OCEAN CITY — The economy took a bite out of most businesses in Ocean City this season, but Boardwalk merchants say they felt an even bigger sting due to some of bad publicity.
Millions of visitors flocked to Ocean City and to its famous Boardwalk this season, but the general consensus amongst the business community is that they spent far less than usual.
“It was definitely a slow year, and a rough one for some of the merchants,” said Boardwalk Development Association (BDA) President Vicki Barrett. “Despite some of the other things that happened on the Boardwalk this year that may have caused some concern, I think that the results the merchants are most worried about were purely economical.”
In addition to trying to survive a poor economy, merchants had to deal with an unusual amount of poor publicity that seemingly attached itself to the Boardwalk, such as two carbon monoxide leaks, concerns over gang presence and several near riots in early June, and, of course, the swelling concern over the proliferation of salvia.
Going into the season, the most contested issue seemed to be about the town’s new outdoor display guidelines that actually gave the merchants more space than they’ve ever had before to showcase their merchandise, but left many merchants feeling like the town was telling them how to run their businesses and thus, saw them playing the so-called victim card.
“Some of the merchants saw it as a threat, but that’s never what we intended it to be,” said Barrett. “There was a remarkable change in aesthetics north of 3rd Street as a direct result of the changes, and I heard just so many positive things from our visitors who apparently noticed the change.”
Another big issue on the Boardwalk this season was street performers and the council’s move to isolate them at the street ends after many Boardwalk merchants complained that the buskers were blocking their storefronts and taking attention away from their businesses.
The Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) got involved and urged the city to amend the part of the ordinance that banned amplification, which the council complied with, making small-scale amplification allowable for street performers during their act.
“We addressed so many of the issues that affected the Boardwalk this year because they were first brought to us by the merchants themselves,” said Mayor Rick Meehan, “and with the street performer law, we tried to look at the big picture and make a good decision that worked for everyone, and I think in that case, it has.”
Meehan also noted that in the case of salvia, the alleged hallucinogenic substance that found its way on the shelves of several Boardwalk shops, the council addressed an issue for the merchants that was actually created by other merchants.
“We didn’t put salvia on the Boardwalk, some of the merchants did, and we saw a public safety concern and we banned it,” said Meehan. “Usually, I have countless complaints and angry emails throughout the summer, and this year, I think I only received one or two, so that makes me think that the changes we made were good ones.”
Dan Troiano, owner of Dimensions on the Boardwalk, said bootlegged merchandise is still a huge problem on the Boardwalk. He said that Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) officials contacted him recently hoping to take action.
“The Boardwalk is about attention,” said Troiano. “It’s about hey look at me, and come in my store. So, that’s why there’s loud music playing, gawdy signage, and risqué shirts and stores that try to be something for everyone when they probably shouldn’t be. Sometimes less is more but everyone is in such fierce competition with one another that they don’t do business like that.”
Councilwoman Margaret Pillas, who owns a store on the Boardwalk, said that the so-called “100 days of summer” is dwindling and regardless of the economy it’s taking a toll on Boardwalk merchants.
“It used to be where for 100 days, everyday was like a Saturday, and Saturdays were just a little bit better than the other days,” she said, “but it’s not like that anymore, and now it’s so disenfranchised because of the competition that people don’t even know the name of the store owner’s name next to them; It used to be a tight-knit tribe down there, all promoting the destination of the Boardwalk, and now it seems to be every store for themselves.”
Meehan said that partial blame for this turn from healthy competition to almost cutthroat business tactics by Boardwalk merchants sits squarely on the property owners, who charge astronomical rent to merchants.
“Even though the economy is down and properties have gone down in value, rent on the Boardwalk, from what I understand continues to go up,” said Meehan. “So perhaps that is why we are maybe seeing some of this ‘do what you can to survive’ type of business strategy by some of the merchants down there.”
Still, there are believers that the Boardwalk will bounce back from a poor season, and the poor publicity that seemed to come out of nowhere in the summer of 2009.
“The Boardwalk is like gold as in it will survive anything,” said Pillas. “Whether it’s salvia or loud music, or anything else, when there’s a change that needs to be made for the survival of the merchants and the image it presents to our visitors, the Boardwalk almost calls for that change to happen.”