OCEAN CITY – Boardwalk merchants turned out in one large voice calling out for fairness and equality at a public hearing this week concerning street performers.
The Town of Ocean City has been struggling with the proliferation of street performers on the Boardwalk for several years. Issues have grown as the number of performers increase every year and the acts become more disturbing from spray paint fumes to costumed characters to a pole dancer. However, court rulings in recent years protecting street performer’s First Amendment right have prevented the town from strictly regulating the acts on the Boardwalk.
Last month a Boardwalk Task Force was created to specifically look into these concerns. Mayor Rick Meehan recommended five members to serve on the task force, starting with Chair Greg Shockley, owner of Shenanigan’s on the Boardwalk and Ocean City Development Corporation board member; Frank Knight, representing the Boardwalk Development Committee; Lee Gerachis, owner of Malibu’s Surf Shop on the Boardwalk; Bob Rothermel, representing the Downtown Association; and street performer Mark Chase. The mayor also recommended the staff liaisons be City Manager David Recor and Ocean City Police Lt. Mark Pacini.
On Monday evening, the task force held its first public hearing. Another one will be held Wednesday, Feb. 18, at 1 p.m. at City Hall.
The first group of speakers the task force personally invited presented feedback to questions provided by Venable, the town’s legal counsel regarding street performers that specializes First Amendment rights.
According to Pacini, who has patrolled the Boardwalk since 1989, the recent court rulings eliminated the town’s requirement for performers to obtain a permit from Town Hall to perform on the Boardwalk, therefore causing issues in gauging the number of performers on the Boardwalk. It also allowed performers permission to sell their expressive material on the Boardwalk.
“Based on my experience, I knew that giving the ability to sell items on the Boardwalk would cause great concern for our business owners, ultimately tying up police resources to review and handle these types of complaints,” Pacini said.
Besides educating Boardwalk merchants and street performers on the court ruling and providing additional training to police officers, all performer requests to sell their wares are filtered through Town Hall, and then to the police department for ultimately Pacini to work with the City Solicitor’s Office to make a final decision on if the wares are expressive material or retail.
Pacini listed many other problems, including performer and citizen safety regarding using weapons as props, spray paint art fumes, gas generators, the touching of other persons in the act, costume characters and the covering of their identities, and blocking Boardwalk access points.
Also, he mentioned the proliferation of J1 and F1 students performing on the Boardwalk outside of Homeland Security rules, crowd control, payments for wares, signage, the footprint of performance areas being near fire hydrants, on city benches, being roped off, or highlighted with LED lights, abandonment of property when street performers set up their equipment first thing in the morning to mark their spot and leave until their time of performance, advertising of religious, political and philosophical views and what is the appropriate noise level being amplified by performers.
“The current state of the town ordinance with respect to street performers is somewhat confusing for law enforcement to enforce. Combine this confusion with looming potential for civil liability cripples law enforcement,” Pacini said.
Ocean City Beach Patrol Lt. Ward Kovacs has worked with the OCBP for 33 years. He pointed out another main emergency access point to the beach and Boardwalk besides N. Division St. is Dorchester St. where beach patrol’s headquarters is located.
According to Kovacs, on average the beach patrol crosses the Boardwalk at Dorchester St. 30 times a day during the summer, which is about 3,000 crossings a summer.
“Working 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the early part of the shift, beach patrol rarely encounters performers on Dorchester St. but later in the day the beach patrol begins to experience problems with performers setting up at the street end and the crowds that form around the performer,” he said. “Roughly about 1,000 crossings are delayed per season due to performers.”
In the case of life threatening situations, street performers cause a delay for the beach patrol to gain access, Kovacs stated.
“Twice this [past] season, we had off-duty drownings. Roughly around 6 p.m. when our guards had already left the beach one of our sergeants was returning to headquarters from 27th St. when we saw the person face down in the water. He had initiated a response. I was the only one left at headquarters and I got in one of our emergency trucks with one other lifeguard. When we tried to respond, we were delayed crossing the Boardwalk because there was a large crowd, which left the sergeant out in the heavy surf with an unconscious person by himself,” Kovacs said of one incident.
Kovacs requested Dorchester St. also be restricted from street performers.
“I want to be fair to the performers. Most of the time it is just a time delay when we need to move quick but those critical times when they are delaying our response to an emergency it is the worst feeling when you know it is right there but you can’t get to it because there are people in our way,” he said.
Ocean City Development Corporation Executive Director Glenn Irwin reported this past summer had the most Boardwalk performers he had ever seen in Ocean City.
“Looking at it one way, this is a good thing since it shows the health of the Boardwalk and the performers and artists see the opportunity to showcase their talents and earn money. However, too much of a good thing isn’t always good either,” he said.
Irwin had observed Boardwalk merchants who sell the same products or services as some of the artists consider themselves being at an unfair disadvantage acknowledging the store merchants pay high rents and are required to have a business license that have associated fees, while Boardwalk performers do not have these same business costs.
“Just as a business person knows, the Boardwalk performers and artists know that location is extremely important in setting up one’s operation, even for one day. Claiming Boardwalk locations start early in the day and sometimes get territorial,” Irwin said. “Both Boardwalk stores and residential/hotel properties along the Boardwalk do not wish to hear the same music every day, all week long and some, all summer long. Variety would be beneficial.”
Irwin recommended a lottery system for locations and rotation of the Boardwalk performers.
“Boardwalk performers have been part of the Boardwalk for many years and do add interest and attraction for tourists. There are just too many performers and artists at few locations and they overwhelm the boardwalk. I believe this reduces the enjoyment and Boardwalk experience for visitors, residents and boardwalk merchants,” he said.
In the second hour of the public hearing, the task force accepted public testimony, which mostly contained input from Boardwalk business owners who are fed up with performers setting up shop in front of their storefronts causing crowds to block the entrances.
According to Kitty Wyatt of Sassy Beachwear, located on the Boardwalk near Dorchester St., several performers will set up within a short distance of her storefront on both the east and west sided of the Boardwalk, leading to territorial arguments.
“At times, it can be a zoo out there, especially on Dorchester where it is so wide it can get really crazy,” Wyatt said. “We want fairness. Performers are taking away from us preventing customers from walking into our stores … we are there to pay our rent, and make money in the so many months we have to do it, and I shouldn’t have to call the police every day.”
Dan Troiano of Dimensions located near the Caroline Street Comfort Station watches Boardwalk patrons daily get pushed to the concrete pad on the eastern side of the Boardwalk away from storefronts to avoid performers and their crowds.
“That is not helping us. All of us here are losing money,” he said. “They can at least space out to help us.”
Michael Cantine of Fat Cats Airbrush on the Boardwalk currently pays $90,000 a year in rent and is annoyed by performers hiding by the First Amendment.
“How far is this going to go? How do we determine what is art and freedom of speech and what is commercial art and retail? I think a lot of people are irritated that performers get to do this for free, and come to Ocean City and rope off a piece of this beautiful Boardwalk that we all love and claim it,” he said.
Yesim Karaman of the Golden Plate on 1st Street and the Boardwalk recognized all Boardwalk merchants have the same feeling in the inequity of the situation. Karaman also recommended a rotating schedule for street performers as well as limiting the number of performers on the Boardwalk to prevent overcrowding.
“We are upset because we pay rent and taxes. Our main goal as merchants is to pay our rent, to make money and be able to provide for our family. The more important goal is to provide a safe environment and to keep the family image of the Boardwalk. We all agree the First Amendment is valuable,” she said.
Earl Cantine of Fat Cats Airbrush outlined key points for the task force to focus on starting with implementing a permit process or registration for performers to know their identity, ensure public safety by restricting emergency access points, and create a definition differentiating performers and retail.
“The First Amendment as far as I know doesn’t give you the right to swipe a credit card on a cell phone to sell stuff. That’s what I do but I have a storefront and business license,” he said.
Cantine added a rotating schedule or a lottery in designating street performing locations is used in other towns.
“That would be good for our town. There are a lot of us getting sick of the same performer grabbing the same spot on the first-come, first-serve basis,” he said.
Bruce Leiner of the Candy Kitchen also called for fairness at this week’s hearing.
“We all need to work together and generally they [performers] are a positive asset. We are a family town and safety and family should come first but along those lines there should never be any roped off areas blocking entrances or public access because that is how people get hurt,” he said. “The city is the one that will get sued. It is not if it is when it will happen. There is a way to do it safely and fairly.”
Leiner added a minimum distance should be set in certain areas, for example between performers and fire hydrants.
“Have the performers set up on the east side away from businesses. They should not be able to block storefronts. It is common sense if the fire marshal comes and he can’t get in or out of a store that is a fire hazard. An officer should also be able to walk up and assess what is safe and tell them to move it along,” he said. “It seems to me a rotation would be fair and necessary. Perhaps with a given number of slots that the town in any given year can evaluate in what can be handled safely and still be fair for public speech.”
Several Ocean City residents who walk the Boardwalk regularly also spoke at Monday’s hearing.
“Personally speaking, businesses are losing money. I avoid businesses due to performers,” Christine Lieb said. “I have seen verbal attacks from one performer against another. I have been irritated by loud noise and being barraged when walking by performers and crowds. There are too many performers in a short distance, and occasionally because the Boardwalk is so packed my husband and I have had to cross in a performers circle and we have been verbally abused. I don’t mind some performers but we just have a barrage of them. It is too much and it is not a pleasant experience anymore.”
Ocean City resident Brian McCarthy said a rotation would help address the formation of crowds along the Boardwalk.
“A rotating venue to get performers to move around so there is variety on the Boardwalk is certainly a way to go,” he said. “My opinion is that both businesses and the performers have to give a little in order to get this solved this year. If they can’t, I personally don’t think the city should shy away from going to court again because a Baltimore judge dictated what goes on, on the Boardwalk. That is not right.”
United Work and Travel Program Director Anne Marie Conestabile spoke in regards to J1 and F1 students performing on the Boardwalk as costumed characters.
“First of all J1 students are an exchange visitor, guests of the US, and he is to be treated and have the same freedoms an American would have during their time here. It gives them the opportunity to come here and work to experience the culture that we live every day,” she said.
However, Conestabile explained it is illegal for J1 students to work as an entertainer and be paid under the table. In some instances, her students have been allured by Boardwalk merchants to do such.
“If I find out they are my students, I will go … and take our students out of danger. They are being exploited. I have done it, and I plan on doing it again,” she said.
Conestabile furthered it is illegal for F1 students to work in Ocean City or any location outside of their learning institution. However, the U.S. issues 25 exceptions nationwide because the student has proved some type of hardship.
At the hearing, only two street performers spoke on Monday night.
“The street performers have a value to the vacationers. The folks coming here spending dollars in the retail establishments,” performer Randy Grimm said but did not offer any suggestions.
Longtime street performer Bill Campion stated trouble with buskers goes beyond the recent court rulings.
“Things started to change. We didn’t have a lot of people out there and now there are too many performers … you need to control how many you have out there and if you do I hope you consider us who have been out there for years and who have not caused any problems … we did cooperate amongst ourselves but I don’t see that much today,” he said.