Ocean City Looks To Save County Tourism Grant

OCEAN CITY — Mayor Rick Meehan will be challenging the request of Lisa Challenger in a new letter to the County Commissioners this week.

Mayor Rick Meehan is penning another letter to the commissioners, and once again it concerns grant money, this time the $270,000 annually earmarked for the resort, which Challenger requested to be used for the county last week.

The expected backlash from town officials was not necessarily harsh, but it certainly was both consistent with what would be the expected reaction of the possibility of not receiving more than a quarter million dollars for tourism spending from the county.

“I have no problem with Lisa’s request, and I actually agree that the county needs to have more money allocated to promoting tourism,” said Meehan. “I just don’t think it should come out of our money.”

The murmurs from the council this week all seem to indicate their disdain in the request lies in the fact that city officials felt removed from the conversation entirely.

“I just wish she would have come to us first, perhaps as an agenda item at the Tourism Commission and talked to us about this request first,” said Councilwoman Mary Knight. “It truly is our grant money, and we have much more buying power with those dollars than the county does.”

Knight, who serves as Tourism Commission chair, said that the $270,000 essentially equates to two weeks of radio advertising in late August, which has been crucial in the last two seasons in boosting the lower occupancy rates at hotels. Challenger said last week unknown if the county’s dollars are used directly on advertising because they are put into the city’s General Fund.

“We can do much more to promote tourism with those dollars than what the county can,” said Knight. “From what I understand, the county does a lot of print ads, and those are well and good, but Internet and television are much better.”

Challenger pointed to the fact that the county has used a mere $150,000 annually since 2007 to promote tourism in the entire county and noted that this was the first time that she had ever deemed it prudent to request the money usually sent to the resort.

Although there may be a few “bitter grapes” as a result of the request, very little of the bitterness seems to be directed toward Challenger.

“This isn’t an issue about Lisa Challenger,” said Meehan. “This is about the best use for that money and how hard we have worked to ensure that tourism is funded and creates an impact for not only the town of Ocean City, but the county as a whole.”

Meehan argues that the town has developed a funding mechanism, which takes a percentage of annual room tax revenue and allots the money directly to the tourism budget. He says that the county should consider doing something similar, rather than simply take money from the resort.

“The county collects room tax revenue as well, and maybe it’s time they need to create a funding source for tourism dollars,” said Meehan. “Taking the money from us would have a negative impact on the entire county and would lose us more ground in our quest for tax differential.”

Knight pointed to the 60 percent of the county revenue that is brought in by Ocean City alone, but she conceded that despite that number, she is uncertain how the commissioners may answer Challenger’s request.

“I really don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Knight. “I have no idea even how they stand because you can’t access their meetings, and you can’t tell how they feel by simply reading their meeting minutes. I don’t think it’s going to get political, as I think if they look at it from an economical point of view, they’ll see the merits in keeping the money in Ocean City.”

Susan Jones, executive director of the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association, said that Challenger has done a fantastic job with the amount of money that she’s had to work with in the county, but said that taking the money from Ocean City wasn’t her preferred solution, either.

“There are some great places in the county which have no marketing budgets or personnel and they rely on [Lisa’s] help”, said Jones. “Our visitors need things to do when vacationing here as many are no longer content laying on the beach the entire vacation, so road trips to area places have become more frequent. Perhaps dedicated funding for county money may be the route to go rather than straight request.”

The council voted unanimously at its meeting on Monday for Meehan to send the letter to the commissioners and hope that he can once again do the lobbying on the town’s behalf in Snow Hill.

“It’s just so frustrating because I believe it was an unreasonable request to simply take our grant money,” said Knight. “I just look to the mayor to continue to negotiate well and explain our side of the story with the County Commissioners, like he always does.”

Meehan said he hopes the conversation is more about economics than it is about politics.

“Sometimes things do get political, but I’m hoping to avoid that, and hope that we can simply show that we have a professional advertising agency, a confirmed ability to market the town and the county and that we would do the most with that money,” said Meehan.

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