Supporters of Diakonia are exploring options in the wake of the Worcester County Commissioners’ decision not to approve Diakonia’s plan to acquire sewer capacity from the Town of Ocean City.
Nonprofit’s expansion plans in limbo
By Charlene Sharpe, Associate Editor
The future of Diakonia’s long-planned expansion is in jeopardy following a recent decision by county officials.
Supporters of Diakonia are exploring options in the wake of the Worcester County Commissioners’ decision not to approve Diakonia’s plan to acquire sewer capacity from the Town of Ocean City. The nonprofit, which has provided emergency housing, food assistance and other resources to those in need in the Ocean City area since the 1970s, needs the capacity to expand services with a new facility on Route 611.
“It’s unfortunate to see things come to this,” Del. Wayne Hartman (R-38C) said last week. “Diakonia is such a great asset to the Town of Ocean City and Worcester County.”
The commissioners voted 4-3 on Jan. 16 to not support Diakonia’s agreement with Ocean City, which would have provided the nonprofit with the necessary wastewater treatment capacity needed to build the new facility. Commissioners Joe Mitrecic, Diana Purnell and Ted Elder supported the request but the majority of the board did not.
The commissioners opposed to the request said the issue was larger than Diakonia. They said there were other entities that had been waiting for EDUs (Equivalent Dwelling Unit, a measure of wastewater treatment capacity) and that a level playing field was needed. Commissioner Chip Bertino said it was also an issue of control.
“One of the realities is people who have their businesses or reside within county limits should not have to go to Ocean City or anybody else to determine what they can and can’t do with their land,” Bertino said last week. “The only guardians of the county’s interests within our jurisdiction are the seven of us.”
While they didn’t approve the Diakonia request, the commissioners did vote unanimously for staff to start discussions with Ocean City officials regarding the possibility of the town granting the county sewer capacity since the Mystic Harbour service area is at maximum capacity.
“In essence, Worcester County is holding Diakonia and the Town of Ocean City hostage for additional capacity, which isn’t Diakonia or Ocean City’s problem,” Hartman said.
Reid Tingle, chair of Diakonia’s board, thanked Ocean City leaders as well as Mitrecic, Purnell and Elder for their support.
“It is unfortunate that the ‘Gang of Four’ decided to play politics with people’s lives and wellbeing instead of doing what is in the best interest of the citizens and communities they were elected to represent,” he said.
Tingle indicated he was disappointed but not surprised by the majority’s vote, particularly since Diakonia representatives met with a couple of them earlier this month.
“We did finally meet with the selected commissioners and were clearly told they would not allow the proposal to go through,” he said. “Various reasons were presented, starting with it is not fair for us to just go to the top of the list. We asked who was on the list and were quickly told there is no list. Then we were told another project could create a larger tax base that would bring more revenue into the county than our project. Finally, it came out that they wanted control, and did not want Ocean City to have any say in what they could or could not develop in what they perceive as their area.”
He said their recommended solution to the sewer capacity issue was for Diakonia to sell the Route 611 property and build somewhere else. Tingle said Diakonia supporters were hoping to find another option.
“We are currently looking into and pursuing options at the state and federal level that would allow us to move forward without the support of the Gang of Four,” he said. “If there are no options on the state or federal level, barring a white knight coming forward and offering some sewer capacity, the project cannot move forward at this time.”
Hartman said he’d reached out to the Maryland Department of the Environment and the attorney general’s office to see if there was anything that could be done.
“I think we really need to have this project move forward,” he said.
Even if there is a way for the project to move forward, the nonprofit can’t pursue fundraising opportunities with the future of the project in question.
“The wait on EDUs creates problems in that we are trying to prepare for building without the ability to begin raising those funds,” said Ken Argot, executive director of Diakonia. “When we received the initial nod of concept, we began to prepare for funding certain aspects of the project, however with continued delays and uncertainty of the project with no concrete date in the future, we are left in ‘no man’s land’ when it comes to our requests for public funding. We don’t want to misinform the public when we don’t yet have official approval. But there is also a real concern in approaching donors for current operation projects, without overburdening them with an additional ask for building capital should the 611 project be approved quicker.”
Argot said the lack of affordable housing was the primary cause of homelessness in America. He said if there weren’t enough homes out there for people to purchase, those who can afford to purchase have to settle on rentals, which are then no longer available to people who aren’t able to buy their own homes. Argot said that many times, people aren’t able to move out of shelters like Diakonia because affordable rentals are rare. He said that was why Diakonia’s project on Route 611 was so important.
“The reason that so many of our homeless are out in the streets, in front of stores, or camping out in wooded areas, is because there is literally no place to go,” Argot said.
If Diakonia can build a new facility on its Route 611 land, it can not only house more people but would be able to have a larger food pantry and more office space. Currently, even when donors have food for Diakonia, the nonprofit doesn’t have adequate storage to be able to accept it. Veterans, when working with case managers to get services, don’t have private space to meet. Furthermore, the ability of Diakonia’s thrift store to generate income for the nonprofit is limited by space.
“Our thrift store raises about 10 percent of our annual income, with the potential to do more,” Argot said. “However, our limited space means less room for bulk-in kind donations, and the need to rent additional space when we try to store seasonal donations for the next year. Often, we can’t even take in-kind donations because we have no warehouse space.”