Shifting Sands


A couple miles off of Ocean City, a barge sucks sand from the coastal bottom to deposit on the beach. It's part of an Olympian tug of war: Man is trying to fortify a beachfront continually depleted by erosion and storms, and Mother Nature will return some day to claim the sand again.

Not just on the beach, but also in its business environment, Ocean City is dealing with shifting sands. The state's prime resort town has experienced flat growth the past few years. Community leaders are combing for reasons -- and solutions. Against the backdrop of a 10 percent drop in room tax revenues this June compared with last, and a disturbing preponderance of "vacancy" signs deep into the season, Gov. William Donald Schaefer recently convened a task force to study how to improve business at the beach.

Like breakers off the Atlantic, some of the factors buffeting Ocean City are beyond local control. Air fare wars have stolen away some vacationers. The recesssion, not to mention the cool Canadian jetstream, have cast lingering chills.

More vacationers also appear to be planning trips on the spur of the moment. Though many families hooked by Ocean City's quirky charms still make reservations months in advance, some businesses sense greater impulsiveness in the marketplace. A recent Sunday at Fager's Island, a popular lodging, saw 20 percent vacancy in the morning and none by evening -- unusual by past standards; the owner believes that more people hear a sunny forecast and grab a few days at the beach rather than pre-plan and invest in longer stays.

With the state budget $200 million in the red and with $70 million of tax revenue generated by Ocean City tourism, the governor's concerns transcend mere fun in the sun. The town is responding with a new ad campaign, in the hope of pumping up an uninspiring earlier promotion. Local businesses are also donating prizes for a whimsical contest that asks people to guess the end date of the much-delayed beach replenishment project.

The resort's leaders seem to realize that while the tides will rush in from the east for time eternal, they can't be complacent that visitors will unfailingly pour in from other points on the compass.


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