Friday, December 26–All Agree Arts Center Needed, But Question Is How

OCEAN CITY – John Lafferty has helped put on concerts for the biggest names in music all over the world. When he comes home to Ocean City, however, he can’t find any place to see a good show.

Lafferty is a local resident since 1999 and travels the globe as a production manager for some of the biggest names in music like 311, Gnarls Barkley, Nine Inch Nails, and most currently, international pop-opera group, Il Divo. He says that the idea to put a performing arts center in Ocean City is long overdue.

“It’s about time. It has always baffled me why there isn’t one in Ocean City with the amount of people that live here and all the kids that come down here in the summer. There is no doubt in my mind that a performing arts center could work if you did it right here,” he said.

While debate roars on about when, where and why Ocean City needs a performing arts center, maybe the question that should be posed is if and how. As in if it can be successful, how do we do it?

The town of Ocean City has tried in vain to put on several concerts at the Roland E. Powell Convention Center with little success, and in one famous case, the event garnered more press for what happened off stage than the actual show itself. In August 2005, Grateful Dead satellite band Ratdog came to the convention center and played a reasonably well- attended show, but what most people remember from that show is that 31 people were arrested.

Proponents of the idea of a performing arts center say that things done in the past have failed because “we don’t have a proper venue to have those shows, and the model we use doesn’t work”, according to local real estate agent Peck Miller.

Even the harshest critics of the debate like City Council member Jim Hall have said that a performing arts center is a good idea, but the timing is off.

“I want to make it clear that I am a supporter of the performing arts and eventually getting a performing arts center for the town. I think it should be funded privately and that we shouldn’t do anything right now because of the economy and how hard things are for people out there right now. Sometimes you just need to sit tight and wait a year,” said Hall.

Miller, who hosted many successful national music acts like famed surf guitarist Dick Dale to play at the his former bayside restaurant and bar, has been trying to get a performing arts center in the area since 2004. Most recently, Worcester County denied Miller funding in May for a 300-seat performing arts center that was to be located at the old Cannery in Berlin, telling him that he would have to seek out funding privately.

“Everyone thought it was a really great idea. It’s something that we really need in Worcester County, said Commissioner Bud Church. “We just didn’t have the extra money. It just wasn’t really the year to give them anything.”

Still, Miller continues to be optimistic that a performing arts center will become a reality in the area, not only in Berlin, but also in Ocean City, as new plans were laid out by Tourism Director Mike Noah and City Engineer Terry McGean in recent weeks to convert half the main ballroom in the convention center to a 1,700-fixed seat auditorium style performing arts center.

“I live in Ocean City, and my neighbors feel that there is a huge void in way of arts and culture in town. Having a performing arts center will attract significant business from out-of-towners and will give residents something to do in the off-season. Currently, there isn’t a whole lot to do here when it isn’t summertime,” said Miller.

Miller cited that Ocean City “rode the tide” from the construction boom in recent years and enjoyed shoulder season business from the construction industry, and as construction dwindles, so does business.

“We based our off-season economy on construction. We need to do something that is fresh and exciting and will draw people to the area. We could promote a performing arts center 12 months a year and piggy-back it on tourism,” he said.

Hall argues that despite the fact that the upgrade to the current convention center would be paid for in a $5 million bond funded by the food and beverage tax, which charges a penny on the dollar in Ocean City, residents and tax payers won’t stand for the cost in these economic times.

“Peck Miller didn’t have to run for office and hear what the people of Ocean City are going through,” Jim Hall said. “He doesn’t have to answer to anyone. It’s easy for him to say that we need to spend $5 million and upgrade the convention center, but I know what they are feeling out there, and times are really tough for them.”

But the real question in all of this may lie in whether or not a performing arts center would even work in Ocean City.

When told about the current plans to alter the main ballroom and put in fixed seating, Lafferty, whose main job as a production manager is to make sure the venues are in proper form to accommodate each act, said that the best venues are ones that are the most flexible.

“You can turn convention space into an arena-type setting very easily. The biggest thing is to be flexible and interchangeable to handle the needs of different acts,” said Lafferty. “With that said, however, there are laws that say that you need fixed rows even if they are considered portable seats.”

Lafferty said that he found out recently while touring in Europe that new Occupation Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards say that arena-type floor seating must be set in a fixed row or simply zip-lined together to make an actual row, rather than just having folding chairs.

“If you put in the fixed auditorium seating, but left the option to remove the front seats to create a standing room only effect for different events, there’s no limit to what you could get in here,” said Lafferty.

Miller said that the “Seven Venues” group in Virginia Beach, which books national and regional acts for seven of Virginia Beach’s 14 performing arts centers, contacted him and offered its help in booking acts if and when Ocean City got a performing arts center.

Lafferty said that based on Ocean City’s location, drawing big name acts would be pretty simple.

“Some cities have a clause in the contract that says a band can’t play a show 60-95 miles from their venue. Ocean City falls out of that realm in a handful of major markets, and that’s the loophole that The Bottle and Cork in Dewey has been operating on for years, and Ocean City could be way bigger,” he said.

The economy continues to be the large guerilla in the room however, as some are quite hesitant to make any kind of expenditure that is slightly risky.

Lafferty said that his acts are selling out overseas and the North American shows are looking good so far.

“Even when times are tough, people want to see a good show and thrive for entertainment. It almost makes me angry that I’ve worked in this business for over 20 years, and the town I live in hasn’t put in a good place to see a show yet,” Lafferty said.