Later school start boosts Ocean City at end of rainy season

Running a restaurant and charter boat operation in Maryland’s beach resort town, Shawn Harman knows the sun, wind and rain dictate his fortunes each summer.

This year, despite lots of rain, summer in Ocean City is closing out strong, boosted by an August heat wave and the post-Labor Day start for public schools, which has families sticking around longer, Harman and other business people say. The later school start also eases staffing shortages that some businesses struggle with after college students leave by allowing high schoolers to work later, he and others said.

“It’s given us another week,” said Harman, who owns with his wife Fish Tales and Bahia Marina at 22nd Street on the bayside. “We do get an extra push because of that. … It’s helped on the labor side, and it’s helped with extra income. We picked up five or six days, and it helps offset the loss of the spring.

“In the resort business, you can’t make it up. There’s only so many days.”

This is the second summer since Gov. Larry Hogan issued his controversial executive order requiring Maryland’s public schools to start after Labor Day, partly to boost the state’s vacation destinations. While some welcomed the extra summer days, others complained about shorter spring breaks and higher child-care costs as well as the potentially harmful impact on low-income students.

For Ocean City, the shift appears to be paying off.

“Historically, the last two weeks of August have been really, really slow,” said Susan Jones, executive director of the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association. “Last week, and even this week, have been quite strong, and most people attribute it to a later start date.”

At the 240-room Francis Scott Key Family Resort, calls for last-minute reservations have poured in nonstop this week, and managers expect to be sold out, or close to it, for the Labor Day holiday weekend. The hotel accommodated 15 walk-ins in just the past week and has seen a 20 percent to 25 percent boost in bookings, said Annemarie Dickerson, who has operated the hotel with her husband since 1992.

“To have this extra week is fantastic,” she said. “Ocean City is at its best at the end of August. There’s almost an energy in the air with kids getting ready to go back to school. … It’s the last big hurrah before they go back to school. It’s nice to bring that back.”

Dickerson has watched as the summer booking season has become shorter and shorter over the years, with some school systems ending later in June and some starting earlier in August. The new calendar offers families more beach time, especially those that travel in June and July for youth sports, while boosting “a unique part of Maryland with a very short season to make a 52-week payroll.”

Hotel and restaurant operators largely echo those sentiments, Jones said.

“They … think it’s the best thing that’s happened to the state,” Jones said. “It has been a super-positive impact on our local economy and trickles down to the waiters and waitresses and bartenders and employees who live here year-round.”

Officials won't know the financial impact of any increased activity this month until August results become available in a few weeks. So far this season, room tax receipts have increased compared with last year.

Room tax receipts were up 4 percent to $2.87 million in June and up 1.7 percent to $4.23 million in July. Some of that might have been driven by a bigger push to collect taxes from condo owners who rent their properties, Jones said.

Food and beverage tax receipts also increased in June and July, compared with those months last year, including a 3.7 percent jump in July.

But hotel occupancy has been down. Occupancy fell 3 percent in June, according to the latest figures available from Smith Travel Research, to 74 percent, with some speculating that a 7 percent increase in hotel room supply possibly has had an impact.

“It was a really, slow start to the season,” with close to 20 inches of rain in June and July, Jones said. “We’re a beach town. We need sunshine. … The way travel is today, people can find a room tonight because of the internet. … Everyone waits to look at the forecast.”

The longer summer break was expected to generate an additional $74.3 million in economic activity statewide and add $7.7 million in revenue to both state and local governments, according to the state’s Bureau of Revenue Estimates. State officials say they are seeing benefits already, including a 15 percent jump last August in admissions and amusement taxes, tied to ticket sales at events, fairs and museums, compared with August 2016.

The change to the school calendar “is still a benefit for Maryland families, for Maryland teens that have jobs, for Maryland teachers that have second jobs during the summer,” said Joseph Shapiro, a spokesman for state Comptroller Peter Franchot, a strong proponent of the later school start. “Most importantly, it’s a chance for families and people to create summer memories.” Some families, though, remain unconvinced. In theory, it sounds great to start school after Labor Day, said Lissa O’Donnell, a Towson mother of a fourth-grader and a kindergartner. But for her family, a longer summer meant paying an additional $900 for two more weeks of camp.

“That is practically a mortgage payment right there,” she said. “And since most people don’t have unlimited vacation time, those two weeks that I had to put them in camp, I couldn’t just take off to watch them myself or go on that extra trip to [Ocean City].”

Others, however, are choosing to take those later vacations. And that’s giving some beach business owners a chance to at least break even.

Happy Jack’s Pancake House in Ocean City has served well over 100 more of its bacon, eggs, waffle and other breakfast meals this week, compared with the same period years back when crowds thinned out earlier in August. Usually by the end of August, the 55-year-old establishment is serving just over 500 meals a day, down from the the peak season numbers of 800 to 1,000 meals per day, said Bob Torrey, who’s owned the pancake house for 36 years.

Many families now can take advantage of discounted hotel packages the resort town has offered during the last week of August for the past decade, and “when they’re here at a hotel, they’re going to eat breakfast,” Torrey said.

“This week we’ve done a lot better than we did” in past years, he said. “I’m up at least 10 or 15 percent, which is a big number. … The season is extending just a little bit.”

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

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