketball courts.

“Parks are built for the community to enjoy and for them to benefit from as well as what we’re talking about is bringing economic stimulus in through some of these events that we could create,” Hoffman said.

The Better Berlin Group would maintain the existing entrance to the park and use art projects to enhance the former Tyson chicken plant until it could be demolished.

“The amphitheater would be placed right off of the parking lot. We’d work with a mobile stage, and then we would have a placement of people to put blankets and chairs on the grass,” Hoffman said.

Within the first two years, the town could construct a smaller mobile stage to gather 50 to 1,000 people. After six years, Hoffman suggests a large entertainment stage could bring a crowd of 6,000 to 10,000 people for major concerts.

“When we’re so close to a town like Ocean City, Maryland, that has a lot of visitors, I believe those visitors will come to an event or a concert like this right over in Berlin,” Hoffman said.

Hillyer added that the amphitheater would not have seating similar to Merriweather Post Pavilion in Baltimore. Concertgoers would bring chairs or blankets and sit on the slope, facing the stage, with their backs to the ponds. Also, mobile restrooms could be provided for visitors because there is no water and sewer at the park.

“There is money for municipalities [in the new covid-19 relief package] for water and sewer,” Hillyer said. “If this is something that the town feels is important, there is money out there.”

Hillyer said an open-air pavilion could be used as a community gathering space when concerts are not held or leased to food service, apparel or concessions vendors. It could also be used for events like weddings or family reunions.

“I really think this pavilion would be a centerpiece of the development of the park,” Hoffman added.

Furthermore, Hillyer stated that there are many grant opportunities for the construction of a dog park. The Better Berlin Group suggested selling annual passes to the dog park, or if grant administrators require that the park be free, then donations could be requested from users of the facility. Other income ideas include dog training courses, doggy day care, spa shaggy and a coffee shop/cart that offers treats for dogs.

As for the next steps for the park, the town could establish an official public/private partnership through a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Better Berlin Group to move forward with the entertainment ideas. Berlin’s elected officials would need to identify the roles for the town and the Better Berlin Group, define shared goals along an achievable timeline and create a draft budget of potential revenue streams.

Hillyer said they would only get paid if they generate revenue for the town.

“I’m just curious to ask, and frankly I have no other way to say this is, where have you been?” asked Councilmember Jack Orris, who served on the Heron Park Advisory Committee.

Hillyer and Hoffman replied that they thought the town was moving toward a plan for the park.

“I think if you sell off either one of those two parcels for development, particularly residential development but really any development, you will shut down your ability to do big things with that park, because as soon as you get residents inside that park, they’ll be able to tell you they don’t want music or they don’t want something that’s noisy,” Hillyer added. “I think that’s why we acted when we did.”

Councilmember Shaneka Nichols asked the presenters if their proposals would be an additional cost to the town.

“We are willing to take our assets, our team, our own money and bring our collaborative abilities with sponsors, with grant writing, with naming rights, with all those things and not come to the city with a big ask for money, but to create an MOU where we have the freedom to go do these things,” Hoffman replied. “None of this can be done unless the mayor and council … deem it acceptable, and the community is behind it.”

Nichols also expressed concerns about safety. Hoffman and Hillyer said the safe flow of traffic could be determined first with smaller crowds and through a partnership with local law enforcement.

Additionally, Nichols said her constituents were concerned about noise affecting the wildlife at the park. Hillyer said local experts, such as the Maryland Coastal Bays Program, could be consulted to protect existing and future habitats for coyotes, birds and deer.

Berlin resident Marie Velong offered a contradictory perspective, stating that Heron Park creates too many liabilities and expenses for the town and its taxpayers.

She showed images of standing water on parcels 410 and 57 that would require fill to meet the goals of the Better Berlin Group.

“The debris from the processing plant is throughout this area,” Velong said.

Pipes protrude along the walking path of the first pond at the park and abandoned wastewater processing equipment can be found there as well.

“Currently, there is no way to help someone should they somehow roll into the water,” she said, adding that the water is not safe for humans. “And no one has talked about the high-tension wires running through [the center of the park].”

Velong also said the lack of accessibility would hinder first responders in the event of a medical emergency. Further, she said the dense tree line could conceal someone intending to prey on a passerby.

In a letter she sent to the mayor and council in support of selling parcels 410 and 57, Velong said, “Both of these parcels would require much more money to accomplish the goals most people have in mind for them. No one’s talking about where that money is coming from.

“The area is more commercial or industrial than recreational or park-like,” she said. “It is not a favorable place for young children to be without supervision. At this time, I feel it should be posted with ‘enter at your own risk.’ There is much industrial debris scattered throughout the park.”

She added that there are no sidewalks to the park for easy access from other parts of town.

Velong also believes the proximity to Cheers liquor store and Burley Oak Brewing Company is problematic regarding young people and the proposed skate park.

“I am in favor of skate park for the children of Berlin, just not at Heron Park,” she said. “We have to ask what age the skate park would be for, something no one has really addressed. Are we doing it to attract the business to the town or to give our children a safe place for them to practice their skateboarding skills? I truly believe there is enough land at Stephen Decatur Park that could house a reasonable skate park for our young people.”

Ron Cascio, vice chairman of the Berlin Planning Commission, reminded the town officials about the history of the Tyson operating plant and how the town obtained the land.

“At the time of the purchase, we were told – despite the fact that we had no idea what we were going to do with it – that the purchase was a good deal,” Cascio said.

The town is paying $200,000 a year until 2045 to retire the debt of  purchasing the property, so the town does not have the funds to bring ideas from the Heron Park Advisory Committee to fruition and maintain ownership of the whole property, he added.

“Let’s once again look at what best suits the people of Berlin as we contemplate what to do with our own speculative land investment,” Cascio said.

Potential buyers have seen value in parcels 410 and 57, but Cascio said current zoning regulations and the lack of architectural guidelines for that area will leave the town at the mercy of the properties’ buyers.

He suggested selling parcels for mixed use development, similar to Berlin’s Main Street District, to add more commerce and housing.

“We need to imagine a way to create value in this land of ours,” he said. “It starts with developing a comprehensive master plan for the entire 63 acres, then focus on designing the parts that we, and the market, decide hold the best development potential. Then, sell those off.”

Cascio added that he would prefer to establish what the parcels may be used for before flipping them.

“This way, we get exactly what we want in what will likely become the entrance to the town’s recreational park. We, as owners, have total control,” he said.

Berlin councilmembers said constituents have encouraged them to keep parcel 410 at Heron Park on Old Ocean City Boulevard for development of a skate park, dog park or entertainment venue, but sell parcel 57.

Additionally, Kate Patton from the Lower Shore Trust and the Heron Park Advisory Committee said she was disappointed that the committee had been dissolved during this time of discussion about the future use of the park.

“There seems to be pushback from a very few vocal residents that demand the town sell the whole park, and I find this unreasonable and frankly without merit. There are many opportunities by keeping the park,” Patton said. “Possibly the sale of [parcel] 57 could be done only with careful consideration.”

Another Berlin resident, Edward Hammond, added that he wished there was more information provided about who the potential buyers are and what they propose doing with the parcels.

Berlin residents Bronwyn and Tyler Betz, the parents of Ewan Betz who is making wood duck boxes for Heron Park, were surprised when the Town Council announced it was considering selling parcels of the park.

“All the council has done is ask for some ideas and there have been all these ideas that have come out, including people who are confident that they could make money,” Tyler Betz said. “They could help the town make money from the place and help bring in a secondary benefit of people coming to a festival or an event and staying at the hotel or staying and eating.”

Betz added that a comprehensive plan about the park should be established with community input, as Cascio and Patton suggested.

He also said that he believes the safety concerns discussed during the session about the areas surrounding the ponds “are finite” and hopes the local law enforcement can produce solutions.

The councilmembers agreed they have much to contemplate before making a decision about any sale.

“This is how town government should work and it certainly did tonight,” said Councilmember Jay Knerr.

Knerr, Councilmember Troy Purnell and Councilmember Dean Burrell added that constituents have told them to sell parcel 57 and keep parcel 410.