Foundation Supports Stormwater Utility

Editor:

Kudos to Mayor Jim Ireton and city of Salisbury staff for stepping up to the plate on a big source of water pollution in our area: untreated, polluted runoff from storms (The Dispatch, “Salisbury Eyes Stormwater Projects to Ease Pollution,” May 20).

We pay for drinking water, we pay for sewer, but somehow storm runoff emptying into our neighborhood creeks and streams gets a free ride. What’s worse, the expensive system of drains and pipes designed to move the water does very little to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution from roads and rooftops, degrading the health of our ponds, creeks, and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay. A reasonable stormwater fee would pay for projects that filter out pollution before it can foul our waterways and harm our communities.

While these projects cost money, iconic and special places like Beaverdam Creek, the Wicomico Riverfront, and the Ponds won’t be cleaned up without it. And often, these projects can help fix other problems: creating jobs, adding green space, or reducing flooding in city neighborhoods. Taking action now will help the city address its part of the Chesapeake Bay’s long-overdue "pollution diet," and avoid less desirable and potentially more costly alternatives the mayor and others acknowledge may be imposed later on.

The city’s effort to develop a stormwater utility deserves our support as an investment in jobs, clean water, and healthy communities for us, for our children, and our local rivers and streams of the Chesapeake Bay.

Erik Fisher
Annapolis

(The writer is a land use planner for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.)

Recalling Facts Of 1979 Energy Crisis

Editor:

I read with great interest your article “Will Free Gas Pitch Become A Reality?” The Dispatch, May 20, 2011. 
I certainly understand Mr. Kro-Art’s desire to mitigate the effects of high gasoline prices on the resort. However, Mr. Kro-Art is not correct in his recollection about the energy crisis of 1979 and the roll Mayor Kelley played in the outcome.

The energy crisis of 1979 was a crisis of supply and not price. During the spring of 1979 because of a number of factors, there wasn’t enough refined gasoline available to meet the public demand and, therefore, gasoline was allocated to fuel distributors and retailers based on a percentage of the fuel sold at each retail outlet the previous year.

Ed Ellis and I were partners in Ocean Petroleum Co. at that time and, long before Mayor Kelley bought 8,000 gallons of fuel (enough for only 400 cars) and stored it at Jolly Roger, we realized this was potentially catastrophic for Ocean City. As I recall, projected allocations were only about 70% of the gasoline that had been sold the previous year and the State of Maryland controlled an additional 10% “emergency allocation” which was designed to make sure that the fire, ambulance, police and other essential services had enough fuel.

In the early spring of 1979, Mr. Ellis and I approached the State and began to make the case that OC would be severely affected by gasoline allocation if we were not able to obtain enough fuel to meet the needs of vacationers.

After a number of meetings and a lot of consideration, Governor Hughes decided to take a portion of the State’s emergency allocation and direct it to Ocean City with two caveats. The first was that Ocean Petroleum had to share the additional fuel pro-rata with all other fuel retailers which we gladly did.

The second was that we had to convince Mayor Kelley not to broadcast this publicly because the governor feared that every other mayor in Maryland would demand additional fuel as well. I will never forget the meeting we had with Mayor Kelley who, after some reflection, agreed to the conditions set out by Governor Hughes. The end result was one of the best years OC had ever had up until that time.

Mayor Kelley was a good friend and a great mayor but on this matter lots of other people deserve the credit.

Tom Kelso  

Laws Need Enforcing

Editor:
(The following letter was addressed to the Ocean City Mayor and Council.)

Let me begin by saying that I like fast cars, fast motorcycles, fast … any motorized vehicle. This letter is not about an opposition to these hobbies. It’s not even necessarily about these events being in Ocean City. This letter is about these groups coming here and wreaking havoc on the residents and other visitors.

This is certainly not about all events or even all events that create noise. Some, such as the Air Show, are confined to a specific time and place (not our streets). It is about events that bring people into town who end up in/on a motorized vehicle — almost always loud ones — wreaking havoc on the streets. We see them sitting in their beach chairs watching the “show”, on the side of the roads, like the town is having a parade. They frequently encourage a show of power and/or noise from the machines and are often obliged by the drivers. We also see the result, trash-lined streets, horrified passers-by, terrified families coming home from restaurants, etc. Welcome to the family resort.

We all know the facts. We all know people who try to plan vacations to OC around these events and, increasingly are planning around them by choosing to go elsewhere. Yet, “we” wonder why the town’s population is bucking the area trend and why it is so difficult to increase the tourism numbers. Could it be that we are on a slippery slope? We keep adding these events to grow tourism. These people come, others leave – so add another event to boost the numbers. And, on it goes. Do we want to be a family resort or Las Vegas?

The town welcomes these events either directly, as in “Cruisin” or indirectly, as in the September VW Rally (indirectly because one can’t roll out the red carpet for some events and pretend not to want other events that are similar in nature). As more of these events are continuing to be added to the calendar, I have come to the realization that it is only going to get worse. The town has become an addict. It is hooked on these events believing that these short-term fixes are worth all of the collateral damage. I suppose, like all addicts, it will have to hit bottom before things get better.

Why do these types of events and associated negative behaviors gravitate toward Ocean City? It’s not just because they are welcomed. It is because we turn a blind eye (and deaf ear) and do not enforce the laws. I could drive out on Coastal Highway this past weekend (not to single out the “Cruisers” from the other similar events) and see law after law being broken. I’m not suggesting that we ticket everyone for minor infractions such as doing 46 mph in a 40 mph zone. There are endless blatant actions such as drag racing, excessive speeding, reckless driving, open exhaust, just to name a few. Conversely, why would this not occur at other resorts? Because Delaware, for example, would have officers writing tickets as soon as they crossed the state line.

Therefore, the real purpose of this letter – please start enforcing the laws and ordinances. I am not trying to open the debate of whether or not we have the correct staffing at the police department. This is black and white.

Either we are staffed properly for these events or we are not. If we are not, then we need to be. If we can’t, then we shouldn’t have these events.

There is enough blatant activity that every officer could be writing tickets every minute he/she is on duty. This would certainly have an impact – again a black and white issue. Either these people would start obeying the laws or they would not come back.

If they do not come back because we are enforcing the laws, there is absolutely no reason to want them here anyway.

Let’s make this a resort where all are welcome and feel comfortable visiting and living.

Bob Baker
Ocean City

Examining OC Tourism Economy

Editor:

(The following letter was sent to Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan with a copy sent to this publication.)

In light of recent discussions regarding the direction of Ocean City’s marketing strategy and the overall health of our tourism economy, I write hoping to begin a comprehensive dialogue between public leaders and members of the business community. This dialogue is needed not only to evaluate the current state of tourism in Ocean City, but to establish long-term strategies as well. Our tourism economy has been underperforming for years, and the time is now to address this trend.

There are some who argue that the health of our tourism economy is solid, if not strong. On the contrary, demoflush figures for 2010 suggest that Ocean City welcomed its lowest number of summertime visitors since 1984. Moreover, the demoflush estimates for 2008 and 2009 were only slightly higher. These seasons coincided of course with the recent recession, but the performances are nonetheless troubling given that annual tourism marketing expenditures more than doubled during this period, having been increased from $1.7 million in 2007 to $4.1 million in 2010.

The demoflush approach is by no means ideal, and there are those who look instead to room and food tax figures as indicators of economic health. To formulate decisive conclusions based on these figures, however, is to construct a methodological house of cards. Sure, an increase in room tax revenues would result from an increase in visitors, but it would be a logical misstep to conclude that any increase in room tax numbers necessarily signifies a greater number of visitors. Such an increase could also be produced by factors such as higher accommodation rates or varying patterns of where guests choose to stay. As for the food tax, recent increases in revenue should surprise no one given the substantial rise in food costs globally over the past few years.

The real evidence of economic troubles though is found not in year-to-year comparisons, but in stepping back to evaluate longitudinal trends in tourism performance. The recent recession has caused many of us to become resigned to the fact that this is not a banner time for tourism. But the recession and its aftermath have also masked a much more serious, structural problem for the Ocean City tourism economy: in spite of massive amounts of hotel and condominium construction and sustained population growth within our target markets during the past decade, we are attracting significantly fewer visitors during the summer season than we used to. And it is precisely this trend that we must deconstruct in order to identify and analyze its roots so that we may respond and react accordingly.

The period from 1987 to 2000 was the most prosperous in the history of the Ocean City summer tourism economy in terms of the number of visitors received. Seasonal population estimates during this time averaged well over 4.2 million guests. The peak seasons fell between 1988 and 1990, when visitor estimates twice exceeded 4.5 million. Those figures had never before been reached, nor have they been even remotely approached since.

Beginning in 2001, however, seasonal tourism rates in Ocean City took a decidedly different turn. Over the past ten years, the average number of summertime visitors has been a little over 4 million. This figure is roughly 230,000 lower than the average of the fourteen-year period that preceded it—in spite of the massive construction boom that greatly augmented the number of residential housing units. Between 2001 and 2010, the number of visitors exceeded 4.1 million only once, in 2002. Consider that during the preceding period, the 4.1 million visitor figure was exceeded in twelve out of fourteen years, twice falling short by less than 20,000 visitors.

The decrease in the average number of summertime visitors amounts roughly to a five percent decline. Some people may dismiss this decline as being insignificant. However, businesses operating in a tourism economy have high fixed costs. Hence, one would be mistaken to assume that a five percent decline in gross sales will translate only into a five percent decrease in profits. A high number of visitors is required for hotels, restaurants, and other businesses just to meet their operating costs. A five percent swing in the number of visitors to Ocean City might represent the difference between successful returns and breaking even for some resort businesses.

Some have suggested that Ocean City is no worse off than competing resort destinations. These claims ring hollow. While the performance of our tourism economy was relatively flat over the past decade—and not as strong as it had once been—other destinations experienced growth. For instance, while much smaller in scale than Ocean City, Virginia Beach enjoyed growth through the 1990s and attracted a record 3 million visitors in 2002. Annual figures then averaged well over 2.7 million through 2007 before the resort began experiencing economy-related declines. Focused on aggressively funding its marketing campaign and accumulating vast amounts of data about its visitors, Myrtle Beach also enjoyed steady growth during the past two decades, increasing from 10.7 million visitors in 1991 to a record-high 15.2 million visitors in 2007. These trends beg the question: have their gains come at Ocean City’s expense?

The purpose here is not to evoke images of Chicken Little running around screaming that the sky is falling. Ocean City will always attract a sizable number of visitors, and will continue to be recognized as a desirable tourist destination. But in the management of our tourism economy, there is no room for complacency. The performance capability of Ocean City has been demonstrated in the past, and there are no legitimate justifications for the decline in visitors. No one should be satisfied with drawing some six or seven hundred thousand fewer visitors each summer than we once did.

The time is now for us, as stakeholders of Ocean City, to formulate a comprehensive strategic plan for promoting the products and services that the tourism economy produces. Planning our marketing approach one or two or three years at a time will no longer be remotely effective in the face of such stiff competition for the tourist dollar. Such an undertaking begins with gathering knowledge—something that we have not done enough of in the past. We need to know not only what the composition of our target market is today, but what it will be many years down the road—and then we can plan accordingly for the changes that we anticipate. We need to have a firm grasp of the profiles of our visitors, and knowledge of how these profiles may differ, be it by age, by gender, or by the time of the year in which they visit. We need to know our competitors, whatever their size or degree of competition, and we need to be cognizant of their strategies, for they will know our patterns and strategies. We should be ever-mindful of and attentive to changes in societal patterns of behavior, for economic performance will likely be better when such trends are recognized earlier than later.

Most important, we should take heed to not fall into the trap of equating our personal, business, and civil service experiences with knowledge, for simply resting on the laurels of “experience” may lull us again into false senses of security. The quest for knowledge relating to the tourism economy and our markets must be endless and on-going for us to maximize success, for it is proper and effective marketing—which relies on knowledge—that will ultimately determine performance. If we cannot collect and synthesize all of this information on our own, then we should invest in outside help to do so. After all, our competitors do.

Equally important is increased coordination between the public and private sectors, and the relationship between the two must be reciprocal. Too often, debates over the state of tourism and its future direction have been filled with emotion and bickering. This is a counterproductive waste of time and energy, and it needs to stop now. Egos need to be checked at the door so that we can efficiently work together. Such cooperation is essential to maximizing the likelihood of success of our efforts. The Mayor and members of City Council need to be open to ideas from the private sector. The town has a plethora of talented, knowledgeable, and experienced businesspeople, and their visions and ideas need to be brought into the fold. But every bit as necessary will be the private sector’s commitment to invest its own energy and resources to the end of ensuring economic prosperity. Neither entity can accomplish so much without the help of the other.

And once we have coordinated our planning and efforts, we need to collectively, consistently, and creatively reach out to our potential visitors with the message or messages that are important to them. The ways in which we use data to effectively market our product and the ways in which we are perceived by visitors — both potential and repeat — will ultimately shape the success of our tourism economy.

It is painful to accept or even discuss such conclusions as stated above about the state of our town’s tourism economy. I do not expect everyone to agree with my analysis, but I do hope that each of you gives it careful thought. No one wants to be a naysayer: newspapers worry about offending advertisers, public leaders do not want to risk incurring blame, and we all want to present a positive, united front.

Many are loath to admit that we are not experiencing the tourism successes that we have in the past. But dismissing or denying troubling trends will only perpetuate the problem. We need to be able to ask ourselves the tough questions. Have our numbers fallen due to competition? Are we sending the wrong message? Are we reaching out to the wrong people? Has the collective perception of the Ocean City vacation experience changed, and if so, what can we do to change it back?

Ocean City’s tourism economy may have peaked over 20 years ago, but there is nothing to keep us from nurturing it back to optimal performance. We need to get to work. In the meantime, let’s have a great summer.

Joseph L. Kroart III

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