No ground has been broken on the amenities of Frederick’s long-anticipated Westside Regional Park, yet city taxpayers are already on the hook for millions of dollars and could end up dedicating roughly $40,000 more before dirt begins to move.
That was one of several takeaways of a lengthy and slightly heated Board of Aldermen workshop held on Wednesday to showcase recommendations from an ad hoc task force on the next steps toward developing the park.
The project is set to include an array of amenities that could range from top-level sports fields to a swimming complex and ice rink, on 136 acres of vacant, city-owned property along Butterfly Lane known as Hargett Farm.
The 11-member task force spent a little more than a year discussing elements of a proposed master park plan, engaging members of the community, and conducting research that included site visits to other successful facilities and picking the brains of industry experts.
The group’s recommendations included establishing a mission statement on the park’s goal as a regional destination, residential recreational space and local economic driver.
“This park has the potential to be a lot of things to a lot of people,” said Bob Smith, the city’s deputy director of parks and recreation. “Obviously, we want this park to be a benefit to members of the community.”
Members also recommended some minor changes to the initial master plan and the creation of a permanent group to continue research, including determining the project’s financing and budget, and exploring possible funding partners.
And while the aldermen agreed that the recommendations are good, and gave the go-ahead to move forward with them, a few expressed concerns about some details of the process.
After hearing from two members of the task force during Wednesday’s public comment period, Alderman Ben MacShane expressed frustration over why an option to work with the Maryland Stadium Authority to help develop the park was not mentioned during the previous nearly two hours of the workshop.
“My frustration is that seemingly we were very much approaching the end of this workshop and I needed to ask a question brought to my mind by public comment about why the stadium authority isn’t on board,” MacShane said after hearing from task force members Debbie Reynolds and Ed Hinde.
Reynolds and Hinde encouraged the aldermen to consider bringing the stadium authority on board. Mayor Michael O’Connor said that the idea may be the best option going forward, but said officials have demanded an economic study that would cost roughly $40,000. He said that figure made him hesitant to mention the option at the regular workshop.
“I heard from a majority of this Board of Aldermen over the last year ... that there was little appetite to put more public money into this project,” he said. “So if you think I’m going to sit here under those circumstances and propose that we put more public money into this project when a majority of you through a campaign said we don’t want to put more public money into the project — yeah, you’re right, I’m going to sit on that little piece of information until I hear what the room has to say about it. You bet.”
He added that the workshop was not held to discuss specific proposals, but to give members of the task force a chance to present their recommendations and finish their work.
“The purpose of this workshop was to bring you an update of what the task force has had a conversation about and get your concurrence that we want to continue to move forward down this path,” he said.
From there, the aldermen determined that the next step is following through on the recommendations, namely the efforts to find funding partners, which they agreed should come from a request for information or proposal process.
Alderwoman Kelly Russell said she understands MacShane’s frustration with the stadium authority situation. She said that gathering information for the proposal needs to be part of the next steps, and she reiterated her desire not to spend any more tax dollars on the project at this time, but said an economic impact study could be beneficial.
Alderwoman Donna Kuzemchak, the aldermanic liaison of the task force, said she also understands MacShane’s point about the stadium authority and admitted she has also had many frustrations since the inception of the project years ago.
Aldermen Roger Wilson and Derek Shackelford both expressed a desire to move forward as quickly as possible on finding funding partners and establishing a clear development plan for the site. Shackelford pointed out that the longer the officials wait to pin down the money, the more money the city is racking up on debt service on the land.
The aldermen are not required to officially vote on the recommendations of the task force members, and O’Connor said the next step is establishing the next group and its mission.