NEWARK – Proactive and creative were words tossed around liberally this week as resort business leaders discussed the prospects for the upcoming summer season in the face of a staggering economy.
Ocean City’s Economic Development Committee (EDC) convened this week in a rare meeting at the new Worcester Technical High School in Newark to discuss a wide variety of topics related to the coming summer season in the resort. Dismal overtones related to the current economic crisis in Maryland and across the country were supplanted somewhat by optimism as resort business leaders put their collective heads together to brainstorm for what will likely be another challenging year.
“It’s no secret the economy is down dramatically, but hopefully we’ll see some relief before the end of the year,” said EDC Chairman Dr. Lenny Berger. “We just have to work harder, be smarter and make it happen. Taking a positive approach is the only thing we can do. We’ve all been through this before.”
Ocean City leaders are fond of saying the resort often thrives in times of economic struggle because of its proximity to such a large percentage of the vacationing public and Wednesday’s meeting was no different. With no real prospects of a meaningful turnaround in the near future, the town’s private and public sectors will likely have to go back to their roots in order to have a successful season this year.
“It’s going to be very challenging, but perhaps that’s a good thing,” said Berger. “We’ll just have to be more proactive and more creative in what we do. We have to get back to basics and do the things we were doing when times were so good. We will make it happen in Ocean City, but we’ll have to work harder at it and be more creative.”
Berger’s sentiments were echoed by several EDC members throughout the meeting, including Patti Miller, who has been at the forefront in the effort to develop a performing arts center in the area. Miller said the current economic crisis will likely run its course, but resort leaders needed to be prepared to ride it out.
“We know the economy is not always going to be like this,” she said. “It’s just part of a larger cycle, but we can get through this by being creative and proactive. It’s what we’ve always done in the past.”
Ocean City Councilwoman Mary Knight told EDC members despite the economy and the obvious budget constraints, the resort was in good position to reach out to potential visitors this year. Knight said tourism in Ocean City was down about 3.5 percent, which is right at the national average for similar destinations, but there was reason for optimism.
“The good news is, we’re in the first full fiscal year with the new room tax and we’ll be able to spend $4 million on advertising,” she said. “We know it’s going to be tough, but we’re committed to spending more money on advertising and we have some exciting things in the works.”
Similar comments were sprinkled throughout the meeting as EDC members heard from several committees throughout the resort. The following are some of the highlights of the discussion:
Convention Center: Roland E. Powell Convention Center Sales Director Fred Wise told EDC members advanced bookings for 2009 looked promising despite the economy with one contracted group expressing reservations about holding their event thus far. Wise said the events this year have been well attended with a couple of major events including the Seaside Boat Show and the American Cheerleading Academy expected to max out.
However, Berger warned booking groups that rely on state funding continues to be a challenge this year.
“It’s going to be a very tough year and we’re seeing cancellations already,” he said. “A lot of groups with state funding are restricting travel. Anything funded by the state is going to be way down.”
Golf: Of course, the golf season is at its nadir during the winter months, but local officials are hardly in hibernation mode, according to an EDC member who spoke on behalf of the golf committee.
Area golf marketers are making the rounds on the show circuit all over the region and reaching out to potential visitors when the season rolls around again. According to reports, golfers are still going to book packages, but might take shorter trips to destinations closer to home, which could position Ocean City to take advantage of a large group of golfers who often make Myrtle Beach in South Carolina their favorite destination.
Real Estate: Coastal Association of Realtors Director of Government Affairs Joan Strang told EDC members the latest statistics for January were out, and although the numbers certainly didn’t take a turn for the better, there is reason for optimism.
“Looking at the latest numbers, it appears we are holding our own, which is encouraging,” she said. “They aren’t going up in most cases and continue to go down in others, but they aren’t going down too much.”
Strang said there were several bills relative to real estate and housing circulating in the Maryland General Assembly and in Congress that could help relieve the pressure on the industries.
“I think we’re seeing the initial realization that the real estate industry needs help,” she said. “For example, I think we’re going to see some stimulus help for banking institutions and for homeowners.”
Assessments: State Department of Assessments and Taxation (SDAT) Director for Worcester County Robert Smith was on hand to deliver a brief report on Ocean City property reassessment notices that went out at the end of December. Smith told EDC members 35,000 assessment notices were mailed out on Dec. 30, a small percentage of which went to property owners who make their principal residence in Worcester County.
Smith said it was extremely important for recipients who make their principal residence in Ocean City to fill out the accompanying form related to the Homestead Tax Credit this year. The Homestead Cap insulates resident property owners from exorbitant tax increases when their assessments go up, and despite a general decline in values during this cycle, it is imperative those who qualify sign up for the credit.
“If you don’t fill out that form, somewhere down the road you could lose your Homestead tax credit,” he said. “If you do, I don’t have any idea how or what it would take to get that back.”