OCEAN CITY – While some of Ocean City’s street performers gave their best “song and dance” on Monday in hopes of keeping their current spots on the Boardwalk, the City Council proverbially walked on by without giving them a tip, even though they claimed to be listening.
A few members of the “busking” community, known as street performers, made their way to City Hall on Monday night for the first reading of a new ordinance that would designate the end of each street on the Boardwalk as the only place where performers will be allowed.
The council moved the ordinance forward to the second and final reading necessary in order to make the ordinance a law in an unanimous vote, citing the desire to cater to the requests of the boardwalk store-owners, many of which claim that performers are more harm than good for their business.
“The purpose is really to provide a venue where everyone can coexist,” said Mayor Rick Meehan. “We took into consideration the concerns of the shop owners and the safety of the pedestrians, while at the same time acknowledging the rights of the street performers. That’s not necessarily the easiest thing to do.”
Live performances by buskers is nothing new to Ocean City and it’s been a practice throughout all societies dating back all the way to Rome in 451 BC, yet many of the Boardwalk store owners, who pay high rent and taxes in order to have a store in the downtown area’s most prime of real estate, think the street performers, who only must pay $7 for a permit, are actually drawing attention away from pedestrians as they stroll the Boardwalk.
“We think the street ends provides some of the best and most open areas without blocking the views into the shops,” said Meehan. “You can’t cause congregations of people that could impede traffic or movement on the Boardwalk, that’s always been the rule.”
Still, despite the council’s obvious stance and desire to try to appease everyone in this situation, some of the performers, who might have claimed the First Amendment as their argument, chose rather to talk about the money they might lose due to the change.
“For any true performer, this is like breathing to us, this is what we do,” said street performer Joseph Smith, “I’m here to play by the rules, do my thing, and make my money.”
William “Mr. Bill” Campion, a longtime performer who is known for his “Boardwalk critters” that he makes out of balloons, said that a move to the street ends would create a lot of trouble for his act due to heavy winds, but seemed more concerned with the amount of permits that are issued each year.
“We have a lot of performers that really shouldn’t be there because they aren’t really performers,” said Campion. “I see some kids just plunking away on a guitar with a case out on the Boardwalk hoping that someone puts a dollar in, which nobody does. We are serious performers and this is our livelihood.”
Campion suggested a hefty rise in permit fee costs for buskers in order to “weed out” those who weren’t “serious performers,” but that was quickly refuted by City Solicitor Guy Ayres, who told Campion that it’s against the law.
“Based on First Amendment, you can’t charge more for the permit than it actually costs to administer the permit,” said Ayres. “The (city) clerk has given the estimate ($7) and that’s what it must be, it’s not about trying to price anyone out of the business.”
Tim Whittemore, who plays the aboriginal Derigidoo in front of the Kite Loft on 6th street on most nights, said that most street performers want to be “amicable” and work together with the storeowners.
“There’s two types of busking, one is trying to draw a crowd and the other is just playing continuously as people walk by,” he said.
Councilman Jim Hall argued that perhaps the best way to designate the street ends as the only area, was to clearly state the exact spots (via diagram) on the Boardwalk that street performing is allowed under this new ordinance.
“When they go to get a permit, we should have a sheet of paper that tells them exactly which spots they are allowed to be in, and that will make enforcement much easier,” said Hall.
Still, Campion contested that many of the professional street performers have amicable relationships with the Boardwalk storeowners, even reading aloud a “recommendation letter” of sorts he received from a store he performs near.
“I have a peaceful existence, and the store owners like having me out there, and I’m certainly not getting rich off of doing it,” said Campion, “I’m on social security and luckily my house is paid off, so this money is to take my wife out to dinner and a movie, and performing for the kids makes me feel good.”
The buskers’ pitch may have been moved to the ends of the streets, but Council President Joe Mitrecic assured the performers in the audience on Monday that they weren’t in danger of getting squeezed out of the Boardwalk community altogether.
“We aren’t trying to take anyone’s rights away, all we are trying to do is separate them a little bit from in front of the stores to make it a little better for everyone, if you trust us to try to do that, I think it will work out in the end,” said Mitrecic.