OCEAN CITY — With many of the town’s special events and promotions naturally centered in the downtown area with its Boardwalk and Inlet, a new private sector alliance is hoping to ensure the north end is getting its fair share in terms of marketing and promotion.
With a wealth of resources, including the centerpiece Northside Park, looser parking, accessible beaches and generally easier traffic access, the north end of Ocean City has much to offer in terms of special events and promotions, but the resources are often underutilized, according to businesses in the area.
A recently formed coalition of north end business owners, under the working title of the North Ocean City Business Alliance, met for the second time this week to hash out what the problems are and identify possible solutions.
The perceived problems include a less than stellar winter season for north-end business, and while the problem certainly isn’t a new one, it appears to be exacerbated this year for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is a still sluggish economy, rising gas costs and sagging consumer confidence. The result has been staple businesses in the north end closing for parts of the winter season for the first time ever and even limiting the daily hours of operation.
The problems are not unique to north Ocean City, obviously, but the newly-formed coalition is feeling the pinch more acutely this year. In addition, the problems aren’t limited to the winter months, when business naturally drops off, but also throughout the year including the height of the summer season. According to coalition members, part of the problem is the town’s perceived penchant for directing much of its marketing and promotion efforts in the signature downtown areas.
At the opening of the coalition’s meeting on Tuesday, Greene Turtle owner and de facto spokesman for the group Steve Pappas showed a somewhat famous aerial shot of Ocean City to illustrate the point. The picture, available in many forms from large prints to postcards, shows an aerial view of the resort looking north from the Inlet with the Boardwalk and downtown area featured prominently before fading to a narrow strip north of the downtown area.
“This picture sums up why we’re here,” said Pappas. “Sometimes, we’re like the leftover stepchild. Sometimes, people think Ocean City ends at 27th Street. On the list of the Top 10 things to do in Ocean City [on the town website], only one is in the north end.”
Pappas said the north end has much to offer, but the town’s marketing and promotion efforts are too often focused on the downtown. With the possible exception of Winterfest of Lights, most of the town’s signature special events including Springfest, Sunfest, the Ocean City Air Show and the Dew Tour, for example, are held in the downtown area.
“We have to improve how we work with the city,” said Carousel managing partner and alliance member Michael James. “The majority of the town’s advertising and marketing budget comes from the room tax, and we have thousands of hotel rooms and condos in the north end. We have to try to get an equitable share of the special events in this end of town.”
Some ideas floated during Tuesday’s work session included a greater focus on the north end’s signature venue, Northside Park, including a possible wine festival, concerts along the facility’s bayfront vistas and more special events. All agreed the private-public sector partnership does a good job of maximizing Northside Park, but there are still lost opportunities for the park’s downtime.
Mayor Rick Meehan said there is no intent to focus the town’s marketing strategy on the downtown area. Meehan said the marketing strategy is to promote as a whole and it is up to the private sector, working in concert, so to speak, with the public sector, to create special events.
“The marketing budget doesn’t promote specific areas of town,” he said. “It’s focused on getting people to come to Ocean City. It’s like Ocean City is a mall and our job is to promote the mall. It’s up to you to attract your share.”
Meehan said the town has already responded by tweaking its website to more prominently feature north-end areas and there is ample opportunity to direct more of the marketing and promotion efforts to North Ocean City, but called on the private sector to do more.
“This is a good idea,” said Meehan. “Times have changed and our visitors’ habits have changed. We have to change with them.”
The alliance hopes to respond to the changes by pooling resources on advertising and promotion, creating special events unique to the north end and strengthening private-public partnerships. Ocean City already has a Downtown Association and a Boardwalk Development Association, for example, and the challenge is to form a meaningful, responsive coalition to create and promote special events.
“We need to figure out how to make this a sustainable organization,” he said James. “How can we work together? We need to create an association with memberships and dues so we can go for co-ops on things like advertising and marketing.”
One thing on which all group members agreed is the need to brainstorm on new special events and attractions in the north end of Ocean City by the private sector.
“North Ocean City has to reinvent itself,” said Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage Realtor Peck Miller. “We need to bring people to Ocean City for new and exciting things. There are enough people in this room with enough energy to get this done.”
Miller called on his colleagues to be more proactive on marketing the appeal of north Ocean City from a private sector standpoint.
“This group needs to be more active,” he said. “We need somebody with a vested interest to start some special events and promotions in the north end. The private sector needs to start it, then it gets turned over to the city. That’s how it works with special events.”
Nonetheless, the alliance is pushing for more cooperation from the town in terms of spreading the marketing and promotion budget in all areas of the resort.
“The majority of the population is in the north end,” said Pappas. “We have the high-rises, the biggest hotels, the most rooms, most of the mini-golf. There’s a lot more to north Ocean City than just getting from the Inlet to Fenwick. Almost all of the special events and new promotions go down to the Boardwalk and downtown.”
Pappas said a disproportionate amount of the town’s marketing and promotion effort is focused on the downtown while much of the room tax that fuels the budget is generated in the north end of town.
“A lot of room tax revenue is generated up here, but a lot of that heads downtown,” he said. “It’s like the liquor tax. We all got hit with it, but the money goes to Prince George’s County schools.”
Beyond special events and promotions, coalition members, many of whom have been in business for decades, decried the overall lack of business in the offseason. Where there was once a vibrant business community now features vacant stores and tenant-less shopping centers. Perhaps there is no greater example of than the old 94th Street Mall.
Miller, who is the listing agent for the property, told coalition members the long-term leases with the anchor stores, Superfresh and Rose’s, are hindering redevelopment efforts, but there could be some movement on the vast tract in the near future. In the meantime, the property has become a poster child of sorts for the decline in the north end.
“The 94th Street Mall is an eyesore, but it’s a focal point for north Ocean City,” said Pappas. “A lot of tourists ride by there and think ‘what is going on here?’ The tourists think it’s a reflection of what’s going on in the whole town.”
However, it was learned this week the 94th Street property owners are amenable to offering the vast parking area fronting Coastal Highway for special events or overflow parking for nearby events.
Councilman Doug Cymek suggested utilizing the lot for a future wine festival or other special event.
James said it was imperative for the coalition to push for more marketing and promotion for north Ocean City from the town.
“The one thing we have to do — and I say this with no malice intended toward anyone — is change the mindset that it always has to be downtown,” he said. “We have to have an open mind and think outside of the box. There are a lot of things that could be uptown. There could be parts of Springfest and Sunfest that could be shared with the north end.”
Many of the issues concerning the coalition are town-wide and most come from increased competition sharing the same basic target audience. With West Ocean City blossoming in the last decade or so and a rejuvenated Berlin, the competition has increased. Throw in the relatively new Casino at Ocean Downs and Ocean City finds itself competing for the disposable income of a relatively stable, if not declining, consumer base.
“One of the big things is losing out to West Ocean City,” said Pappas. “Berlin is becoming a hotspot and they’ve done a great job with their special events. Ocean Pines is doing well. The casino is hitting us.”
B.J.’s on the Water owner Billy Carder agreed the competition for the spending public has increased.
“Part of the problem is, we’re getting intercepted,” said Carder. “There are too many things between us and them. There are too many barriers along the way to prevent them from getting to us.”
The challenge for the traditional Ocean City business community, in the north end and throughout the town, is to bring back the visitors and residents back with savvy marketing and promotion.
“We have to get some of those people to come back in here,” said La Hacienda owner Bill Herbst. “Ten or 15 years ago, all of those people came into Ocean City for dinner. Now, it’s changed. What do we do to get them back into town?”