OCEAN CITY – Mayor Rick Meehan was re-elected on Tuesday before the first ballot was ever cast in the first election after the filing deadline passed with no one opposing his campaign. This is the second time that the mayor has been elected in this manner, the first being the October 2006 election after he took over for former mayor Jim Mathias who vacated the position that July.
Meehan has served in public office in Ocean City since 1985. Therefore, in a political campaign year that seems to judge its candidates on either the “change” or the “experience” ticket, Meehan seems like the latter, but The Dispatch sat down with him at his City Hall office for an exclusive interview to see if he thinks that any changes need to be made in Ocean City, the town’s reaction to current economic conditions, the You Tube sensation and who he wants to see elected to the council, among other things. The following is a transcription of that conversation.
Q: You are officially re-elected by virtue of being unopposed. Do you think that is a result of the job you are doing, the fact that no one may want the job, or if people think that you might be unbeatable if they campaigned against you?
A: I don’t understand why no one would want the job, because it’s a great job. It’s an honor to serve, and it’s something I’m very dedicated to, and the fact that I’m unopposed I hope is a result of people being confident in my abilities and are happy with the job I’m doing as mayor of Ocean City.
Q: Your resume kind of speaks for itself as far as experience. My question is what keeps you wanting to do this after 23 years of public service?
A: I was first elected in 1985 with the desire simply to get involved. It wasn’t to overthrow the government or anything, I was a young businessman I saw along with my contemporaries that came down here in the late sixties and early seventies, that saw a great opportunity in Ocean City and opened businesses and wanted to get involved with its direction for the future. It was a challenge and it still continues to be a challenge. There’s very little that we do the same now that we did in 1985.
Q: Ocean City is built off the biography of being the small fishing town with simple roots that has grown into something much bigger. How do you stay true to values and traditions of “old ways” while still keeping Ocean City current and with the times?
A: It’s interesting. I think some of the values are still here like being a family resort, but it’s a much bigger family resort now. We are lucky to live here year-round, and we have a great increase in people that have moved here permanently. One of our great challenges is to balance the needs of our residents with those of our visitors.
Q: We are facing huge economic struggles and it appears not to be on the upswing for some time. What’s the challenge of city government to help keep bringing visitors and continuing to give people the “Ocean City” experience.
A: People book their vacations differently now. They don’t book months in advance, and sometimes they don’t stay as long as they used to, but they are still coming. Ocean City welcomed just over 4 million people in the summer of 2007 and we hosted just shy of 4 million this past summer. We need to continue to improve our Internet presence for online reservations and show people all of their options to enjoy our town as we cater to the more hectic schedules of families. The money we gained from the room tax hike helped us greatly in the way we marketed the town this year. Today, more than ever we need to be proactive and Ocean City can’t rely on what it did yesterday.
Q: What about the arguments that it’s getting a bit pricey to visit Ocean City?
A: There are different price ranges of Ocean City, and our improved Internet presence will show that. We are a one of the top drive-to destinations (by AAA) in the country, and within a few hundred miles of three huge metropolitan areas. If you look at other areas, you’ll see that the prices of Ocean City are not out of line. We are on the ocean, and you can spend the whole day for free on the beach. Where else can you go and spend all day together with your family and not really have to spend a penny?
Q: Is the way we market this town to the masses one of your top priorities for the next term?
A: It is one of my priorities. I’m on the Tourism Committee, and I’ve been booked to go on all the major radio and TV shows in Baltimore and DC to promote all the events and keep Ocean City on the minds of people that live in metropolitan areas. There are talks that they are going to be sending me to promote the town in other markets as well.
Q: So you’ve become a bit of an Internet celebrity with the release of the “End of the World” You Tube campaign. Did you ever expect to get such a response from it?
A: That wasn’t my idea. Our advertising agency (MGH) came up with it and proposed it to the tourism commission when I wasn’t there one day. When I came back they told me everyone loved it, and I had to do it. You have to be a good sport, you know, but the great thing is that the spot went on all major networks all the way from Virginia to New York, and the response was phenomenal. For the 30 day period following that ad, the hits on our website increased by 10 million. We did something to get the attention of people that wouldn’t have been impressed by the same old thing as far as advertising goes. It got people’s attention and that’s what it was supposed to do.
Q: You took a lot of criticism with the firefighter merger earlier this year. Are you happy with how it all panned out?
A: I think it worked out better than we all could have expected. It needed to be addressed, and there was an opportunity to make the quick and perhaps popular decision, but I think sometimes what you need to do is take a step back and really evaluate where you are and where you need to be, and sometimes, you take criticism for taking the time to get something right. We knew changes needed to be made, and we wanted to do it right. We talked to paid firefighters and volunteer firefighters all over the country that had been through mergers like this before, and we put together a group including the head of the Maryland state fireman’s association that represents the volunteers, and he proposed this strategy and we spent a few days discussing this with everyone involved and came to what I think is the right decision. In the end, it’s amazing what you can do when everyone buckles down, puts the guns on the table, and sits there and really listens to what can be done and accomplished. I think what we ended up with was way better than what a quick decision would have gotten us, and we’ve chartered a path to the future that’s going to serve Ocean City for a long time. I think as we look back on this, I think it will be considered one of the best decisions for the town.
Q: What’s the biggest issue that town government needs to come together on and “buckle down” on in the next term and address head on?
A: I think our biggest thing as it always should be is the budget. That’s really our major responsibility, and it’s also the most difficult thing we do. We’ve tried very hard to keep the tax rate as low as possible, and we’ve worked hard on the tax differential issue. Though we weren’t granted the whole amount for tax differential, the county commissioners did increase the grants that Ocean City gets by $2.2 million and we were able to put that directly into the general fund and reduce the tax rate by a penny and a half. We truly used that for tax differential, and that’s a start for the direction we need to be going in.
Q: It would make sense that after the assessments come back, the amount allotted is going to be significantly less than last year with the state of the economy. How will government deal with that?
A: The assessments are going to go down, and what will offset that is new construction. We need to give the budget a new look as well. We’ve already instituted a hiring freeze, and we need to reevaluate how all the different departments run and how we do business and see what cuts need to be made to keep our tax rates in line with our assessments. That will be our top priority in 2009.
Q: Most people know that you have been actively involved in the real estate market in Ocean City in addition to being mayor, how drastic will the lagging market effect our way of life?
A: Well, it will have an effect on the assessments because it will cause them to go down. The market itself is pretty well near the bottom. Actually, the market has been a bit more active in Ocean City than it’s been in awhile. We are seeing the activity in lower priced properties, where folks don’t have to acquire jumbo loans. People want to buy second homes, but they are just waiting right now.
Q: Some have argued that development was too widespread and now thousands of units sit vacant and unsold, should there be a stop put on building while the economy scrapes the bottom?
A: Ocean City has been very lucky to rebuild our city as we went along rather than have to do it all at once. While some places grow old all at once and then have to rebuild to stay current, we’ve been lucky to replace buildings that had run their course and become outdated with modernized buildings like the new Hilton for instance, that visitors desire. It’s become cliché for people to complain that we are losing restaurants for condos, and if you really look at it, most of them like the Hobbit that went away for awhile, have come back and new ones are springing up all the time.
Q: This is a great family resort if the weather is good, but if it’s raining, there are few things for families to do. With that in mind, what is Ocean City lacking in your mind?
A: It’s a good point and it’s a challenge because you have to rely on private enterprise for that. We are fortunate to have some of the amenities that we do in town. There’s talk of building a new indoor aqua center in town, which I think would be great and very good for the town. I fought for that fifteen years ago, but lost out on that one.
Q: When I first read about the half-million-dollar concession stand at Northside Park, I thought the price was outrageous, and the city has taken some heat over spending money on that type of a project. How do you justify it?
A: When it was first spoken about it was called a “press-box”, so everyone thought it was for you guys (the press) to sit around and eat doughnuts and drink coffee. When you really look at it though, that is the most functional building for all the activities in the park. It’s also where the restrooms are, that weren’t handicapped accessible before, and now they are. The concession stand is now code compliant and improved the second floor where all the scorekeepers sit. The concession stand brings in about $50,000 in revenue a year, and after we assessed it, it made more sense to tear it down and start over.
Q: You can understand why people would grumble over that amount of money being spent on something like that though, right?
A: Absolutely, but I think that it just wasn’t explained properly.
Q: Do you think Ocean City needs to stay ahead of the curve on alternative energy sources or catch up after something is proven to work?
A: I think anything that involves the environment should be addressed and looked at closely because we are essentially an outdoor resort. We need to look into new forms of energy. I don’t think we need to necessarily take the first step, but I think we need to pay attention. We should certainly be on pace and in the game, such as paying attention to the things going on in Delaware with windmill energy. We should be ahead of the game in protecting the environment because we are a recreational community that relies on the environment and it’s resources.
Q: If you could have a do-over concerning any issue in your first term, what would it be?
A: Well, the firefighter merger was the toughest issue that we faced, but I can’t say I would have done it differently. As I look back on it, I think that as hard as it was, it was the right decision.
Q: Will you be supporting all the incumbents on the council that will be running for city council and will you actively campaign for them?
A: I think Mary Knight, Jay Hancock, and Jim Hall have all done a great job and been extremely open minded and worked well together to make great strides. So, yes, I will be supporting those individuals.
Q: As the town braces for a stretch of economic struggle, how will you ease the minds of the residents that you will help get them through this locally?
A: Our goal is to maintain the budget and reduce government costs. On a smaller level, we can do those things better than what government can on a large level, and we can show you how we do that. Rest assured, I will be vigilant in keeping us on course as a town.