Baltimore, your next fill-up could well be on Brent Ashley.
Don't know the man? Not a problem. All you need to know is that the 59-year-old retired motel owner wants people to come to http://www.baltimoresun.com/travel/beaches/ this summer, and he's willing to put his money — his entire salary as a town councilman — where his mouth is by buying gasoline for visitors.
The logistics haven't quite been worked out yet, but Mr. Ashley stepped up to the plate this week after the town council voted in a closed door session not to finance its own $100,000 gas giveaway — an idea that had been promoted this spring to overcome what many feared would be $4-a-gallon prices at the pump this summer.
Why the council backed down isn't clear. But likely factors include a recent 30-cent drop in gas prices, a preference for other longstanding promotions (chiefly, the "Rodney, the lifeguard" ads where bored people are "rescued" from their humdrum lives and taken to the beach) and a recognition that some http://www.baltimoresun.com/travel/beaches/ businesses are doing their own gasoline giveaways.
But what a majority on the council are missing — and Mr. Ashley, a former Ocean City Chamber of Commerce president, seems to better understand — is that slick promotional campaigns are no substitute for old-fashioned Boardwalk barkers and the kind of carnival atmosphere and hucksterism that the Atlantic Ocean resort still exudes.
If a gas giveaway sounds familiar, it should. The late Mayor Harry Kelley did the exact same thing in 1979 when gasoline shortages threatened http://www.baltimoresun.com/travel/beaches/'s tourism business. The novel approach gained him national attention.
No wonder that one of the first to publicly call on the town to revive the idea was Joe Kro-Art, the artist and longtime owner of Ocean Gallery, whose own whimsical promotions have run the gamut from hosting bikini models at his store to sinking a "Titanic" customized car off-shore. Understated, Mr. Kro-Art is not.
That's the point. http://www.baltimoresun.com/travel/beaches/ is about having fun. Its economy is built entirely on convincing people that the party never ends here. For some visitors, there's the quiet of upscale condominiums up north. But for others, it's the lure of the boardwalk and the promise of a big prize if you can just shoot out that paper star with a bb gun or collect enough tickets at the arcade.
A year's salary will cost the first-term councilman $10,000, which may buy a fill-up for only 200 people or so. But don't fret. He promises that it won't leave him eating dog food this summer, and he says others in town have recently offered to help finance the project so the giveaway could end up being much bigger.
The bottom line is that the peak of the summer season begins next week, and there are an awful lot of motel rooms and restaurant seats to fill. If free gasoline generates the buzz that gets people interested in coming to http://www.baltimoresun.com/travel/beaches/, then Mr. Ashley will have earned himself a raise. If not? Well, there's always the next sales pitch. Free oil changes, anyone?