By Cindy Hoffman, Staff Writer
Council wonders if concept might draw from downtown
(June 13, 2023) When Mayor Zach Tyndall and the Berlin Town Council hosted a work session on Monday to discuss plans for Heron Park and to hear residents’ opinions on the project, they asked as many questions as they answered.
The land that became Heron Park was originally the site of a Tyson’s Chicken processing plant, which closed in 2003. The town bought the 60-plus acre property in 2016 for $2.5 million, still owes $2.3 million on it and had hoped to get out from under some of that debt by allowing a portion of the tract to be developed.
To effect that process, the town called for proposals in 2022 and received two bids: one for a housing development, which was rejected, and the other from Coastal Ventures, headed by local builder and developer Palmer Gillis. The Gillis plan seemed to pass muster with the council for a time, at least according to the specifications the town had listed.
The Coastal Ventures visualized “a vibrant and lively multi-use commercial building(s) providing a home for a plethora of businesses, events, and community to exist here. Not only do we want the community to continue the use of the park and lagoons, we want to help foster this use and provide greater amenities for the public.”
Coastal Ventures has offered $1.7 million for 17 acres of the property, leaving 44 acres untouched.
The plan from Gillis proposes to demolish parts of the chicken plant buildings left standing and repurpose others. The town has received a $500,000 demolition grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development for the demolition of the building.
Gillis provided an extensive list of options for the development of the property, including a small entertainment venue, a garden center, restaurants, and specialty shops. He envisions a bike/pedestrian trail along the railroad tracks and easy access to the downtown area.
The idea of an amphitheater also has been discussed.
“Our vision revolves around a smaller performing arts stage, or entertainment venue, similar in size to the stages at the Ocean Pines Yacht Club or OC Sunset Park.”
He said he is willing to donate the entertainment venue back to the town when it is ready.
The council members nevertheless peppered Gillis with questions.
Councilman Steve Green was concerned that the development could take people away from the downtown area.
Gillis responded that his proposal was based on the town’s guidelines.
Also responding to Green’s question was the town’s economic and community development Director Ivy Wells, who said, “This will complement our downtown and make it bigger and better. It will not hurt downtown at all.”
Councilman Jack Knerr raised concerns that Berlin might reach a saturation point, but Tyndall pointed out they are still hearing from businesses that want to the town center.
At that point, Gillis suggested that if the town did not agree with how it wanted development to take place, it should change the goals in its request for proposals.
Gillis said the town has put him in a box by restricting medical and residential development on the site. Currently the requirements are that parts of the property cannot be rezoned as residential for 10 years.
The council discussed dropping the 10 years to seven years for rezoning, a change that would make a major difference in the borrowing world, Gillis said.
Before the floor was open for public comment, Councilman Dean Burrell was cheered by some members of the audience when he said he was “against the whole thing.”
Similarly opposed was resident Gina Velong, who accused the council of overpaying for the property at the time of purchase.
“This town purchased the property based on it being zoned commercial but under the idea of it being a park, which required residential zoning. Now we actually are requiring that these parcels be zoned as commercial but are selling at residential valuations. Are we literally that gullible?
“That property will have us $1,720,000 in the hole with just purchase and sales because we are not following basic business principles,” she said.
Resident Ceni Pena suggested the town hire a professional organization to help make the decision.
“We should use the property to help offset the debt. The land is more valuable than what is being offered.”
She said the town should reject Gillis’s offer, leave the park alone and build multi-family affordable housing.
Resident Marie Velong told the council she wanted to see development that would replace the number of good-paying jobs that the town lost when the chicken plant closed.
Residents Rodger Fitzgerald and Jack Burbage both supported the development proposal.
Burbage suggested the town identify development that Gillis could build that will not compete with downtown businesses.
The town is also running out of time to spend the $500,000 demolition grant. During the mayor and council meeting later in the evening, Tyndall said the town has until the end of August to make a decision.
“If we are going to take the route of demo-ing ourselves, we should demo it to a point where we can use that parcel for something else, like parking. If we chose that route, we should go all in.”
Additional meetings are planned for continued public discussion of the future of Heron Park.
This week, the Parks Commission and the Planning Commission will host public meetings on the development.
The town is also expected to host two to three town meetings on the topic in August.