OCEAN CITY- The City Council was seemingly caught in a bit of a moral dilemma on Monday: help a few struggling beach stand operators, or potentially pad the bottom line.
When Patty Murrell, who has owned and operated beach stands in Ocean City for 35 years, came before the council on Monday night at City Hall, her plea was not an unusual one, but her request was met with a bit more skepticism than it had been in the past.
Murrell was asking for a three-year extension on the contracts for beach stands in the north end of town that were scheduled to go up for open bid in December.
The stands in question are awarded for three year terms, then the owners of said stands, have the option of extending the contract an additional three years. It should also be noted that Murrell came before the council in 2006 and asked for a similar three-year extension, which they granted.
The nine years that have passed since Murrell’s stands had last gone to open bid concerned a few members of the council, who say the bidding process is supposed to stimulate competition, thus generating revenue for the town.
“Nine years is a long time to have a contract on anything,” said Councilwoman Mary Knight, “And I am worried that if we grant this extension, we are forbidding people who may want to start a new business from the opportunity to get the stands, and perhaps forbidding them from bringing something new to the table.”
Murrell said that through the open bidding process, she has lost “20 stands over the last seven years”, and could lose another nine stands if her request for an extension was not granted.
“These stands have been our income for the past 35 years, and this is the first time in our lives that my husband and I are worried that our livelihoods are in jeopardy,” said Murrell. “If we don’t change the way the beach stand business is bid on, operators are going to get more and more scared that they are going to lose their stands and their livelihoods each year.”
A town law passed last fall allowed one operator to own up to 50 percent of the town’s beach stands, and local businessman Patrick McLaughlin, who also owns Telescope Pictures has captured literally half of the beach stand market in Ocean City.
Murrell sited the tough economy and a slow season for the reasoning in her wishes for an extension.
“If the bidding process continues this way, than some operators have to overbid on their current stands just to keep them and that just isn’t smart,” said Murrell. “I can’t justify raising prices for the customers to ease that added expense because I feel it just drives people to buy their own equipment.”
Murrell said she’s seen an increase in the amount of tourists who bring their own umbrellas and chairs to the beach with them, and some, she said, do it rather reluctantly.
“I had one gentleman tell me that he doesn’t like dragging all this equipment down with him to the beach, but he feels that he has to because it’s better than feeling like he’s getting ripped off,” said Murrell.
Councilman Joe Hall petitioned that the council rethink the process for the sake of the beach stand operators.
“I think some of the motivation was to get higher bids through competition,” said Hall. “But if the operators can’t make it, this process might be self-defeating.”
Councilman Jim Hall offered up an essential compromise, motioning to extend the contract for three years, but to add a caveat, which would include a 10 percent price raise annually. Council voted unanimously to approve Hall’s motion.
“This is a tough one, because these are the names of operators that have been here forever, and we have never had a problem with,” said Hall. “In these economic times, when we aren’t sure if some new high bidder is even going to make it, I could live with this.”
Mayor Rick Meehan agreed with Hall and noted that even though the town is faced with generating new revenue at every available opportunity, he still wants to encourage viable business ventures in the town of Ocean City.
“There’s no guarantee that if those stands would have gone to bid that we would have gotten a 10-percent increase, so I think it was the right decision,” said Meehan.