OC Businesses Prepare For Rocky 2009

OCEAN CITY – The jury is likely still out on the success or failure of 2008 in Ocean City as most resort area businesses limp to the finish line, but some town leaders and local elected officials remain hopeful for a productive 2009 campaign.

The town’s Economic Development Committee (EDC) met on Wednesday for its monthly meeting to discuss all things related to the business climate in the resort and a recurring theme popped up over and over again as members heard from the various departments and organizations. It appears 2008 was not as bad as it could have been and confidence is high for 2009, despite the obvious challenges it will present.

With off-the-chart gas prices and a staggering economy, the mantra going into the 2008 season was hope for the best and prepare for the worst, which turned out to be prophetic in many respects. The 2008 season was sluggish out of the gates as a dismal May turned into a less than stellar June. As the calendar changed from June to July and the weather heated up, the number of visitors pouring into the resort responded in kind. Although some business owners privately lament the lost season of 2008, the town’s official demoflush numbers suggest July and August came in close to, and in some cases exceeded the numbers for the prior year.

For example, the average number of weekend visitors in the resort in July 2008 came in at 298,946, while the average number of weekend visitors in Ocean City in July 2007 came in at 295,491. In August 2008, the average number of weekend visitors in the resort came in at 285,436, which was down slightly from the 296,365 figure published by the town for August 2007.

Ocean City Assistant Tourism Director Debbie Travers told EDC members on Wednesday the resort fared well this summer compared to many of its rivals for summer tourist dollars. She attributed the success to an aggressive marketing campaign carried out by a partnership between the public and private sectors.

“This year turned out okay. We held our own in 2008,” she said. “A lot of other destinations did much worse.”

Worcester County Economic Development Director Jerry Redden praised the resort business community for pulling together in what was obviously a trying summer season in 2008

“I really want to congratulate you all on what turned out to be a successful 2008,” he said. “Everybody expected it to be off, but nobody anticipated the coming of a full recession. Everybody acted as a team. The first few months lagged behind, but everybody jumped in and turned it around.”

Despite the somewhat rose-colored assessment of 2008, many of those in attendance on Wednesday harbored no misconceptions of what will almost certainly be a more difficult 2009 season. Delegate James Mathias (D-38B) told EDC members the time was right for resort business leaders to pull together and begin drawing battle plans for next year. Mathias remains confident the town’s business community and the public sector will be able to weather the coming storm.

“To say the least, this is going to be a very challenging time,” he said. “I’m certain we’ll be able to come together to come out of this alright. I know what this city is capable of.”

Of course, fueling the town’s tourism engine will require a commitment of funds for advertising from state and local sources. Already, state officials have cut roughly $2.2 million from Maryland’s tourism spending budget, but Travers told EDC members on Wednesday the grants Ocean City receives from the state for marketing the resort will likely remain in place.

“I’ve been assured our grant money will remain in tact,” she said. “We’ve been told funding for local destination marketing in the resort will be held harmless.”

Travers urged resort elected officials to continue to pump whatever funds are available into the marketing campaign for the 2009 season.

“The upcoming year is going to present its challenges,” she said. “When times are tough, one thing you look at is cutting your advertising budget, but we really need to stay the course.”

Ocean City officials have recently embarked on a campaign to cut all unnecessary spending from the town’s fiscal year 2010 budget, but Mayor Rick Meehan said on Wednesday the resort’s tourism and marketing budget is untouchable.

“The town is taking a close look at the way we’re doing things and nothing is off the table,” he said. “However, the one thing we cannot and will not do is reduce our advertising budget. Tourism is our only industry and advertising is what generates the revenue.”

While Ocean City is undertaking the task of cutting the “low hanging fruit” from its budget, county officials have mandated a 3-percent reduction in budgets of its many departments next year. It remains to be seen if the county can continue to match the amount of grant money it supplies to the resort in 2009, but Commissioner Linda Busick told EDC members on Wednesday 2009 might not be the time to ask for anything more from Worcester.

“These are going to be challenging times with revenue down and expenses going up, but there will be no raise in taxes,” she said. “We’ve asked for a 3-percent reduction from our county departments and that is absolutely non-negotiable. When we have it, we see it is distributed appropriately. When we don’t, we have a responsibility to the taxpayers.”