Ocean City Amends Busker Rules

OCEAN CITY – The buskers got a little more wiggle room to perform on the Boardwalk, as the City Council hopes Monday’s decision will make the relationship between the performers and the merchants a bit more harmonious.

The City Council decided to grant the town’s street performers some extra space than what was originally proposed, attempting to dispel any accusations that the city wants street performers squeezed out entirely.

“This was never a situation of us trying to eliminate street performers or to infringe on anyone’s rights,” said Mayor Rick Meehan. “We only want to make rules to help everyone coexist, and allow [performers] to play at what we feel are prime areas and on the street ends of the Boardwalk.”

The council unanimously passed the new ordinance on second and final reading that will establish the “street ends” as the designated area for Boardwalk performers, or buskers as they are commonly known, with a few caveats that were served up as compromises for the performers, who viewed the ordinance as too restrictive.

What the council amended was the 10-foot rule that had been in the existing ordinance that prohibits performers from being within 10 feet of benches or fire hydrants or trash receptacles.

This move, after much deliberation and surprisingly eloquent arguments from the busking community, seemed to appease the performers who verbally feared that the ordinance would inadvertently do more harm than good, not only to their art, but also their livelihoods.

“The proposed ordinance, as written, is much more restrictive than it appears,” said violinist Bill Hassay. “The Boardwalk was big, but this little ordinance as written will designate these spots as performance areas that will no doubt generate complaints. Performing at these locations will be essentially impossible, and will be soon deemed off limits, just not on paper.”

What Hassay was eluding to supports his claim that the ordinance would essentially create only a handful of spots where it would be “legal” for buskers to set up and perform.

Since the performers are required to be mobile anyway, as written in the previous ordinance, many contested that the rule prohibiting them from standing within 10 feet of a fire hydrant or city bench was unnecessary.

Hassay also worried that limiting the number of spaces would increase competition and eventually wear out the performers’ welcome in those spots as well.

“The very few areas that we will be able to perform in will be used constantly, giving the merchants in those spots no break at all from having street performers working near their location, and those merchants will eventually complain,” he said.

City Solicitor Guy Ayres noted to council that it could rule to strike those items from the new ordinance that pertained to the fire hydrants and benches, which council eventually took to heart.

“The problem has been congestion up there, and the conflict has been between the tram, the stores, and the crowds,” said Ayres. “The question becomes whether this [ordinance] will meet the test of reasonable governmental regulations on the activity.”

It is no secret a few shops on the Boardwalk simply do not like or tolerate street performers, and as George Gilbert, a traveling busker, who seasonally stays in Ocean City, pointed out, some of the concerns from the Boardwalk merchants were a bit exaggerated.

“In my years of performing on the Boardwalk, I have never seen anyone block the entrance to a shop,” said Gilbert. “I’ve seen them set up across the Boardwalk from a store where the sidewalk meets the sand, but never right in front where they would block anyone from getting in the door.”

The argument, it seems, appears to be about attention. Boardwalk shop owners contested that street performers take attention away from their storefronts as people walk down the Boardwalk.

“I talked to one street performer who said if she makes $30 in a night, she goes home,” said deputy city clerk Kelly Almond, who processes the majority of the street performer permits. “That’s a lot of money to a street performer in one night.”

Almond said 458 permits were issued last year to street performers, but noted that only 66 have been issued thus far in 2009.

“Really, the biggest number of permits we grant is during the month of June when the high school kids are here, and all they really want to do is strum and hang out and have some fun on the Boardwalk”, said Almond.

Berlin resident Rebecca McKinney who read a statement to council on behalf of professional street performer Alexander Osbourne, wondered aloud why certain businesses thought so poorly of street performers.

“All performers ask for from the city is a little bit of space to work, and they add culture to Ocean City,” read McKinney. “What is so bad about what street performers are doing that must be stopped? Only a few businesses that see us as a scourge, but we don’t take money from their business, we actually help draw people to their business.”

In the end, Meehan applauded the council’s compromised decision.

“I think this will work, and I think that everyone will look back on this at the end of the summer, and point to this decision as the thing that helped everyone coexist on the Boardwalk better than every before,” said Meehan.