Ocean City gets ready

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Mario Rinaldi is supervising the finishing touches to his $26 million Grand Hotel on the boardwalk in Ocean City - one of two large hotel projects new this season.

Not far away, the Holiday Inn Hotel & Suites will open 100 of its 132 luxury suites at 17th Street and the boardwalk May 17. The rest of the suites will open by July.

Several hotels, including the Clarion Resort Fontainebleau Hotel, the Carousel Beachfront Hotel & Suites and the Casablanca Oceanside Inn, have undergone major renovations.

And starting in July, the resort will kick off a plan to revitalize the resort's southern end, or downtown, where turn-of-the century buildings mingle with modern facades.

The slowing economy and fears of a repeat of last year's bad weather are causes for concern.

But others remain optimistic that the 10-mile-long barrier island will easily fill its more than 10,000 hotel rooms and 25,000 condominium units.

"I believe the [economic slump] is impacting the vacations this year for the first time," said Jim Waggoner, vice president and director of resort rentals for Long & Foster Real Estate Inc., who has worked in Ocean City for 15 years. "I think the economy is having an effect on discretionary spending. Weather wasn't great last year. People may be waiting."

Bookings started out strong in January, only to fall off, he said. A recent count showed more prime weeks available than usual by this time last year. Even so, the strong start at the first of the year made it possible to come out 5 percent above the number of bookings in the same January-mid-April period last year, Waggoner said.

But another Ocean City real estate broker has even better booking numbers. O'Conor, Piper & Flynn ERA reports a 10 percent increase in bookings for its 2,100 units over the corresponding January-April period last year.

"It looks like we'll have a very busy summer, weather permitting," said Susan Jones, executive director of Ocean City's Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association. New hotel construction will bring an additional 450 rooms on line this season, with the new properties adding to the 30 or so hotels that stay open year round.

Combined with other rentals, those rooms will help the seaside town expand from a population of about 7,200 to more than 325,000 at the peak of the season.

Like many in Ocean City, Rinaldi is praying for big crowds to fill his new 251-room hotel, which he says is already 50 percent booked for the summer. The hotel faces the Atlantic Ocean, but has a restaurant that overlooks the bay and the setting sun. The hotel took 4 1/2 years to build on the site of the former Stowaway Motel.

"It's like a dream in my life to have it finally done," said the businessman who also owns two other Ocean City properties, the Americana Motor Inn and the Americana Hotel. "I hope we have nice weather."

Weather is expected to have a major role in the resort attracting a projected 4 million visitors, who will pump an estimated $1 billion to $1.5 billion a year into the local economy .

"Our motto for the year is, 'Think sun in 2001,' " said Ocean City Mayor Jim Mathias. "We think it's going to be a tremendous year."

In fact, last year's cool, sometimes rainy summer was a mixed blessing for Ocean City restaurants, hotels and merchants.

While many businesses were hurt by sunless days, other retailers benefited. When the beach became less appealing, people spent more time in retail establishments.

"Cloudy days are good for us because people aren't on the beach," said Tim Hill, a games manager for Ocean Amusements.

That cool weather, though, kept down spontaneous visitors, the people who wake up, see a beautiful day and head for the beach - visitors with the buying power to turn a good summer into a banner year.

The summer of 1999 was just such a season, when the days stretched out warm and dry into weeks of blue skies, a time when merchants saw more business than ever before.

This summer, if the weather cooperates, merchants in the downtown area are hoping a new park-and-ride service will deposit visitors outside their doors.

Designed to cut down on traffic along the resort strip, the service will begin in July. Motorists will be able to park their cars in a West Ocean City lot and be bused downtown to a small existing transit center and parking lot at Baltimore Avenue and South Division Street.

The transit center is just one element in a new plan designed to rejuvenate the downtown, which has seen the crowds and commerce shift northward. (Previous ideas to help the area have ranged from building an IMAX theater and an aquarium to a science center.)

But now, with Ocean City Development Corp. - founded in February 2000 - in full gear, concrete steps are being taken.

Aside from the park-and-ride service, the downtown revitalization plan calls for closing Somerset Street. The roadway, which runs between the boardwalk and Baltimore Avenue, is to be turned into "a model street" with lights, signs and benches identical to those on the boardwalk.

"We're trying to make Ocean City a more walkable community," said Glenn Irwin, executive director of the OCDC. "We're trying to create reasons for people to walk throughout the downtown, not just on the boardwalk."

A sunset park planned for the bay side, on South Division Street just south of the Coast Guard station, might also be the site of a water taxi stand.

A future downtown transit center will provide parking for buses and as many as 500 additional spaces for cars in a parking garage. That building also may contain retail space, Irwin said.

"One of the issues facing Ocean City is a lot of old buildings are being demolished and used for parking," Irwin said. "Many of the older buildings that have that 'Ocean City look' - that turn-of-the-century, seaside architecture, with elements of Victorian - are being lost."

The town also hopes to capitalize on state road improvements along Philadelphia Avenue that will create a 14-foot-wide masonry sidewalk downtown. The sidewalk will be stamped with a pattern that makes it look like the wooden boardwalk.

The state's work is to be completed for summer 2003. Town officials hope to extend that promenade by wrapping it alongside the inlet - where the tip of Ocean City meets the sea - to connect with the existing wooden boardwalk.

"This downtown revitalization thing took 20 years to get consensus," Mathias said. "I don't know exactly what's going to happen downtown, but I can tell you the next chapter of success in Ocean City is going to be in that downtown revitalization."

At Elliott's Hardware, a downtown landmark for 50 years, manager Ed Denny is not overly optimistic about the Somerset model street project planned near his store.

"No one on Somerset Street is going to get rich," he said. "It's not going to be a little Georgetown or the next Inner Harbor. People aren't going to say, 'Let's go to Somerset Street.' "

But any effort to draw people downtown is good, he said. "Traditionally in Ocean City, if you're 5 feet off the boardwalk, you'll die," he said. "Now put a parking garage right down there [pointing to the proposed site of the transit center], and that will help."

Denny estimates that tourism represents at least 30 percent to 40 percent of his business during the summer, with sales of everything from fishing gear to coolers.

"Anything that brings more traffic is going to help generate business," he said. "Park-and-ride should help because they're going to bus them two blocks away [from Elliott's]. Chances are they're going to walk over to Thrasher's, or to Elliott's."

On a cool, rainy April day, as the sugary smell of fresh caramel corn mingled with the aroma of hot Thrasher's french fries, business operators along Ocean City's boardwalk speculated about the season to come.

Dusty Shevrock, who rents beach umbrellas and chairs and boogie boards for Ed's Beach Service, has already checked the calendar and noticed that the Fourth of July falls on Wednesday this year, a fact that doesn't make him happy.

"I've seen it land on a Wednesday before," said the longtime, permanently tanned beach worker. "It was a good day, but people didn't do big travels. They'd take one day off, but they won't take two days off."

All around there are ladders and the sounds of hammers and machinery as the town spruces up with fresh paint and signs and paving in preparation for the expected onslaught of tourists.

At the end of the boardwalk, a colorful mural announces the arrival of a new Boog Powell's World Famous Pit Beef Ball Park Bar-b-que, which will serve up food familiar to visitors to Camden Yards.

Just up Route 50, at the Ocean City Fishing Center, a new pirate cruise will add to family vacation options. Adventures on the Sea Gypsy pirate ship will offer six excursions daily in which children - with their faces painted like pirates - help follow a secret map to find buried treasure, enjoying an occasional battle by water cannon along the way.

But, in the end, sticker shock at the gas pumps may do more to make the comparatively short trip to Ocean City more appealing than any string of new attractions.

New this year in Ocean City

A total of 450 additional hotel rooms.

$26 million Grand Hotel with 251 rooms on the boardwalk at 21st Street.

The Holiday Inn & Suites with 132 luxury suites at 17th Street and the boardwalk.

A park-and-ride lot with 710 spaces in West Ocean City.

Upgrades to many hotels, including major renovations at the Clarion Resort Fontainebleau Hotel, the Carousel Beachfront Hotel & Suites and the Casablanca Oceanside Inn.

Pirate Adventures on the Sea Gypsy, a children's attraction.

Boog Powell's World Famous Pit Beef Ball Park Bar-b-que on the boardwalk.

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