NEW FOR WEDNESDAY: County To Allocate $100K For Movie If Resort Commits As Well

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SNOW HILL — Ocean City got one step closer to returning to the silver screen Tuesday when the Worcester County Commission voted to contribute $100,000 toward funding the movie, “Ping Pong Summer”, on the condition that Ocean City is willing to pay an equal amount.

County Tourism Director Lisa Challenger pitched the funding opportunity to the commissioners this week. She reminded them of the powerful and positive impact Hollywood has had on the area in the past.

“We’re seen what films can do to the town of Berlin with ‘Tuck Everlasting’ and ‘Runaway Bride’,” she said.

While “Ping Pong Summer” is a smaller, independent movie, it will still feature big-name actors like Susan Sarandon, noted Challenger. Many other members of the cast and crew are also accomplished film veterans and have consistently put people in movie theatre seats, she added.

“I think the royalties coming out of this should be substantial,” Challenger told the commissioners.

County Director of Economic Development Bill Badger agreed that a relatively safe opportunity has lined up for Worcester. He emphasized that, unlike with recent movies that featured Berlin, Ocean City will actually be referenced directly instead of given a fictional name.

“This movie is about Ocean City, Md.,” he said.

If funding goals are met, filming on “Ping Pong Summer” is set to begin in mid-September and last four to five weeks. The producers are still searching for about $300,000 that would have been filled by a Maryland film rebate program grant, which was not funded by the Maryland General Assembly this year as expected.

If the county does contribute $100,000 of that, Badger recommended that it not be granted directly, but instead be given to a business entity that can actually invest the money, such as the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce. Ninety percent of the film’s net revenues will be used to repay investors until they have made back 115 percent of their original contribution. After that, all investors will receive 50 percent of net revenues in perpetuity.

Because of restrictions inherent to the county, Badger explained that Worcester can’t issue money like a private investor and take advantage of those promised return rates.

“We cannot invest ourselves, directly,” confirmed County Attorney Sonny Bloxom.

However, the commission could grant the $100,000 to an entity such as the chamber, allowing them to make the actual investment and capitalize on returns.

But Worcester would still be benefiting from the investment indirectly, stressed Challenger.

“There’s going to be a lot of mileage on this,” she said.

Producers expect to spend $650,000 locally and are anticipating 2,535 total room nights needed in Ocean City for cast, crew and guests. The biggest benefit, though, will be reaching a large audience that might not yet be familiar with the resort, said Challenger.

The majority of commissioners were receptive to the idea of having Ocean City featured so prominently on the big screen, with focus on the resort promising to be even greater than the last time it showed up in film in the 1986 movie, “Violets Are Blue”.

“I anticipate a lot of tax revenue and all kinds of interest from tourists,” said Commissioner Judy Boggs.

Commission President Bud Church estimated that just the number of people attracted into town during the filming would balance out Worcester’s $100,000 contribution. He told the commission that the movie should be treated like any other business opportunity for the county.

“In my business, you have to spend money to make money. In everyone’s business, you have to spend money to make money,” said Church.

While several were enthusiastic, the proposal did not draw unanimous backing from the commission.

“I can’t support this,” said Commissioner Madison Bunting.

His reluctance stemmed from the property tax increase enacted by the commission in the fiscal year 2013 budget, which was recently completed. Bunting, who voted against the budget because of the tax bump, asked the commissioners how it might look to the public if the county claimed to be in a tough financial position but is able to take $100,000 from contingency funds to help finance a movie.

“We have raised taxes 7 cents,” he reminded the commission. “[And] we’re looking at a money shortage next year.”

Church reiterated his belief that, even not counting the potential return for the chamber, which the county wouldn’t see directly, much more than $100,000 worth of business will flow into Worcester because of “Ping Pong Summer”.

“We’ll get our money back. That’s for sure,” he said.

Commissioner Virgil Shockley also voiced some reluctance but decided to support the $100,000 contribution because of the film’s potential for bringing in new visitors to Ocean City, and by extension, Worcester County.

“There are two things that run Worcester County: agriculture and tourism,” he said.

While Shockley, a farmer, anticipates a rough year for agriculture, he was optimistic about tourism, especially if “Ping Pong Summer” becomes a hit.

“We all take chances,” he said. “Hopefully, the chamber will get the money back and then some.”

The commission voted 4-2 with Bunting and Merrill Lockfaw opposed, to funnel $100,000 through the chamber and into “Ping Pong Summer” on the condition that the town of Ocean City will provide an equal amount of funding, which has already been recommended by the Tourism Advisory Board (TAB). Discussion of that recommendation is expected later this month at the Mayor and Council level.

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