Ocean City hopes to turn tide for ailing downtown

THE BALTIMORE SUN

An article in The Sun Sunday incorrectly identified the county where Ocean City is located. The resort town is in Worcester County.

The Sun regrets the error.

OCEAN CITY -- For decades, the building boom pushed its way inexorably northward on this narrow, 10-mile strip of sand on the Atlantic Ocean.

Old-timers like Granville Trimper, 65, who ran boardwalk rides at 10 and who now owns a downtown amusement park, watched a sleepy town of dirt roads and summer cottages transformed.

High-rise condos and sprawling shopping malls, bayside bars and docks for speedboats, miniature golf courses ruled by gorillas and dinosaurs replaced the barren sand dunes at a ferocious pace.

Just as inevitably, an endless parade of sun-worshipers filled tens of thousands of new hotel rooms and condo units. Gawkers and strollers, June Bugs -- the name locals give graduating students who flock here -- and grandparents kept the registers ringing along the boardwalk at arcades and politically incorrect T-shirt shops and food stalls that fry most anything.

Then the last of the undeveloped land ran out. The numbers of vacationers crossing the two bridges into town peaked and leveled off.

The recession hit hard, and merchants watched as more and more tourists forewent fancy dinners and shopping bags full of souvenirs.

Today, Maryland's favorite seaside resort finds itself looking inward -- to its very identity -- instead of northward, as it seeks to reinvent itself once more.

And the first third of the season, while not bad, has shown business and political leaders why they can't be complacent:

* The influx of families -- the heart of the more than 4 million visitors who go to Ocean City each summer -- was slower in developing this year after Senior Week, when high school graduates pour into the resort. Memorial Day, the second biggest weekend, brought 260,432 visitors this year, down from 278,468 last year. And there were 652,386 visitors during the first three weeks of June this year, compared with 660,100 last season.

* Merchants report that tourists are not spending as freely -- especially for discretionary items -- as they have in the past.

* With the increase in retail stores, the tourist dollar is divided among more people, reducing profits.

* Competition from other resorts and tourist attractions is becoming more intense, threatening to erode some of Ocean City's traditional base.

Everybody, it seems, has a vision for revitalizing the place. Make it a year-round resort, a magnet for golfers and conventioneers by continuing to add golf courses -- four have been built in the last three years -- and expanding the Convention Center. Build an aquarium or science center. Create a new waterfront destination by extending the boardwalk to the bayside, where tourists could eat, drink, stroll and take in the sunset.

Others harbor notions of small commercial areas for pedestrians complete with bistros, boutiques and street entertainers, a hotel village featuring Victorian or New Orleans-style architecture.

Bring in more families

It's all about bringing more families back to where it all started for Ocean City, the aging downtown hub that has grown shabbier as commercial development followed the condominiums and hotels north.

A block from the boardwalk's bustle, Jim Mathias, owner of Gentleman Jim's Billiards and a nearby T-shirt shop, strolls amid ramshackle rooming houses, some for sale, a mostly empty diner, a former T-shirt shop now for rent and speaks wistfully of the halcyon days just a few years back.

"There was a time," he says, "when all a businessman had to do was show up and open his door, and he walked away with a better year."

Now, says Mr. Mathias, a 42-year-old member of the Ocean City Council, the fate not only of merchants, but of the town itself, hinges on radical change that goes beyond recent improvements such as concealing utility lines and bringing in new trees and street lamps.

The town should court private investors and developers to raze seven blocks of downtown and erect a resort hotel, he says, a village unto itself built around a Victorian or New Orleans theme similar to those in Disney World.

The last horizon

"This is truly the last horizon for this town," Mr. Mathias said. Thinking the town will thrive simply by preserving the status quo can only lead to dire consequences. "This town will erode. It would become another Atlantic City."

To be sure, some longtime residents view that assessment as more than a little bit alarmist and take offense at the suggestion ++ that quaint wood-frame cottages and bungalows should ever be replaced.

But merchants, lawmakers and civic leaders agree that the resort -- which balloons to the state's second-largest city between Memorial Day and Labor Day when the population swells from 7,500 to more than 300,000 -- has reached a crossroads.

The importance of the outcome can't be overstated. The resort attracts 7.8 million people annually -- 4.3 million in the summer -- and generates 12,000 summer jobs and $35 million in taxes.

"We need something besides golf and the boardwalk," said Jean Greenspan, a 30-year resident whose family owns a boardwalk arcade. "We've been talking about it and decided this year, we have to do something to make Ocean City a major attraction."

In a city where some merchants report sales off by as much as 35 percent so far this season and where room tax revenues dropped in 1993 after years of steady increases, competition comes from both inside and outside.

Businesses vie for shrinking dollars being spent here and face increasing threats to the tourism base from other resorts.

Mayor Roland E. Powell knows his competition and rattles off the names: the New Jersey and Virginia shores, amusement parks like Busch Gardens, Disney World and Florida's Gold Coast.

To the 65-year-old native known as "Fish," who grew up here in what was then a village of 500 people year-round, even Bermuda and the Caribbean have moved a bit too close for comfort, as a result of fare wars offering low-cost flights that last about as long as it takes some visitors to reach the beach.

"Some years ago we didn't have to compete," Mayor Powell said.

"But it's much easier to get to faraway places."

Perhaps as never before, the resort is acknowledging its vulnerability and taking seriously the need to expand and prosper.

City officials, for instance, are expected to approve a special tax district -- if enough merchants agree -- in which downtown businesses will pay for a coordinator to help set goals for downtown revitalization, oversee the plan and seek out investors to bankroll it.

Like many in this Wicomico County town just east of long stretches of farms and tiny Eastern Shore towns, Mayor Powell views downtown as something of a center city and the northern reaches as latecomer suburbs.

That may help explain why some ideas for revival sound markedly similar to renaissance talk in Baltimore and countless other cities a few decades back -- a Harborplace-like center, an aquarium, a science center, pedestrian-friendly streets and promenades tailor-made for summer evening strolls.

Ocean City's soul-searching resembles that of many of the nation's older, traditional tourist destinations.

"They may be maxed out as far as available space and the options are you tear down and start over," said Ned Book, president of the Travel Industry Association of America. "What we're seeing is communities that are traditional tourist spots focusing on becoming more user-friendly resorts."

Richard Thomas, who made a living selling flooring before he found his place in the sun, certainly wouldn't dispute that.

He came down to the ocean from Elizabethtown, Pa., in 1980 to do some fishing. He stayed for good, opening a make-your-own sundae shop downtown on Baltimore Avenue, then buying the neighboring Capri Motel which he and his wife, Joyce, now run.

'We're a sleeping flower'

Sitting on a folding chair savoring the warm summer breeze outside the motel, he says he's heard the incessant talk about the need for renewing the blocks that surround him.

It's good to hear, he says, a reassuring sign that this town won't give in to complacency.

Says Mr. Thomas, 53: "We're a sleeping flower, just ready to bloom. As more people start talking, we'll begin to see the flower open. They all know we need to do something."

Drive 54 blocks up Coastal Highway -- or, better still, avoid the seaside gridlock by riding one of the municipal buses that offer $1 daylong passes -- and you hear similar sentiments.

Macky Stansell, who serves up tacos and margaritas and shrimp dishes at his two bayside restaurants, puts it a bit differently.

"It's just not the go-go '80s anymore," said Mr. Stansell, owner of Tio Gringos and the new Macky's Bayside.

It is a lament heard from the inlet cut from land by a hurricane in the Depression to the Delaware line that forms the Ocean City-Fenwick Island border.

Times are tougher

Times have become tougher for merchants like Perry Pillas, who started selling gifts and books on the boardwalk in 1968, then switched to more popular T-shirts. He has watched this year as several huge beachwear shops have opened from one end of Coastal Highway to the other.

"I always felt Ocean City was recession-proof, but this year the economy and unemployment have caught up with the beach a little bit and so has the oversaturation of retail," Mr. Pillas said.

"We get the same amount of people but what has escalated every year are more businesses. The dollars are being shrunk throughout the city. Every time a new T-shirt or restaurant opens, it's a drain on the rest of the businesses," he said.

But along this barrier island with miles of white beaches, freshly replenished, some things never change.

Sure as sunrise brings bicyclists to the boardwalk and surf fishermen to the water's edge, some visitors and merchants will always concern themselves less with the economic tides than the ones that really matter.

Since Chauncey Rhodes, 30, took over a bungalow surf shop on 30th Street in April, using display ideas he'd picked up while selling men's clothing at Nordstrom, surfboards have been selling fast. Nothing sells his merchandise like a perfect blend of tides, waves and wind.

"There are waves, definitely," he tells a customer. "They're a little choppy, but ridable."

But Ocean City's success depends on more than the surf, town leaders agree.

"I started on the [town] council in 1968, and many of problems then are the same problems we talk of today. . . If you're not working on it, you're going backwards," Mayor Powell said.

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