Summer resort turns lights on for winter Weekend visitors make Ocean City bustle in off-season


OCEAN CITY -- It's not exactly the endless summer, but merchants in Maryland's favorite resort say business is booming -- and they expect to draw big crowds over the Christmas and New Year's holidays.

The numbers this fall offer evidence that the traditional off-season respite of shuttered boardwalk shops and deserted streets might have become a thing of the past in the 10-mile-long island town with a permanent population of fewer than 8,000.

Unseasonably warm weather gets some of the credit for bringing an average of 83,000 visitors each weekend last month. December has been nearly as busy.

"We had better than 90,000 people in town on the weekend after Thanksgiving, and the first two weekends this month each drew about 70,000," says Donna Abbott, a spokeswoman for the city tourism office.

"The boardwalk has been jammed, and more shop owners have decided to stay open on weekends. I guess people are looking at Thanksgiving as another long weekend now. It's a holiday that has been growing each year," she says.

City officials have spent years promoting Ocean City as a year-round destination, pushing its image as a family resort and sponsoring dozens of events, including wine festivals, car shows and polka competitions.

A $30 million convention center expansion completed nearly two years ago is the cornerstone of a marketing campaign aimed at supplementing summer tourism, which has averaged around 4 million seasonal visitors in recent years.

In mid-January, for instance, the revamped convention center will be the site for nautical and wildlife art shows and the North American Craft Show. On Jan. 29-30, a convention for commercial fishermen is scheduled.

"What you see in Ocean City now, barring some kind of weather event, is a town with a population of around 75,000 to 100,000 on any given Friday night through most of the year," says Mayor James N. Mathias Jr.

Winterfest of Lights, an outdoor display of more than 800,000 lights at Northside Park, attracted more than 5,000 visitors who paid $2 each for a ride on a boardwalk train on the Dec. 12-13 weekend.

The event, which began Nov. 12 and runs through Jan. 3, is well worth the $150,000 the city is spending, merchants say. It's all part of the effort to create a holiday atmosphere.

"There's really an attraction to being at the beach for the holidays, especially for New Year's," says Robbie Renken, sales and marketing director for the Dunes Manor Hotel. "We have seen a steady increase each year in people coming down for Christmas. And New Year's Eve has been sold out every year for the last three or four years."

With about 20 hotels open, 3,000 rooms are available during the fall and winter months.

"We have two New Year's Eve parties with 300 couples each that have already sold out," says Tracy Cloud Butcher, director of human resources at the Princess Royale hotel. "Each year it seems to get better. We're doing more business than last year; it just continues to grow."

City officials say many of the resort's apartments and condominiums are heavily used by property owners during the fall and winter months.

"There's really no firm estimate on how many of those units are being used by owners who drive down for weekends, but that's a great option for people," Mathias says. "There's a real romance to being at the beach, for getting out of town, especially during the holidays. The beach is just a cool place to be -- that's what we're selling all year."

Pub Date: 12/25/98

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