Pending Visa Expiration Concerns OC Businesses

OCEAN CITY – Resort business leaders this week bemoaned the expiration of a crucial exemption for certain seasonal immigrant workers, citing its potential impact on the town’s hospitality industry.

The discussion arose during the town’s Economic Development Committee (EDC) meeting on Wednesday when Phillips Seafood Restaurant Vice President Paul Wall pointed out the all-important non-skilled seasonal worker visas, called H2B visas, expired on Sunday. Among other things, the H2B visas separate returning workers in seasonal industries from their full-time immigrant worker brethren and do not count them against a national cap of 66,000 immigrant workers.

The cap exemption provides significant relief to seasonal businesses, such as the hospitality industry in Ocean City and Maryland’s seafood and cannery industries, which often hire the same dependable workers year after year. Wall said on Wednesday, resort business leaders should pay close attention to the law change, which could dramatically affect their workforces. The exemption was extended last year thanks largely to Senator Barbara Mikulski’s efforts but expired last Sunday.

“We will not have the luxury in the future of rehiring these employees year after year,” he said. “I know many of us in this room count on them year after year for our hotels and restaurants,”

EDC Chairman Dr. Lenny Berger, owner of the Clarion Hotel, agreed the H2B visa situation merited close monitoring and urged fellow members to contact their senators and congressional representatives about the gravity of the situation.

“I don’t know how we could operate without them,” he said. “We bring a big group up every year from Mexico and they are wonderful employees.”

Mikulski has been on the front edge of the fight to get the exemption for H2B workers extended, and this week vowed to continue the fight despite the expiration of the exemption last Sunday.

“The H2B expiration will not stop my fight for the small businesses at risk without this critical provision,” she said. “Without these seasonal workers, many businesses would not survive- forced to limit services, lay off permanent U.S. workers or, worse yet, close their doors.”

The H2B visa issue was just one of the many topics discussed during Wednesday’s EDC meeting, which was all over the map covering a wide variety of issue facing the resort business community. The following includes some of the highlights of the issues discussed:

— The current real estate slump in the resort continued to be a hot topic for the EDC and some statistics presented on Wednesday illustrate how dire it has become. For example, the total number of homes and condos active for sale in Ocean City and Ocean Pines combined now stands at 2,437 as of last Sunday.

The total number of condos and single-family homes closed in the resort area in 2007 as of Sunday stands at 1,007, compared to 1,209 closings last year. As recently as 2004, at the height of the real estate boom, the number of closings in one year totaled 2,025. Despite the gloomy statistics, Coastal Association of Realtors spokeswoman Kathy Panco told the EDC it might soon be time to turn the corner.

“As you can see, we’re down about 50 percent from just three years ago,” she said. “What goes down has to come up, and hopefully, we’ll be able to get some momentum going and create a domino effect.”

— Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association Executive Director Susan Jones encouraged all EDC members to attend a public hearing on the proposed room tax hike for Worcester County in Snow Hill on Oct. 16. Ocean City has proposed a one half percent hike in the room tax in the resort and throughout the county with half of the increase dedicated to marketing the resort.

The decision will ultimately be made by the County Commissioners, who will host the public hearing on Oct. 16. Jones also encouraged EDC members to participate in the Tourism Summit set for Oct. 15.

— Ocean City Development Corporation Executive Director Glen Irwin informed the EDC the completion of a renovation at the Ambassador Inn on 5th Street represented the milestone 40th project in the downtown area’s façade program. All in all, over $2 million in private money has now been invested in the façade program.

In addition, Irwin told EDC members the first summer for the town-owned Tarry-A-While project was highly successful and the partnership with the Ocean City Beach Patrol “worked out perfectly,”

— Ocean City Chamber of Commerce officials told the EDC the first year with a satellite U.S. Post Office branch at the Chamber’s headquarters in West Ocean City has been a huge success. Just last week alone, the post office in the Chamber building generated $5,000 in sales and the year-to-date total in sales has topped $65,000.

— With major events scheduled for just about every weekend throughout the fall in Ocean City, business has been brisk at the convention center, according to Fred Wise, who said there were 1,200 guests registered for this weekend’s Endless Summer Cruisin’ event and another 7,000 registered for the Octoberfest event.