State Unlikely To Increase Tourism Dollars In Near Future

OCEAN CITY – After going to Ocean City officials and the Worcester County Commissioners seeking more funding for tourism marketing, the resort business community went straight to the top with its request this week during a meeting with Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, but they did not exactly walk away with the answer they were looking for.

O’Malley was in town this week for the annual Maryland Municipal League (MML) Convention and took time out of his schedule for several stops in the resort including a tour of the coastal bays by boat on Tuesday and a tour of the historic Trimper’s Rides amusement park on Wednesday morning. Following the tour of Trimper’s, O’Malley met with a contingent of resort business leaders and local elected officials to discuss the issue of more state funding directed at tourism marketing.

The resort business community has made similar requests to the Ocean City Mayor and Council and the County Commissioners this month and took advantage of a captive audience with the governor on Wednesday morning to take the plea to the state level. With a tourism marketing budget of around $1.7 million, officials allege Ocean City spends far less promoting itself as a destination than many of its rival tourist towns along the coast, and without an injection of local and state funding, business leaders are growing increasingly concerned about the resort’s ability to remain competitive with its neighbors.

“There’s some concern in our industry that we’ve flattened out,” Ocean City Hotel/Motel/Restaurant Association (OCHMRA) President Greg Shockley told O’Malley. “We’ve been to the town, we’ve been to the county and now we hope you take the message to the state. We don’t want to be a forgotten part of the equation.”

Delegate Jim Mathias (D-38B) said it was an honor to have the governor on hand to work with the town business leaders on a possible solution to the tourism marketing funding issue. Mathias, who was the resort’s mayor for 10 years, explained every dollar spent on marketing Ocean City and Maryland as a tourism destination returns a rate of 40 to one. He also explained of the town’s $1.7 million tourism marketing budget, a mere $165,000 comes from the state.

O’Malley said he understands the economics of investing in tourism marketing and vowed to try to find a way to inject more funding in it. He said there was certainly room for improvement in the area of tourism spending.

“I don’t think we’ve done a good job in recent years promoting our destinations,” he said.

O’Malley also took the opportunity to take an apparent jab at his predecessor, Robert Ehrlich, who used tourism marketing money to fund an advertising campaign featuring himself as the central character.

“I will never hijack a dime or a dollar of tourism money to show my face or promote my agendas,” he said.

The governor said the state’s anticipated structural deficit of around $1.4 million would likely make any increase in tourism marketing spending difficult, if not impossible.

“We hope to be able to do better than that, but we have some obstacles to overcome,” he said. “This is a rough year for us. I can’t tell you there will be more money, and actually, there will probably be a small cut in the context of attacking the deficit. We’ll try to make the cuts as small as possible.”

Despite the dire predictions, O’Malley said there was reason for optimism if the state can put its budget issues behind it rather quickly. Unfortunately, the fiscal year 2008 budget is set and if another year passes with no increases or even small cuts, any hope for more state funding for tourism marketing is essentially two calendar years out.

“Next year, if we get through this budget battle, I’m very hopeful and optimistic we will be able to make that investment and take advantage of that 40 to one return,” he said.

OCHMRA member and Francis Scott Key Motel owner Annemarie Dickerson questioned why more money is not funneled into tourism spending when the potential for a substantial return on the investment is so great. Dickerson said an investment in tourism spending could help the state with its deficit problem.

“We all know tourism dollars bring in even more dollars for the state. Why would you cut that? We should be increasing that,” she said.

O’Malley reassured the business leaders the flow of dollars for tourism marketing would continue once the state addressed its deficit problem. He said that could happen sooner rather than later if state lawmakers are successful in turning around the budget.

“We’re going to come through this,” he said. “I came here to lead. When we come through this, we’ll be better and stronger for it. I’ve been through this before.”

Although he acknowledged there was likely some anxiety in the room about the issue, O’Malley did not rule out slots as a potential revenue source to help turn the deficit around.

“I’m in favor of limited slots at the racetracks if only to preserve that open space and save those racing jobs,” he said. “I know you would rather see the dollars going into Shenanigans for lunch or the Kite Loft instead of going into one-armed bandits. I’m very mindful of that.”