OCEAN CITY — With many of the town’s special events and promotions naturally centered in the downtown area with its Boardwalk and Inlet, a new private sector alliance is hoping to ensure the often-overlooked north end is getting its fair share in terms of marketing and promotion.
With a wealth of resources, including the centerpiece Northside Park, abundant parking, accessible beaches and generally easier traffic access, the north end of Ocean City has much to offer in terms of special events and promotions, but the resources are often underutilized, according to some business owners in the area.
A recently formed coalition of north end business owners, under the working title of the North Ocean City Business Alliance, met for the second time to hash out what the problems are and identify possible solutions.
The perceived problems include a less than stellar winter season for business, and while the problem certainly isn’t a new one, it appears to be exacerbated this year for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is a still sluggish economy, rising gas costs and sagging consumer confidence. The result has been staple businesses in the north end closing for parts of the winter season for the first time ever and even limiting the daily hours of operation.
The problems are not unique to north Ocean City, obviously, but the newly-formed coalition of north end businesses is feeling their pinch more acutely this year. In addition, the problems aren’t limited to the winter months, when business naturally drops off, but also throughout the year including the height of the summer season. According to coalition members, part of the problem is the town’s perceived penchant for directing much of its marketing and promotion efforts in the signature downtown areas.
At the opening of the coalition’s meeting on Tuesday, Greene Turtle owner and de facto spokesman for the group Steve Pappas showed a somewhat famous aerial shot of Ocean City to illustrate the point. The picture, available in many forms from large prints to postcards, shows an aerial view of the resort looking north from the Inlet with the Boardwalk and downtown area featured prominently before fading to a narrow strip just north of the downtown area. “This picture sums up why we’re here,” said Pappas. “Sometimes, we’re like the leftover stepchild. Sometimes, people think Ocean City ends at 27th Street. On the list of the Top 10 things to do in Ocean City, only one is in the north end.”
Pappas said the north end of Ocean City has much to offer, but the town’s marketing and promotion efforts are too often focused on the downtown area. With the possible exception of Winterfest of Lights, most of the town’s signature special events including Springfest, Sunfest, the Ocean City Air Show and the Dew Tour, for example, are held in the downtown area. Much of it has to do with simple geography and logistics, but there does appear to be some merit to the coalition’s arguments.
“We have to improve how we work with the city,” said Carousel managing partner and coalition member Michael James. “The majority of the town’s advertising and marketing budget comes from the room tax and we have thousands of hotel rooms and condos in the north end. We have to try to get an equitable share of the special events in this end of town.”
Some ideas floated during Tuesday’s work session included a greater focus on the north end’s signature venue, Northside Park, including a possible wine festival, concerts along the facility’s bayfront vistas and more special events. All agreed the private-public sector partnership does a good job of maximizing Northside Park, but there are still lost opportunities for the park’s downtime.
Mayor Rick Meehan said there is no intent on the town’s part to focus its marketing strategy on the downtown area. Meehan said the marketing strategy is to promote as a whole and it is up to the private sector, working in concert, so to speak, with the public sector, to create and promote special events.
“The marketing budget doesn’t promote specific areas of town,” he said. “It’s focused on getting people to come to Ocean City. It’s like Ocean City is a mall and our job is to promote the mall. It’s up to you to attract your share.”
Meehan said the town has already responded by tweaking its website to more prominently feature north-end businesses and events and there is ample opportunity to direct more of the marketing and promotion efforts to North Ocean City, but called on the private sector to do more.
“This is a good idea,” said Meehan. “Times have changed and our visitors’ habits have changed. We have to change with them.”
The new North Ocean City Business Alliance hopes to respond to the changes by pulling resources on advertising and promotion, creating special events unique to the north end and strengthening private-public partnerships. Ocean City already has a Downtown Association and a Boardwalk Association, for example, and the challenge is to form a meaningful, responsive coalition to create and promote special events. “We need to figure out how to make this a sustainable organization,” he said James. “How can we work together? We need to create an association with memberships and dues so we can for co-ops on things like advertising and marketing.”
For more on the North Ocean City Business Alliance’s marketing and promotion plans and the group’s candid discussion on Tuesday, see Friday’s print and on-line editions of The Dispatch.