OCEAN CITY – There might be many ideas about how to make downtown Ocean City more aesthetically pleasing, but one non-profit group has crafted those ideas into a concrete vision.
The Ocean City Development Corporation (OCDC) has been diligently working, albeit oftentimes under the radar, since 2000 to change the decaying cosmetic of downtown and walking the line between nostalgia and necessary modernization.
“The incremental changes that have been made over the last few years you are starting to see in and around Ocean City,” said OCDC President Greg Shockley, “and we are trying to help change an area that had a difficult history for 20-30 years. People had let some buildings run away from them and disintegrate. We aren’t looking for a cookie cutter, but it’s a look and a feel that we want for the downtown area, and these programs help do that.”
Fifty-seven façade projects have been completed and a handful of others are ongoing, with the OCDC providing financial assistance to commercial and residential owners who want to revamp their properties. The only catch is that they have to live up to the design standards laid out by the OCDC.
The design standards, according to Shockley and OCDC Executive Director Glenn Irwin, are there to help “set the bar” for both new development and renovations to existing properties in the downtown.
The two most noticeable projects on the OCDC resume are the Somerset Plaza and Sunset Park projects that provide a needed alternative to the main attraction of the downtown area: the Boardwalk.
Shockley hopes to eventually improve the Somerset Plaza area to include some sort of a themed destination for tourists as an accessory to the Boardwalk.
“We need to theme the street which would create traffic on that street, whether it be a theme geared towards kids or the arts,” said Shockley. “Something needs to happen on that street to put half a percent of people that are in town to make it a viable destination. If we can create something, we will change the face of the tenant on that street, but we’ve been unable to make that change so far.”
Shockley hinted that plans to alter the street have been impaired by an ongoing riff with the current business owners on the street who “don’t share the same vision as we do,” he said.
In addition to the façade program, which pays for up to a third of the project with granted money from the state, county and city, is the public art campaign that is continuing to grow.
By taking more than “a page” from recommendations in a 1999 San Antonio study done by the International Waterfront Group (IWG), the OCDC has completed several public arts campaigns such as the new welcoming sign at the foot of the Route 50 Bridge, the Seahawk sculpture on 4th Street and the White Marlin sculpture that hundreds of thousands are welcomed by as they enter downtown Ocean City.
Yet, it’s another public art campaign that is gaining the town a bunch of unexpected notoriety.
““We are known right now, as the city that paints all its utility boxes. There are very few cities that have even thought of that, as utility boxes are usually an eye sore, and we’ve painted 17 or 18 of them, all done with an Eastern Shore theme,” said Irwin.
The OCDC received $150,000 in grants from the state of Maryland last year, and $100,000 each from both Worcester County and the town of Ocean City. Shockley came before Mayor and Council two weeks ago to ask for permission to run the OCDC’s new television advertisement on the local cable access channel, but also hinted that he hoped for the same amount of money this year from the town.
The future for the group banks mostly on land acquisition in the short term, according to Irwin, additional façade improvements and continued hopes to make plans for a parking garage on Worcester Street become a reality.
“It’s had a jaded history and it’s been talked about for 30-40 years, and the trigger has never been pulled,” said Shockley of the garage, “we feel that if you put a parking garage downtown, you will kick start development in the area, and obviously address the traffic issue. We realize that it won’t happen now, but we want to keep a parking garage on the city’s viewfinder.”
A pedestrian link to the existing Boardwalk and the creation of a bayside Boardwalk is in the works, although it could be as far away as plans to revamp or possibly rebuild the Route 50 Bridge.
“Our membership wanted option 2, which was essentially revamping the existing bridge, but the state kind of pushed that idea out,” said Irwin. “If the state settles on option 4, that creates a new district that could be a kick start to development as well, but it is the most expensive, and will displace the most people and businesses in the area.”
The next thing you might see in the near future from the OCDC could be “way-finding signage”, which would be placed throughout the downtown area to show people how to get to notable destinations and tourist attractions like the hard to find Sunset Park.
Still, Irwin and Shockley agree that the OCDC must do their part to combat misconceptions of Ocean City, whether it’s concerning price, or aesthetics or things to do.
“It falls on all of us. It’s everyone’s responsibility to come together and clarify that misconception of Ocean City. We need to create a brand, because Ocean City doesn’t have a brand right now. We hope that the design standards that we’ve laid out for the downtown area can be a type of brand as well,” said Shockley.