State officials met with local residents last week to outline hundreds of suggestions received from the community over the past year on how the Stockley Center's sprawling open space could be used for public use.

Housing a nursing facility, assisted living complex and an aquatic therapy facility, The Stockley Center currently serves residents with developmental disabilities. But the future could hold something much larger for the 750-acre property burrowed in the center of Georgetown.

State officials met with local residents last week to outline hundreds of suggestions received from the community over the past year on how the property's sprawling open space could be used for public use.

Rita Landgraf, Delaware's Secretary of Health and Social Services, said the initiative to expand Stockley's scope started taking shape more than a year ago when the governor introduced funding for statewide trails. DHSS currently maintains and oversees the center.

"This coalition of interested individuals came together and saw what a tremendous asset the Stockley Center is in Sussex County," Landgraf said. "We share some of the land with DNREC because the property includes protected plants and a wooded area that nobody really knows about. We decided to extend the process to the broader community and asked, 'If Stockley was open to all in Sussex County, how would you, the members of the community, like to see it used to promote health and wellbeing?'"

More than 275 suggestions were submitted, Landgraf said. Proposals varied from developing a large arts center with an amphitheater to protecting the wildlife with a bird sanctuary or other nature-based facility. Other suggestions included building an equestrian center, adding in bike paths and trails or using it purely for educational purposes due to Sussex Central High School's close proximity.

State officials sought the assistance of Concept Systems, a group that helps organizations gather information, build consensus and evaluate ideas or programs. Mary Kane, principal consultant for CSI, ran the meeting last week.

"We want to know what Sussex County residents thought was the priority for this space, and who knows what we need to know to get this done," Kane said.

The suggestions received have been broken down into four categories with a task force developed for each. The task forces will explore the ideas more closely and come back to state health officials with a recommendation in June.

Once a solid plan is nailed down, health officials will begin looking for funding for the project, Landgraf said.

"We can't really assess the budget for this until we know what direction we want to go in," she said. "We first have to see what the possibilities are, what it will look like and then we'll look at it and ask if it's feasible from a transportation and budget perspective."

Members of the public attending the meeting raised questions not only on how the project would be funded or who would make the final decision but also how the residents of Stockley would be affected.

Judy Kirkey, president of the Stockley Center Auxiliary, said she hopes the state takes care in considering those that are currently using the facility and that the state not forget about the disabled individuals living there.

"I just hope that you don't forget what is there and why it's there," said Kirkey. "Let's not get carried away and put the world out there simply because there is some land available."

The center currently serves 64 residents at the site, all with developmental disabilities. Also included at the facility are an aquatic therapy facility, a full-size gym, medical and dental offices, a computer training center, chapel and daycare center.

Adele Wemlinger, the Stockley Center's executive director, said she is involved in this initiative and wants to make the right decision for the people who are cared for at the facility.

"We have to make sure it doesn't interfere with the people living there as far as security goes. We also have children on the grounds [through the childcare program that is on site]," Wemlinger said. "I think if it's done in a way that maintains the tranquility of the center itself, then it will be very exciting."