GEORGETOWN — The answer was a silent “no.”
The request for public funding to support a proposed indoor facility at Sandhill Fields came up empty during Georgetown’s Town Council meeting Wednesday.
Council did not act on the Sussex Sports Center Foundation’s solicitation for $100,000, as Councilwoman Christina Diaz-Malone’s motion for a vote failed to garner a second.
This followed a presentation by Sandhill Fields’ general manager Brad Leinbach and Stacy Short, who shared the success of the project, which includes athletic fields, pickleball courts, a walking/running trail and other amenities, off Sand Hill Road on the town’s eastern edge.
"We are disappointed that the council members did not see fit to support the fieldhouse project," said Joe Schell, president of the Sussex Sports Center Foundation. "We believe that the Sandhill Fields has been a very positive addition to the recreational pursuits of the citizens of Georgetown, particularly the younger generation."
"We also believe that the fieldhouse will be equally successful as a public venue for all to enjoy," said Mr. Schell. "It would be gratifying if the people of Georgetown let their elected officials know how thy feel about these facilities. We will build the fieldhouse in 2022, with or without the requested funding from Georgfetown. However, it is unfortunate to not be able to include Georgetown as a partner in this endeavor."
Councilman Penuel Barrett said he could not support the monetary request, given the town’s current budget challenges.
“I’ve been out there. The walking trails are great. We have church service out there. That’s great. Soccer fields, … plenty of activity,” he said. “I just think the situation the town is in right now, … our budget, where we are pulling money from our water and sewer to put in governmental, and we’re not even giving the emergency services $100,000.
“My opinion, I cannot see how we can give this organization $100,000, when we don’t even give the (emergency services) that much money.”
Councilwoman Sue Barlow sided with Councilman Barrett, saying the town cannot afford to contribute $100,000. She added that, while the facility is a wonderful venue, the town is not getting any income or benefit from its use.
Mayor Bill West took exception.
“To say we are not getting any benefit from this is just out of the way. These people have to have a place to stay. When we have a church service out there on Sundays, the parking fills up pretty fast, with cars from Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. And they have to have a place to stay, a place to eat,” he said. “After church, we usually go to the restaurant uptown and get breakfast. Most of the time, have to wait in line. So to sit here and say we are not getting any benefits is ridiculous.”
Contacted Friday, Mayor West said he chose not to second the motion because he is on SSCF’s board of directors and wanted to avoid any potential conflict of interest.
“I didn’t want to be a part of giving them money. So I thought it was just best for me to stay clear of that,” he said.
SSCF’s one-time request was for $100,000, over a two-year period. Funding would have come from the Georgetown Recreation, Education and Arts Trust Fund, which is financed by a percentage of the building permits and is outside the town’s operating budget, according to Town Manager Eugene Dvornick.
The GREAT Fund balance as of Monday was $368,490.57. Past recipients of this funding include the Georgetown Public Library, the Georgetown Little League and the Georgetown Arts & Flowers organization.
Mayor West noted that GREAT monies would not be distributed to emergency responders or other town services.
“Penuel says we need to support our first responders,” said Mayor West on Friday. “Well, this fund is not for first responders. This fund is for arts and recreation. They give money to the Little League, but they don’t want to give money to an organization that is bringing close to 800,000 people in. It’s a sad day.”
The town’s commitment to the first phase of Sandhill Fields, which opened in September 2020, included a portion of grass-cutting and sewage pump-out but no actual monetary contribution.
For the next phase, SSCF is seeking $2.5 million in public funding to be paired with a projected $4 million in private donations for a $6.5 million field house, which would be used for athletics and as a venue for community events and concerts.
At a County Council meeting in December, Mr. Schell indicated that the organization plans to ask Sussex County, a financial partner in the first phase, for another contribution, possibly like the county’s $1.5 million loan agreement executed in June 2018.
That financial commitment was a 50-year, $1.5 million zero percent interest loan. Under the agreement, SSCF had to spend $1.5 million before it could begin drawing on the county’s loan commitment.
Additionally, per that agreement, Sussex County has an option to buy Sandhill Fields for $1 after its 10th anniversary.