Ocean City primed for a banner year; Blue-sky town: Ocean City is all dressed up and ready for the party, if only the weather will cooperate.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Marty Moran, captain of the 42-foot charter fishing boat "Memory Maker," would love to see a repeat of last summer - except with calmer winds.

"My book is getting filled up," said Moran, whose Ocean City charter trips cost $1,000 a day. "Right now, it looks like it should be as good or better then last year."

That's provided the winds stay light. Last year, he booked 94 all-day trips but ran only 70 charters, losing the rest to strong gusts.

"If you have a wind of 15 or 20 knots, it can be a great day at the beach, but if you're 40 or 50 miles offshore, the seas build up and it's a rough ride back home," he said.

"If it's too windy to fish, that puts more people on the golf courses and in the amusements. What might be bad for us is good for someone else."

Moran, like the rest of Ocean City, is focused on Memorial Day weekend - the official start of the summer season, when vacationers will descend on the seaside resort transforming it from a town of about 7,500 to one that will number 325,000 people at season's peak.

The tourist season is the lifeline of businesses in Ocean City, of course, providing an economic impact of between $1 billion and $1.5 billion, said Martha Bennett, the city's finance administrator.

Last year has been described by merchants and town officials as the best ever for Ocean City. By most accounts, the resort, which plays host to 8 million visitors a year, is on the cusp of another banner year.

Officials report an increase in the number of phone calls and Internet requests to the visitors' center for information. And hotels and real estate agents say bookings are well ahead of last year.

The 10-mile-long barrier island has more than 10,000 rooms and 25,000 condominium units.

Already, Long & Foster Real Estate Inc. report summer rentals up 20 percent over the corresponding period last year. O'Conor, Piper & Flynn ERA reports a 25 percent increase on its 2,020 units.

Moore, Warfield & Glick Inc. Realtors is reaping the benefits of the strong economy and favorable interest rates. It is selling 3 1/2 condominiums seven days a week, compared with two a day in the past, said company President Bob Warfield.

Visitors will see a resort more shiny and polished than ever. Several new hotels open this season: The Park Place Hotel, with 90 rooms; the Hotel Monte Carlo, with 70; and the Holiday Inn Express, with 122 rooms and suites. In addition, a $7.7 million renovation is being completed at the Hotel Carousel & Resort, one of the seaside resort's best known landmarks, which features 264 rooms and 190 condominiums.

The second phase of the boardwalk renovation, a $3.5 million project, has been completed. The boardwalk train has been moved and elevated so that it travels out over the amusement pier before returning to run parallel with the boardwalk.

And metered parking in the inlet parking lot has been replaced with a gated system on a lot that will hold 1,201 cars. The new system will eliminate the irritation of having to feed the meters or of finding a parking ticket because of an expired meter.

"Ocean City will have the best season ever if we continue to be blessed by God with good weather," said Ocean City Mayor Jim Mathias. "Our attractions are cleaner, fresher, brighter. Our roads are wider; the accommodations are newer. "

As always, the wrinkle is the weather. Just three years ago, the resort got off to a terrible start because of usually cool weather and rain that continued through June.

The mayor was reminded of that recently while attending the National Hurricane Conference in New Orleans. This year forecasters are predicting 11 storms - three of which could be major ones, said Mathias."We say our prayers," the mayor added. "We live right here on the fault line of Mother Nature. We're at the edge of the Earth."

Captain Moran knows what it's like being at the mercy of the weather. Hot or rainy. Extremely hot weather, for instance, can create a network of warm eddies devoid of fish.

"When people are in town and they see boats coming back with no fish, they're not going to rent a boat," he said. "People look at the flags that tell which kinds of fish have been caught. If they don't see the flags flying, they may decide to play a round of golf instead."

If the weather cooperates, the season should be a good one. Even higher gasoline prices are not expected to cut down on the number of tourists.

"When gas prices go up, we've never been hurt," said Donna Abbott, a spokesman for the town's Department of Tourism. "Largely, that's because of our proximity to Washington, Philadelphia and Baltimore. We're less than a tankful of gas away. People who may have gone to Florida or Myrtle Beach or Hilton Head may come here instead."

The only cloud over the season is some unrest in the business community over the town's decision to raise the fee for riding the boardwalk train - from $2 one way and $3 round trip to $2.50 each way - and proposed increases in hotel, amusement and property taxes and parking.

Town officials say an additional $3.7 million is needed to cover the 8 percent raise just awarded town employees. The amusement tax could kick in before the summer is over.

Parking on the side streets is to be raised to equal the $1-an-hour rate charged in parking lots.

The property, room and amusement tax boosts are the most troubling of the increases to some Ocean City merchants.

"Doubling the amusement tax would affect us tremendously," said Granville Trimper, owner of the Inlet Lodge and Trimper's Rides, whose family has been in the amusement business since 1890. "I think increasing the room tax will affect us. It's just a penny here and a penny there, but after a while people start to notice it."

Linda Moran, who is married to Marty Moran and manages the Ocean City Marlin Club, worries about the long-term implications of such increases.

"I think that if they keep on adding taxes, it's going to hurt Ocean City," she said. "The rental prices increase each year, and I think it's the restaurants and the shops that get hurt. People have a budget for how much they can spend on vacation. If they spend more on rentals, they don't have as much to spend in restaurants and shops."

But not everyone is convinced that higher taxes will negatively impact business.

Pam Dolle, vice president of Dolle's Popcorn, Candies and Salt Water Taffy, said it's time for an increase.

"Things in Ocean City have stayed the same price for a long time," she said. "Maybe this is the year to do the increase. I don't think it's going to turn people away."

At least some visitors don't seem troubled by what the city is proposing.

"I still think people would come," said Renee Lown of Towson, who was in Ocean City recently with her husband and two children. "They might not go on as many rides. Maybe you'll eat out one less time, and that will cover your taxes."

One of the big successes of Ocean City in recent years has been the expanded Roland E. Powell Convention Center, attracting visitors in the off-seasons to make the resort a year-round destination.

Tourism officials put the economic impact of the convention center at $71 million in 1999, and predict as much as a 10 percent increase in 2000.

"The convention center has done exactly what it was designed to do," said Michael C. Noah, director of tourism and director of the Ocean City Convention Center. "March and November are the busiest months at the convention center. That's unheard of."

Because of that, officials will begin studying a 30,000 square-foot expansion this summer. The facility, which now comfortably serves 6,500 delegates, would be able to serve 9,000.

Another sign of progress, according to Noah, is the recent creation of the Ocean City Development Corporation, a group charged with sparking economic development in a downtown currently dotted with vacant storefronts.

"The goal is to make downtown Ocean City a viable and successful residential and retail area," said Jesse Houston, director of planning and development for the city.

Keys to season

Among the factors that will help determine the success of Ocean City's summer tourism season: Weather: Rain and unpleasantly low temperatures have historicaaly dampened tourists' spending.

Improved facilities: Several new hotels and major renovations, including the boardwalk, should increase capacity and create interest.

More parking: A new gated system wil hold 1,201 cars and reduce the inconvenience of meters.

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