Supporters of the Kent County Regional Sports Complex heard a call to arms Monday, when they were encouraged to help rally the public and politicians behind the project.
The key is pushing Delaware Department of Transportation Secretary Shailen Bhatt and Gov. Jack Markell to reverse a decision that delayed the construction a Del. Route 1 overpass near Frederica, said Bob Murphy, chairman of the grassroots Friends of the Kent County Regional Sports Complex.
“My goal tonight was to bring together legislators who have been on board with us all along,” Murphy said after Monday’s informal public meeting organized state Rep. Donald Blakey (R-Camden). “I think tonight our legislators got to hear from the public.”
Construction of the 85-acre complex, which was first proposed in 2010, is dependent on the state building the overpass, which would allow traffic from Route 1 to easily access the complex, Murphy said.
That project initially was slated to begin this year. However, DelDOT delayed the road improvements until at least 2017 after the agency’s new software – which rates projects according to safety, congestion, environmental impact, revenue generation and other factors – dropped the project’s ranking from a top-10 state priority to one of its lowest.
Since then, DelDOT has refused to reverse that decision, despite pressure from state legislators, the Greater Kent Committee, the Dover/Kent Metropolitan Planning Organization and others.
Many of the roughly 70 people who attended Monday’s meeting put the blame for the delay squarely on Bhatt and Markell for their refusal to stick to the original timeline.
Murphy read an email from state Sen. Brian Bushweller, (D-Central Kent) castigating Bhatt for not allowing the project to proceed, particularly after more than $4 million was already spent on design and land acquisition work.
Skip Ford, president of the Delaware Union soccer league, noted that similar sports venues across the country have provided significant economic boosts for their communities. Estimates provided by the Greater Kent Committee, a nonprofit group of local businessmen supporting the sports complex, indicate the region could see an estimated $18 million in new revenue a year from people visiting the complex.
DelDOT’s actions, Ford said, mean Kent County could lose that income as well as the jobs that come with it.
“That facility is going to get built on the Eastern Shore somewhere,” Ford said. “It’s just a matter of whether it will be built in Kent County.”
After the meeting, Blakey said legislative support is needed immediately and grassroots efforts by the Friends of the KCRSC can help.
“If you wait until January, [when the General Assembly reconvenes], that’s just delaying this,” he said. “If you start now, you formulate an initial plan on how to attack the problem.”
Blakey said there could be support in the General Assembly for legislation that would override DelDOT’s decision to delay intersection work.
“You never know until you try,” he said.
The economic benefits from the sports park also will affect the nearby town of Frederica, said town Councilwoman Virginia Simpler.
“I thought it was an interesting meeting,” Simpler said afterward. “I learned a little bit more about what was going on, and I’m all for it.”
Fellow Councilwoman Patricia Bliler had particular words for Markell, saying the governor touts economic development on one hand, and then turns his back on something that will bring money and jobs to Kent County.
“I think what he’s doing is unconscionable,” Bliler said. “There’s already been a huge investment in that overpass.
“If he can’t get behind it then all that talk he’s made about creating jobs is just that − talk.”
Afterward, Murphy said he and the Friends of the KCRSC will hold additional meetings to garner more support.
“I think the meeting really helped to formulate a plan,” he said.