OCEAN CITY — His infamous remark about the Eastern Shore being an “outhouse” notwithstanding, former Maryland Governor and Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer, who passed away this week at the age of 89, was a strong advocate for the shore in general and Ocean City specifically, local elected officials said this week.
Schaefer, whose strong, often irascible personality largely dominated Maryland politics for half a century, first as the outspoken four-term mayor of Baltimore and later as a two-term Maryland governor, leaves behind a rich legacy around the state. He is largely credited for the revitalization of the downtown area in Baltimore beginning with the transformation of the city’s waterfront from a poster child of urban decay to what became a model of inner city revitalization. The Baltimore Colts left the city under his watch, but he responded by getting the new stadium complex built in the downtown area and the return of professional football and the Baltimore Ravens.
However, his fingerprints are all over the state, including right here in Ocean City, where his leadership fostered the beach replenishment program, the last expansion of the Ocean City Convention Center and perhaps his most famous contribution, the “Reach the Beach” program, a rehabilitation of the Route 50 corridor that broke up chronic logjams for the millions of visitors from the western shore heading to Ocean City.
In 1991, Schaefer did not endear himself to residents on the Eastern Shore with his famous “outhouse” remark, but former Ocean City Mayor and now Senator Jim Mathias said this week the comment did not reflect how Schaefer really felt about the shore and was made in a moment of high passion.
“He wasn’t able to undo that remark, but what most people don’t know is that he said that in response to something somebody from the shore said about his beloved Baltimore,” he said. “Somebody from the shore made a disparaging and disrespectful comment about Baltimore City and that was his reaction. It can’t be undone, but I truly believe he didn’t really feel that way and the proof is in everything he did for Ocean City and the shore.”
Mathias said Schaefer was largely responsible for putting together the local, state and federal partnerships that made beach replenishment a reality. He also worked with resort and state officials to get the one-cent addition on the food and beverage rate in Ocean City that helped pay for the convention center expansion.
“Around the time we were planning the convention center expansion, he got together with [former Comptroller] Louis Goldstein and came up with that plan,” he said. “I don’t think it had ever been done before and I know it hasn’t been done since.”
Schaefer also had a hand in the creation of the Ocean City Economic Development Committee (EDC), originally called the Governor’s Economic Development Committee, which has its roots in the infancy of the beach replenishment program. Mathias said town officials were taking their lumps over the program when it began because its first phases were carried out during the summer season. Schaefer came down to Ocean City to meet with business leaders and got them to turn public sentiment around.
“We were all sitting there with our heads in our hands lamenting our problem and he told us to get up and make something positive out of it,” he said. “Make up some contests, paint the pipe, do whatever you have to do to turn this around. That was the beginning of the EDC.”
Mayor Rick Meehan interacted with Schaefer several times during his many years as council president and agreed Schaefer was a strong advocate for the resort.
“He truly loved Ocean City and made it his part-time home for years,” he said. “He was a strong advocate for the town and spent a lot of time here. He was one of a kind and what I respected most was his ‘can do’ attitude. ‘We can do it’ was one of his favorite phrases and I found that inspiring. I still do.”
Both Meehan and Mathias praised Schaefer for his “Reach the Beach” initiative, which helped clear the way for the millions of visitors to the resort areas. Under his watch, new bridges were built at Kent Narrows and Cambridge and the by-pass around Salisbury was begun when he was governor.
Mathias said this week Schaefer took him aside when he became mayor of Ocean City and offered advice he hasn’t forgotten.
“He told me to protect what makes Ocean City special,” he said. “He talked about keeping it a family resort and safe and clean and said if we took care of those things, all of our dreams for Ocean City would come true. He always had practical advice, but it wasn’t always something you wanted to hear.”
Meehan agreed, relating the story of his own piece of advice from Schaefer.
“One time he said to me while I was council president that one of the best times in his life was when he held the same position in Baltimore and later became mayor because he was in front of the people, doing the people’s business,” he said. “He was very hands-on and involved with the people and that’s what I try to do.”