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Heading for the Ocean


Thousands of fun-seekers are gathering in Ocean City this Memorial Day weekend, kicking off the start of the summer beach season at Maryland's premier beach and at neighboring Delaware's Atlantic resorts. It's far too early to tell how this season will stack up in comparison to past years, but initial indicators are promising.

According to local Realtors, condo rentals are running 60 percent ahead of last year; occupancy rates for hotels and motels are expected to top 90 percent this weekend. Springfest '91, a marketing brainchild of Ocean City's tourism department aimed at luring pre-season vacationers to the resort, was by all accounts an unqualified success, drawing an estimated 75,000 early vacationers into the city's inlet beach.

Those who made the trek east across U.S. 50 this weekend may have found the journey devoid of the usual bottlenecks, thanks to enhancements to the Kent Narrows Bridge, U.S. 50 and Interstate 97. Once they arrive, visitors may also discover less congestion in town. City officials have put 40 additional buses on the roads and changed the fee structure from 75 cents per ride to $1.00 for a pass entitling the rider to embark and disembark all day. On the beach, visitors will find a wider boardwalk and broader expanse of sand than ever, thanks to the state's $45 million beach replenishment program.

Still, the resort suffers from an embarrassment of riches, even in these tough economic times. More than 250,000 visitors are expected to converge on the resort this weekend, providing a much-needed bright spot in Maryland's sagging economy. Last year, Memorial Day beachgoers shelled out $144.4 million on lodging, food and entertainment. This year's take could be even better. Because of its proximity to Baltimore, Washington and Philadelphia, the resort will draw not only the usual crowd, but also budget-conscious vacationers who would normally venture farther in better times.

Ocean City owes much of its popularity to such innovative marketing ideas as Springfest, Sunfest -- its end of season counterpart -- and more recently a focus on recreational golf. But such growth cannot continue unchecked. Ocean City can only expand so far. Sooner or later, its leaders will have to recognize that growth has its limits.

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