OCEAN CITY — Tensions ran high over the weekend with thousands of vehicles in the area for an organized car rally overwhelming local roads and stressing law enforcement agencies while also providing an off-season economic boost.
Although it’s not sanctioned by the Town of Ocean City, the 17th Annual H20 International (H20i) event, which is actually held in Whaleyville, markets Ocean City as the destination and most of the participants stay in the resort area while here for the event.
Some videos on You Tube and event-associated Facebook pages document some ruckus scenes, including burnouts and races on Coastal Highway. Others show mobs of people and vehicles in private and city-owned parking lots. In one case, a fight broke out between two men and shoving matches are seen through a sea of people at night in a parking lot. In another video taken at the convention center parking lot, an OCPD vehicle is shown feet away from a car executing a burnout and the police vehicle being unable to move as a result of all the onlookers.
Heading into the event last week, Ocean City Police Department (OCPD) Public Affairs Specialist Lindsay O’Neal said OCPD had been in contact with a number of businesses in preparation for the event.
The town had enacted a “Trespass Authorization Enforcement Act” that many businesses have already expressed interest in. This program is a partnership with business owners where they enlist the police’s help to act on their behalf in the event that someone is trespassing on their private property while the business is closed and they are away from the property.
Town officials had also been in contact with H20i organizer, Jay Shoup, in addressing concerns. Shoup stated last week he had been promoting respectful behavior towards event participants via social media. However, he cannot personally be responsible for the way others choose to behave, he stated.
“We have received several complaints from both residents and visitors who were disappointed in the behavior of some of the participants with H20i. There are those who come for the event to enjoy themselves in Ocean City and have a safe weekend here, but it is unfortunate there is another side to those people who are disrespectful not only to the law enforcement but also to the community as a whole, such as leaving trash behind and disrupting properties. It is unfortunate that is the behavior they show while they are in our community,” Ocean City Communication Manager Jessica Waters said this morning.
H20i kept social media outlets ilke Facebook, Instagram and YouTube busy over the weekend posting many negative comments towards Ocean City and videos of rowdy crowds throughout the event paired with derogatory hashtags towards OCPD.
“It is certainly negative, and disappointing to see people coming to town and behaving that way because the majority of our visitors come here to enjoy themselves with their families. The family image that we hold so dear to us is not reflected in a lot of the videos that we saw this weekend. People burning out in our roadways, destroying the roads, and leaving trash in the parking lots is a blatant disrespect for the community,” Waters said. “We make it very clear that we welcome all of our visitors to Ocean City but we welcome them under the understanding that they come here and be respectful to other visitors and those who live here. There is a blatant show of disrespect being shown across social media, and that is one of the things are police department will address moving forward.”
Last Thursday the OCPD posted on Facebook reminding citizens the department has a zero tolerance policy regarding traffic violations and the police will be addressing vehicle equipment and modification violations made that would fail the vehicle during Maryland inspection, and the vehicle would be impounded.
In addition the post stated, “We will not tolerate aggressive driving behaviors such as speeding, spinning tires, and failing to obey traffic control devices. We want all of our residents and visitors to know that their safety, as always, is our top priority and we welcome all of our visitors with the expectation that they will be safe, respectful and abide by our laws and ordinances.”
According to Waters, the amount of inappropriate comments in return to the post caused the town to disable the commenting feature on the police department’s Facebook page.
“It is really disappointing to see a lack of respect for the town and for the town’s police department, especially because these are the men and woman that are working throughout the day and night to keep people safe. The blatant disregard for their authority and disrespect that was witnessed through social media and it’s posting and hashtags is certainly not a reflection of our typical visitor here in Ocean City,” Waters said.
Waters furthered she has been contacted by a couple of condo rental representatives who have questioned the future of H20i in Ocean City because they are looking to warn renters from coming to the resort during that time.
“There is certainly concern about this weekend moving forward and people wanting to discourage future visitors to come during that time, and that is certainly something that we do not want to see happen,” she said. “Every year with every event that we have we learn something new. There is always a way to improve … moving forward we will continue to work with our allied agencies because we certainly need their support on this weekend. With proper planning and strict enforcement we will be able to manage it more effectively better next year…and hopefully the event organizer will be more vocal in regards to the behavior expected when you come here for the event.”
According to OCPD Public Affairs Specialist Lindsay O’Neal, the police department has already started to review all social media outlets to review behavior and locations of where H20i participants congregated to be better prepared for next year’s event.
“We were definitely out in full force. It was an extremely busy weekend for our officers, and throughout the later part of the week. It did prove to be a very taxing and resource intensive event. It was an all hands on deck weekend, but we did maintain public safety throughout the weekend with the help of our allied agencies- Maryland State Police and Worcester County Sheriff’s Office. There were no fatalities or significant injuries, and no officer injuries,” O’Neal reported.
The Roland E. Powell Convention Center’s parking lot was shut down on Saturday afternoon due to rowdy crowds. The lot was not closed prior to H20i hitting the streets because an event has been previously scheduled to take place at the facility.
“We will be considering next year to close that parking lot. This group likes to congregate in any open parking lot they can find,” O’Neal said. “It was a very large crowd that had gathered, and our officers were trying to disperse the crowd. Eventually people started gathering around and vandalizing a police vehicle. A Signal 13 was called out calling for all available OCPD officers, as well as State police to come in and control the situation. When it was under control, the lot was closed.”
O’Neal added OCPD will also be looking to expand allied agency support next year.
As far as the “Trespass Authorization Enforcement Act”, O’Neal reported several businesses jumped on board but the department will be working on growing the program.
On Sunday morning Police Commission Chair and Councilman Doug Cymek drove his car down to 33rd Street and back to inspect what kind of damage had been done the night before, inspecting parking lots, sidewalks and landscaping for trash.
“I was pleasantly surprised. A lot of the work had been done prior to my visit by the businesses cleaning up but I understand there were a lot of lots worse than others,” he said.
Cymek also monitored the police channels throughout the weekend.
“With the amount of people we had in town, and the amount of calls for service and traffic violations, I have to commend the police department for the job that they did. No one likes the speed that goes along with this event, but it seemed like every time a call went out for service there was a police car between one to three streets away, so there was very quick responses,” he said. “They did an exemplary job, along with the assistance from the county and the state. Could we use more law enforcement on the street during this event, absolutely, but they did a great job with what they had.”
Waters echoed OCPD’s effort over the weekend.
“Everyone I have spoken to has commended the effort put forward by our emergency services and our neighboring police departments. We certainly know they can’t be everywhere at all times but they did a very good job in keeping people safe this weekend on the roadway from those who were acting recklessly. We were lucky with the number of people in town, with the amount of cars and the amount of people standing on the roadway that no one was hurt, and it was certainly because of their efforts,” she said.
Crime statistics from over the weekend will be released later this week.
From a business perspective, the event’s economic impact is significant for most, particularly those in the lodging industry. For example, Adam Showell, owner of Castle in the Sand and Barefoot Mailman hotels, reported the event and its associated attendees resulted in a busy weekend. He said he was sold out prior to the weekend.
“My staff says we could have sold out twice. It was that busy. I give it real high marks this year, but I am only seeing it from what I see along the highway and what I see at the Castle and Barefoot Mailman and Coconuts. It was great to have them here. They brought us a lot of business and had a lot of fun,” he said.
Showell acknowledged issues in the past from event attendees, but he reported no similar issues this year.
“From our experience, this year was very positive as far as the way people behaved here at the Castle,” said Showell. “I can see how some people might not enjoy certain aspects of it, but as a business person it was very good for us. The clientele were well behaved and fairly respectful. We have had issues in the past where people were not respectful with this group so we were concerned, but this year we didn’t have any problems. They are younger, they are single and they are high energy, but if we didn’t have the event we would be looking at half or less the business for that weekend. The summer is short and if we can stretch it a few weekends it makes a huge difference as far as economic impact.”
One of the most obvious observations from the weekend was the litter left behind. That was a similar complaint heard after the spring Cruisin’ event as well.
“My only criticism of the group, and I don’t understand it, is they leave trash behind. There’s no doubt about it. Property owners have to be vigilant about it. I will grant [the critics] that. They don’t pick up after themselves and I will never understand that because the trash cans are 50 feet away. I don’t know how to change that. As far as how they treated our staff and each other, I found them to be much more respectful than times in the past,” said Showell.
The actual event, which has been held for 17 years at various locations, has been headquartered at Fort Whaley Campground in Whaleyville for the last three years. Although attendees were in town for much of last week, the actual organized event activities were held on Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 27-28, and featured a barbeque and live music and a judged participant show with awards.
From the official event perspective only, Fort Whaley Campground owner Mitch Parker said Monday all went smooth at the host venue. He said there were no reports of anything negative at the campground, such as property destruction or fighting that were reported in Ocean City over the weekend.
“It went well. We didn’t have anything out there negative. I think there were significantly more people this year and it went smoothly on our side. The traffic control measures have improved significantly over the last three years,” said Parker. “It’s a big deal for us. It helps us on what is usually a very slow weekend, the weekend after Sunfest. Without something here, it would be quiet here and this is that ‘something’ right now. It’s an event that has a longer impact than it used to be as well from my perspective. I was still seeing lots of vehicles on Sunday night and started seeing the vehicles on Monday the week prior.”