January 5, 2010

State asked to chip in on O.C. sand, convention center

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By Erich Wagner
Erich@MarylandReporter.com

Ocean City Convention Center

The town of Ocean City is pushing for a pair of proposals that would send $13 million in taxpayer funds its way at Wednesday’s Board of Public Works meeting.

The first is for the beachfront replenishment project, in which every four years sand from beyond the coast is pumped onto the beach to protect buildings and other structures from storm damage.

The town is also looking for the state to issue $4.8 million in bonds to pay for a 20,000 square-foot expansion of the Ocean City Convention Center.

Half of the $8.3 million beach replenishment proposal would be paid for by the state’s Program Open Space, and the other half funded by Worcester County and Ocean City taxpayers. The price tag is higher than usual because the federal government only coughed up half of its usual 53 percent of the overall cost.

Over time, sand gets washed away, so the beach needs to be reinforced periodically to protect structures, said Jordan Loran, director of the engineering and construction for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

The president’s initial budget often does not include adequate funding for this project, Loran said, but the Maryland congressional delegation is usually able to secure the money. This fiscal year, they were only able to get $2.9 million, half of what the state and federal governments agreed upon when the plan was approved.

“I guess, with the economy the way it is, they got as much money as they could,” Loran said.

Del. Jim Mathias,D-Worcester,the former mayor of Ocean City, said the beach replenishment program provides economic benefits to the town.

“The program has given investors the confidence to invest and reinvest in their properties,” Mathias said. Among other things,he cited the construction of a hospital in close proximity to the waterfront.

The Ocean City Convention Center expansion is smaller than initially sought due to the economic downturn. Still, officials said the expansion is expected to allow the convention center to hold multiple events simultaneously, bringing more business to both the convention center and surrounding businesses.

The Maryland Stadium Authority recommended the plan, based on a study that said the tax revenue on convention center activities and local businesses would increase by between $1.1 million and $1.6 million. That is well over the $830,000 in debt service needed to pay back the bonds, said Michael Frenz, executive director of the Maryland Stadium Authority.

Mathias also argued that the convention center expansion would aid in Maryland’s economic recovery.

“The buzzword these days is all about jobs,” Mathias said. “It’s all about protecting and growing jobs, and that’s what this project will do.”

Mathias was hopeful that both measures will be approved when the Board of Public Works meets Wednesday. He said that Gov. Martin O’Malley has been very supportive of Ocean City as a year-round vacation spot.

“The good news is that the state has been able to protect its triple-A bond rating,” Mathias said. “These projects have a history of success, and I’ve done my part to persuade the members of the Board of Public Works.”

O’Malley was scheduled to headline a fundraiser for Mathias Tuesday night.