OCEAN CITY – A few council members were wary to pass the fiscal year 2012 budget through first reading during this week’s Mayor and City Council meeting, due to nunresolved issues including an allocation of a portion of the tourism budget to establish a free gas promotion this summer.
Councilman Brent Ashley took the opportunity to bring up a promotional idea regarding gas giveaways.
“I think things are slow in town and I think the numbers prove that,” Ashley said. “I would like to see us discuss the proposal to move $1 million from the advertisement budget to have MGH develop a free gas program … we need additional buzz to get people to Ocean City. I know we all talk a rosy picture, but in my experience of being here for 30 some years I don’t see it.”
Councilwoman Mary Knight responded by saying once again she falls in the minority of the City Council.
“Here I am sitting with two of my colleagues that have no idea what is going on with this,” Knight said. “This is in my mind almost preposterous to take a million dollars with no information, nothing to base it on, because it might be cutesy.”
Knight added that she is open to a discussion on the new idea but needs more business input.
“It is Mr. Kro-Art as I understand it that started all of this and he is in Baltimore tomorrow with an empty gas tank walking around…so again it is just kind of interesting to be left out,” she said.
In an interview with Joe Kro-Art, owner of Ocean Gallery, on Wednesday, he said the gas promotion concept was originally an idea of previous Ocean City Mayor Harry Kelley.
According to Kro-Art, Kelley’s approach was to face a problem head on. During the late 1970’s gas shortages, Kelley stockpiled gasoline and sold it to local gas stations so that vacationers would have access to gas in order to visit Ocean City.
“Harry Kelley in 1979 bought tanks in the Jolly Roger area … and set up a gas station because of the gas shortage and no other town did this,” Kro-Art said. “It is like a gutsy little resort town taking on a serious problem in doing something because they care about people.”
Kro-Art suggested a gas giveaway in 2008 but it wasn’t as strong as today’s campaign and now he has been working on this concept for the last eight months behind the scenes.
“What happened [in 2008] was the town thought about it but the first weekend in August, when the hotel vacancy rate was high, people said it was too late,” he said.
Kro-Art said that Ocean City and other resort towns are facing a problem with gasoline and economics that they have never faced before, and the town should be worried specifically over the impact of high gasoline prices.
He proposes buying a gas station or leasing a gas station to pump free gasoline into vacationers’ gas tanks.
“The idea is one gallon of free gas for each night they stay in Ocean City … which is five to seven gallons for a week,” Kro-Art said. “That means their trip to Ocean City is free.”
The proposal includes removing $1 million from the allocated $3.5 million designated toward the town’s Rodney Saves campaign to fund the gas promotion.
“One million dollars is a good starting point,” Kro-Art said. “That ad campaign [Rodney Saves] is three years old and … the main point is that people are bored and Rodney is going to save them. It is out of sync with the reality of what has happened this past year and a half. People are not bored. They are insecure with what they want to spend.”
He said that the town needs to confront raising gas prices now, and there is only a two-week window before Memorial Day or the summer will be lost.
“This has been a really tough year and I call it a silent spring,” Kro-Art said. “Springfest was very quiet this year, and the weekends have been very quiet. I have never seen Ocean City as quiet, and we need to shake the trees and we need to let the people know they can get to Ocean City cheaper this year than they did last year.”
Kro-Art does not know of a gas station available for sale or to be leased, but he feels he is doing his job in initiating the conversation. Where Ocean City decides to take it from here is up to the town and its promotional/advertising company, MGH.
“Ocean City is good because Ocean City is conservative and it takes a while to get people really excited about something … it’s like fine wine, it has to mature and this idea is maturing,” Kro-Art said.
Kro-Art added that gas stations and businesses in Ocean City will benefit from this promotion. He said that there is no need for gas stations to worry about the town taking business away from them by paying for vacationers’ gas because while they are here, they will still need to buy additional gas to get around and to drive back home.
“The gas stations aren’t loosing anything,” he said. “They are going to be better off in the end of the year because they are going to be selling more gas because more people are in town.”
Kro-Art’s gas promotion has received publicity on a local, regional and national level, including an article in USA Today.
“I have handled promotions and different crazy things in Ocean City for a long time and never have we hit USA Today…it is the beginning of something that can be a PR bonanza for Ocean City,” he said. “If we don’t jump on this, some other resort’s going to do the same thing.’
Monday evening’s Mayor and City Council meeting discussion on fiscal 2012’s budget concluded with Councilman Doug Cymek pointing out that the town doesn’t have the “luxury” to wait to approve the budget and the state expects the tax rate by June 1.
Councilman Joe Hall asked for additional budget discussion to deliberate issues such as the gas promotion, the new ordinances passed regarding newly hired town employee benefits and capital improvements.
Council President Jim Hall asked the council to pass the budget on first reading by re-assuring the council there will be additional discussion before second reading. The council voted to pass the budget through first reading in a unanimous vote.