SNOW HILL – A quarter of a million dollars earmarked for Ocean City Tourism should be directed to Worcester County marketing’s efforts, Tourism Director Lisa Challenger said Tuesday, to benefit towns and businesses outside the resort.
Challenger requested the change during a Worcester County Commissioners work session Tuesday in which many of the county government departments made their budget requests for the next fiscal year.
Ocean City, in addition to funding from the room tax, receives $270,000 a year from Worcester County for tourism, Challenger explained when she came before the commissioners.
“I’ve never wanted to try to take that money for Worcester County until this year,” Challenger said. “Our budget has been flat at $150,000 since 2007. We would like to redirect that money so the money comes through the Worcester County Tourism office.”
If the county tourism office had that funding, it would pay for a lot more co-op advertising.
“That money is very, very meaningful to those towns and businesses that advertise with us and it really makes a bigger impact,” said Challenger.
County tourism funding of co-op ads allows small businesses and the small towns of Worcester County to advertise in publications they could never afford on their own.
“I think we could really make a big impact with that money,” Challenger said.
In return for the $270,000 of marketing money awarded to the resort yearly, Ocean City provides Worcester County with three pages of free advertising in its Visitors Guide, a $9,000 value Challenger said her department would gladly pay for.
“We include Ocean City in all the advertising we do. It’s in our best interest to do that,” said Challenger.
The first big controversy of the budget year was greeted by one determined no from Commissioner Louise Gulyas, who represents Ocean City. The other five commissioners present at the meeting reserved judgment.
“It’s not the year to be cutting tourism money,” said Gulyas.
Tourism funding overall would not be cut, if the commissioners said yes to Challenger’s request, but reassigned, Commissioner Judy Boggs said.
“I would rather see us designate the half percent room tax in the county back to you rather than take money from Ocean City,” said Gulyas.
“It sounds as though Ocean City will still get the benefit of this. It’ll be all inclusive,” said Boggs.
Many of Worcester County’s promotions include Ocean City, especially the highly successful Host Our Coast program last year, Challenger said.
Commission President Bud Church, an Ocean City real estate company owner, suggested that Challenger look at web marketing for the county to get more value for money.
“That’s the booming market right now. That may be an area you want to increase funding,” he said.
Many jurisdictions spend a lot of money on web marketing, with Dorchester County spending $10,000 a month to advertise on the Washington Post website, Challenger said.
“I’d love to see it where we are getting at least as much as Ocean City,” said Boggs. “We’re not cutting advertising money, we’re just redesignating advertising dollars.”
“I don’t think anything should come from Ocean City,” said Gulyas.
Church said, “We’ll take this under serious consideration.”
Gulyas said, “I think it’s a real slap in the face to Ocean City.”
“No, no, no, no,” responded Commissioner Virgil Shockley.
“I’m allowed to have my own opinion,” said Gulyas.
“I can tell you it’s going to be a hot potato,” said Church.
“Unfortunately, there’s going to be a lot of slaps this year. It’s going to be $12 million cut,” said Commissioner Bobby Cowger.
Challenger later explained that while the $270,000 line item is labeled as Ocean City marketing, that money does not appear to be used for advertising, but is directed into the General Fund. Where it goes from there is not clear, she said.
“We want it to be used for advertising,” said Challenger. “We really want to be able to use it for small businesses, for instance on Main St. in Berlin…the county would look like a hero because they were helping small businesses.”
Ocean City Budget Manager Jenny Knapp confirmed that the Ocean City Marketing line item in the Worcester County grant to the resort does not go specifically to advertising, but supports the tourism department with salary and operating expenses. The funding is also used to promote special events.
“It was a surprise to all of us that the request was made,” said Knapp.
Reached yesterday, Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan said the request was not run by Ocean City before it was made this week.
“I’m surprised that Lisa didn’t have that conversation with us,” Meehan said.
Challenger confirmed she had not contacted the Ocean City Mayor and Council before making the request to redirect the money, but planned to contact them Tuesday afternoon.
The resort has always worked closely with the county and Challenger specifically, Meehan said, to promote county events and sites through Ocean City’s advertising machine.
“I think it would have been better if Lisa had come to us and asked us to support her independent request for more funding for tourism advertising money for Worcester County,” Meehan said. “I certainly would support additional funding for tourism in Worcester County.”
Ocean City has already taken a 9.5-percent cut in the county grant over the last two fiscal years.
Meehan is opposed to redirecting that $270,000 away from Ocean City.
“It’ll be counter productive for all of us, for Ocean City and Worcester County,” Meehan said.