OCEAN CITY — Resort business leaders this week discussed why commercial development in West Ocean City appears to be thriving, while new business in the resort is relatively stagnant with several explanations debated from simple geography to a favorable tax structure.
After a few years of relatively no new commercial growth, the landscape in West Ocean City is currently alive again with new businesses sprouting up and more in the planning pipeline. Meanwhile, with a few exceptions, commercial growth in Ocean City proper remains stable if not stagnant, causing business leaders this week to debate the changing fortunes of the two areas.
It’s important to note West Ocean City business is supported by a decidedly stronger year-round population, but the issue was broached this week at the Economic Development Committee (EDC) meeting.
Ocean City business owner Jamie Albright questioned why West Ocean City appeared to be thriving while economic development in Ocean City proper remains stagnant.
“The customers of our hotels go over to West Ocean City to eat, drink, shop and play, while here we are with two empty malls,” she said. “Can anything be done to attract more business in Ocean City?”
Senator Jim Mathias (D-38), who represents both areas, said the resort’s business community needs to think outside the box during the current economic climate.
“I think we need to get back to the basics with strategic planning sessions,” said Mathias. “Real estate went out the door and construction followed it. Now, the bars and restaurants have empty seats and stores are closing because they couldn’t afford to do it.”
Mathias harkened back to a similar situation years ago when Ocean City’s private and public sectors were bemoaning a stagnant business climate.
“We have to be more creative,” he said. “Necessity is the mother of invention. Years ago when times were tough, Governor Schaefer sat here in Dr. Berger’s hotel and told us to get off our butts and get it done. That was the beginning of this very Economic Development Committee. Nobody can do it better than the private sector.”
Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan pointed out the new buzzword in federal, state and local government is infrastructure and a lot of funds were cut to save money or pay for other things. The mayor said Ocean City followed suit for a while, but has positioned itself to go back and revisit many capital projects, which could ease economic development concerns.
“Ocean City, as usual, is ahead of the game,” he said. “Last year, we allocated $1 million for street paving, we’re rebuilding the Boardwalk, a new comfort station at Caroline Street, a new Art League facility, and just last week we approved the second phase of a major convention center expansion. Talk about economic development. Those are the things that will spur economic development in this town.”
Meehan said one significant issue in the West Ocean City versus Ocean City business debate is the cost of doing business in the resort with the duplication of services such as police and fire protection, for example.
“As far as the West Ocean City issue, a lot of that comes down to tax differential,” he said. “It costs less to open and run a business over there because they don’t have to pay for the duplication of services.”
Meehan said a recent study showed the tax differential figure for Ocean City should be around $13 million, but the county returned just $2 million to the resort.
“That’s a huge discrepancy,” he said. “We’re going to go back and ask for more, and they’ll tell us they can’t afford it. Can’t afford it? That’s our money. That’s a major issue for economic development in this town.”
Meehan called on the quasi-private and public organizations to do more to stimulate economic development in the resort.
“We have some great organizations like this very EDC, and the Chamber and the Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association,” he said. “They should be looking at economic development. That’s their job.”
EDC President Michael James, however, came to the defense of the trade organizations.
“I agree that’s the job of our various organizations, but they’re doing that already to a large degree,” said James.