OCEAN CITY -- Worried about the future of the resort's signature Boardwalk business - Trimper's Rides and Amusements - merchants here pleaded with Gov. Martin O'Malley yesterday for more state money to pay for marketing they hope will revitalize the town's image as a family vacation destination.
Business leaders complained that the number of visitors to Ocean City has leveled off at about 8 million annually in recent years, a trend they fear could worsen without more money to keep pace with tourism rivals.
"We're worried about the number of visitors over the last 10 years," said Greg Shockley, who owns a restaurant on the boardwalk near Fourth Street. "From what we see, the markets we compete with are spending five to six times more than we do."
City tourism officials are spending $1.7 million this year to market the resort. Mayor Rick Meehan said he hopes the next state contribution to that total would at least match this year's $187,500.
"There has been some concern that we've been flat in terms of visitors the first couple weeks of June, but we came off the best Memorial Day we've had in years," Meehan said. "It's a tough year for the state, but I think the governor gets it; he understands the impact of tourism."
O'Malley, in town for a series of events timed to coincide with the annual Maryland Municipal League meeting, toured the three-block Trimper amusement park yesterday morning.
The Trimper family, which owns the 117-year-old business that runs from South Division Street to the Ocean City Inlet, has said the park likely would be shuttered and the land sold unless the company gets relief from tax bills that have increased $1.3 million in the past two years. An appeal filed by the Trimpers is under review by the state's tax assessment office.
"We've been here since 1890, and I'm the last grandson," said patriarch Granville Trimper, 79. "We don't want to see another huge condo project, but these taxes are killing us. We recognize the importance of maintaining the boardwalk, but we need to make more money to keep going."
O'Malley said state officials are considering the need for creating a special tax district or some type of historic designation, financial buffers that also might be considered for other amusement parks.
"We recognize the need to keep Ocean City, Ocean City, and to keep the rest of the Shore, the Shore," O'Malley said.
But O'Malley also told about 30 business and political leaders during a question--and-answer session that they are unlikely to see more from the state any time soon - not in the face of a $1.4 million budget gap that has required deep cuts in proposed state spending.
"I don't think we have done a good job marketing the destinations of our state, including Ocean City," O'Malley said. "We want this to continue as a family resort. And we hear you loud and clear that tourism promotion dollars are an important investment."
Despite the state's budget woes, Annemarie Dickerson, who owns a motel across the U.S. 50 bridge in west Ocean City, said the state needs to continue to spend money to promote tourism.
"And if we lose Trimper's, I'm afraid we can't come back from that," Dickerson told O'Malley. "I'm pleading with you not to take anything from advertising Ocean City."