Ocean City merchants hope Sunfest continues to attract large crowds; Businesses, officials fear hurricanes' residuals will hurt enthusiasm


Unscathed by back-to-back Hurricanes Dennis and Floyd, Ocean City merchants are worried that media sound and fury about disastrous weather in neighboring states could hurt attendance at this weekend's Sunfest -- for 25 years the resort's biggest "shoulder season" event.

Last year, the four-day crafts and music festival -- which begins Friday -- drew more than 200,000 visitors, a number that business owners say they would like to see duplicated to help make up for their so-so Labor Day weekend.

"There are still plenty of rooms available, and we've had an enormous number of calls about the weather," said Susan Jones, a spokeswoman for the city's hotel, motel and restaurant association. "This weekend has traditionally been the strongest of the shoulder season, the warm months in the fall and spring. It's revenue people have come to count on."

Longtime merchants trace Ocean City's shift from a seasonal beach town to a year-round resort to the first Sunfest organized in 1974 by former Mayor Harry Kelly. Designed as an end-of-summer bash for locals, the event has evolved to become a lucrative weekend for boardwalk shopkeepers, hotel and restaurant owners and others who remain open.

"It really was the beginning, the introduction of a second season -- the spark for continuing to do business after Labor Day," said Mayor James Mathias. "We'll draw 8 million people to Ocean City this year, and half of them will come between now and Memorial Day. Every single weekend from now through spring, you'll see at least 75,000 to 100,000 people here."

One factor that spurred year-round marketing was the city's hotel and high-rise boom of the early 1970s, a spurt that forced condominium and hotel owners to look for new renters. Many retailers say September sales account for 10 percent to 15 percent of their annual revenue.

"Second-season cash flow has become vital for our whole business community," Mathias said.

But despite good weather for Labor Day, concern about meandering Hurricane Dennis contributed to a mediocre holiday weekend.

Last week, crowds were smaller than normal as Hurricane Floyd finally skipped past by Ocean City on Thursday afternoon.

But again, the town got little of the rain that inundated North Carolina and New Jersey and flooded Chesapeake Bay communities in Maryland and Virginia.

Still, few in the seaside city's business community or at Town Hall can muster much complaint about the resort's luck with recent hurricanes or its banner summer season.

One key indicator, sales tax revenue on hotel and condominium rentals, increased a healthy 13.3 percent in July above last July's total of $1.5 million, according to town finance administrator Martha Bennett.

City officials say ridership on city transit buses was way up this summer, another positive indicator. In July, for the first time, the system hauled more than 1 million passengers.

"It's been an awesome summer. I can't think of a business that had a bad season," said Jay Knerr, a retailer who heads the town's Chamber of Commerce.

As it does for dozens of events, including wine festivals, car shows and polka competitions, the city will pay $250,000 to promote and stage the festival, which features free shows by local bands and $10 concerts by national acts -- along with the crafts of nearly 100 artists in three tents on the inlet parking lot.

Pub Date: 9/23/99

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