OCEAN CITY — In the calm following a raucous Cruisin weekend, a storm of a different sort was brewing in the resort this week with local residents once again railing against the noise, reckless driving and abuse of the town and officials wrestling with strategic adjustments to the event.
Cruisin hit Ocean City last weekend with around 3,400 classic cars officially registered for the event and an in-kind number of hangers-on, or “wannabes” as the event promoter referred to them this week. While the officially registered participants appeared to be well behaved for the most part and attended the event’s official activities, the latter group raced up and down Coastal Highway and other streets, dumped trash in parking lots and left a considerable amount of rubber on the roads.
Clearly, the spring Cruisin event has become one of the biggest weekends of the year in Ocean City, the biggest according to promoter and organizer Bob Rothermel, bigger even then the Fourth of July. While local residents and business owners bristled at the steady roar of the hot rod engines, they likely didn’t mind the equally steady ringing of cash register drawers.
Special events drive the economy in Ocean City, especially in the shoulder seasons, but balancing them with the quality of life has always been a challenge. Finding that balance remains a challenge, magnified by last weekend’s debacle, but town officials this week vowed to take measures to make it better.
“Twenty-five years ago, the Cruisin event was started the same year as Springfest,” said Mayor Rick Meehan at Monday’s council meeting. “Very few people were here the first weekend in May 25 years ago. Springfest was started to jumpstart the season and Cruisin was started to make sure we had people here for Springfest. That first year, there were less than 200 cars and people thought they were everywhere. Now it has grown and the event itself brings in 3,400 cars. They max it out at that number because that is all they have parking for at the Inlet and Convention Center, but that is the event itself.”
With the growth of the event and obvious economic benefit came the large unofficial groups that create most of the problems, according to Meehan.
“Unfortunately, there is an awful lot of others that come and piggyback off of that event and typically the people causing the problems are not the ones who are associated with it,” he said. “Things have changed in 25 years. We have a lot of new condos, new hotels and there are a lot more people coming to town in the beginning of May. We have split Springfest and Cruisin events to become two weekends, but now I think we really need to take a look at what we’re doing in moving forward because things have changed.”
Meehan said this week any real change will likely come out of meetings and recommendations from the Police Commission.
“It is something that we do need to continue to look at,” he said. “I know the Police Commission is going to talk about it to see what we can do to help the situation …”
Meehan said the event is a boon for local businesses after a long, harsh winter, but the economic gains are tempered by the obvious problems associated with it.
“To the citizens, it is a great weekend for business and it brings a lot of people into town,” he said. “You saw a lot of people on the highway having a great time, but unfortunately with every group there is a number that can cause havoc for everybody and we saw that. We have to figure out ways to do it better and our commitment is to work on that. Your concerns do not fall on deaf ears.”
Police Commission To Review Weekend For Possible Changes
Last weekend’s problems, from the speeding and reckless driving to the noise and trash and blatant flaunting of many of Ocean City’s laws touched off a firestorm of sorts this week with letters to the editor, emails and phone calls to council members, social media posts and a demand to find a way to improve the event. The pushback was not lost on Councilman and Police Commission Chairman Doug Cymek, who said steps are already being taken to improve the situation.
“I hear all of you loud and clear and certainly agree significant changes need to be made,” Cymek said. “Informal discussions between the mayor and some of the council members have already begun. As chairman of the Police Commission, I intend to schedule a special meeting with Chief [Ross] Buzzuro and his command staff so they can present their recommendations regarding the event to all the members of the Police Commission.”
Cymek said out of those meetings will likely come some measures to improve the event. Last year, similar promises were made and it remains to be seen if any real change can be affected, but it appears there is at least a will to make the Cruisin event more palatable for local residents and other visitors looking for a quiet beach weekend.
“I feel changes will undoubtedly arise from this past weekend’s abuse of our town,” said Cymek. “It is most unfortunate that such a well-managed event draws so many unwelcomed undesirables that ruin it for all of us. The points that all of you have made are right on and I assure you that I am committed to doing whatever I can do to bring about change for the better.”
In response to inquiries this week, the Ocean City Police Department released this statement via spokesperson Lindsay Richard.
“The Ocean City Police Department has a positive working relationship with the event organizers of Cruisin OC and we are happy to say that there were no significant motor vehicle collisions and minimal serious crime this past weekend. This event continues to be challenging and taxing for our officers due to the sheer number of visitors and event participants,” the statement read. “We are grateful to have had assistance from the Maryland State Police and the Worcester County Sheriff’s Department during this event. While the vast majority of visitors are compliant with our laws and ordinances, some behavior seen during this event remains troubling and our officers’ time and efforts are concentrated on those individuals during this event. We will closely review this past weekend and use our findings to prepare for next year’s event and all other motor events throughout the year.”
Solid Business Weekend, But It Comes With A Price
From a business standpoint, Cruisin weekend ranks among the best in the resort, according to Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association Executive Director Susan Jones.
“Most everybody I talked to was pleased with the business and that it was certainly very busy,” she said. “Of course, nobody likes the people that come to town and misbehave, but those are not typically the Cruisin event participants, they are the spectators.”
Jones said she wasn’t certain what the answer was for improving the event and suggested perhaps an even stronger police presence.
“I don’t know if the town needs to bring in additional police agencies like it does with the VWs, but it definitely seems like it is getting harder to control,” she said. “Again, it is not those who are related to the event, it is all the groups that come here like the Mustang clubs and other clubs. There are a lot of spinoffs that come on the same weekend.”
Jones pointed out the Mustang Club of Maryland had an event in Ocean City over the weekend. The event was billed as the 10th Annual All Mustang Ocean City Show.
“Overall, it was a very good, solid business weekend, but there is certainly a concern with some of the traffic situations,” she said.
It remains to be seen what changes will come, but for the time being, many in the resort are still bristling at the wanton disregard for the town on display during the event.
“We must ask ourselves, what type of town do we want?” wrote local resident and business owner Gabby Mancini in a letter to the editor this week. “Don’t tell us that we live in a resort and, therefore, must put up with this nonsense because we do not, and we will not. This past weekend was like a scene from the lawless wild west. The cowboys came to town and shot up the place, daring us to do something about it. Well? Anyone want to wear a star?”
Mancini called for more police presence and stricter enforcement of the law.
“How many laws must these people flaunt before something is done?” he said. “If we are not going to enforce our ordinances for speeding, reckless driving, public drinking, illegal parking, excessive noise or destruction of public property, why should anyone respect those laws for the remainder of the summer? There should be no double standard under the law. To let this go on is sheer folly and will invite numerous lawsuits.”
Particularly troubling is the speeding, reckless driving and flaunting of traffic laws. It is only a matter of time before there is a tragedy on the roadways, according to Mancini.
“Does someone have to die before the town officials notice that it is dangerous on Coastal Highway?” he said. “Between the large crowds of drinking spectators and the young, testosterone-hyped day trippers with loud, fast cars, someone is going to be seriously hurt or killed. Hopefully, it won’t be a friend, neighbor or someone you know that becomes a casualty to this event, but given the lack of control, it is just a matter of time.”
Mancini said like many of the other vehicle-related special events in Ocean City, Cruisin emphasizes the streets and not the resort’s greatest asset.
“Remember too that we are a beach town,” he said. “It’s about the beach. It’s our brand and our only real commodity. We wait all winter for beautiful spring weekends to enchant new generations of beachgoers. Events like last weekend only kill that magic and destroy our brand. Anyone who visited last weekend looking for a nice beach weekend was deeply disappointed and if a first time visitor, will probably never return. Wake up Ocean City, We have what most small towns only dream of. It is our town, It is up to us to decide what type of town we want.”
Chris Tilghman, another local resident and business owner, railed against the problems created last week.
“What we witnessed last weekend was a complete and total disregard for our town and the people who live here,” he said. “What started as a way to boost Springfest with registered participants has morphed into a free-for-all with all manner of high horsepower vehicles ranging from unregistered street rods, rat rods, giant diesel pick-up trucks and modern day muscle cars along with a batch of small import street races, trashing out town.”
Tilghman said the event represents a departure from the essence of the resort.
“Ocean City is supposed to be a family resort,” he said. “Ocean City is a vibrant, connected group of people who love it here and call Ocean City home. We deserve much more. So what do we do?”
Tilghman pointed to the lines of spectators along the highway blatantly drinking alcoholic beverages in violation of the town’s open container ordinance.
“We need to enforce open container violations,” he said. “This needs to be carried out with help from other municipalities’ officers along with a solid presence by the Maryland State Police. I own two properties that are separated by a street. I once was stopped by a bicycle officer for carrying a closed bottle of beer from my house to my dock. If I have to abide by that law, then every visitor should have to.”
Like many others, Tilghman said a certain segment of the visitors during Cruisin’ weekend has no respect for the resort.
“I’ve never seen Coastal Highway or Baltimore Avenue look like they did last Sunday,” he said. “I was appalled. What kind of person treats anywhere like that? And Ocean City is worried about smoking on the beach with cigarette butts being discarded? If O.C. is going to cater to these people, they need to be treated as the law provides.”
Also like many others, Tilghman said he understands the economics of the special events.
“I recognize this event brings money to town and helps me with my taxes,” he said. “However, at what cost?”
Another local Ocean City resident related a story from Saturday when she approached people sitting on the side of Coastal Highway to ask them what the appeal was. One younger couple told her their boy had a Mustang that was “sick” and even had a Go-Pro attached to his mirror. However, an older couple told her it was their anniversary weekend and they come to Ocean City every year during the event to see the old cars, which remind them of when they were younger, but also told her there aren’t too many of the older classic cars left and it is not the same as it was 20 years ago. Essentially, the latter couple is symbolic of the original spirit of the Cruisin event while the first couple is more symbolic of what it has become.
Same Complaints Heard Each Year With No Changes
While Ocean City officials begin to explore ways to improve the safety and overall tenor of the event, others remembered similar promises made following the event last spring.
“After this past year, all of the editorial letters and complaints, and all of the promises from the organizers of Cruisin that things would get better, not just for the residents but for the other tourists that were in town, as well as the promises from the Mayor and Council, absolutely nothing has changed,” said local resident Ellie Diegelmann at the council meeting this week. “Nothing has improved and nothing has quieted down. All of these people who made promises in response to editorial letters and complaints throughout the past year have either lied or promised something over which they have no control.”
Organizer Defends Event
For his part, event organizer Rothermel said this week the official Cruisin event is well thought out and well planned with officially sanctioned activities.
“We all agree Crusin is a well-run, well-managed event,” he said. “We have a staff of 40 people at the Inlet and the Convention Center and the various activities and generally it’s very, very smooth.”
Like many others, Rothermel agreed the unregistered element that piggybacks on the event causes most of the problems, but said there is little event organizers can do.
“The problem becomes the people not associated with the event get a little full of themselves and run afoul of the law,” he said. “The event really doesn’t have any authority to control what happens on the street. The police department does a great job, but they can’t be everywhere. The problem is with the wannabes. Those are the people we have to figure out how to control. I don’t know what else we can do as an event. We can only do so much.”
Rothermel made the point the spring Cruisin’ event is only slightly larger than the fall event in terms of the number of registered participants but there are fewer complaints. He suggested local residents and visitors are more tempered to the noise and traffic and trash during the fall event because they have just come through a long, hot summer.
“We actually lowered the number from last year,” he said. “The October show is just 500 cars less than the spring show, but you almost never hear anybody complain. Part of that is because it’s the first major event of the spring. After a long, quiet winter, it’s the first big event that reminds people suddenly that summer is here. By the time the fall show arrives, everybody is coming off a big, loud busy summer and are more accustomed to the noise and traffic.”
Rothermel said event organizers have always shown a willingness to work with the town to address problems that arise and this year would be no different.
“We’ve always done everything that has been asked of us,” he said. “People have suggested keeping the trailers out of town. Twenty-five years ago, the participants brought their cars in trailers and nobody noticed because there weren’t nearly as many. Maybe we can make that change. People asked us if we could spread it out so it wasn’t just a Friday and Saturday event and we did that. Last week, by Wednesday afternoon, one third of the pre-registered participants were already in town and picked up their packets. We’ve adapted and changed over the year to make the event better.”
Again, Rothermel said the hangers-on create most of the problems and said the registered participants are made fully aware of repercussions for misbehaving.
“We drill it into our participants that speeding and burnouts and the other problems created will not be tolerated,” he said. “We will pull their registration card and purge them from our list. We’ve done that for 25 years, but it doesn’t always prevent them from coming.”
Rothermel said while the event can be tweaked and showed a willingness to work with the police and town officials on change, he said the economic impact cannot be discounted.
“You have to remember, this event has turned into a big weekend,” he said. “It’s the major event of the year, bigger than the Fourth of July. With the great weather, we had big crowds and most behaved but there are always those knuckleheads that come here just to rip it up.”
Rothermel defended the event somewhat, asserting the sins of a handful of unruly guests should not be hung on the organizers.
“If you go to a Ravens game, there will be an awful lot of knuckleheads, but you don’t blame the Ravens,” he said. “If you don’t like the traffic on the Fourth of July, you don’t blame the forefathers.”
Somewhere there is a balance between a big, loud successful weekend and a law-abiding safe one and town officials will explore the opportunities to make Cruisin’ better.
“It’s the perfect event for the beach,” said Rothermel. “It’s the unlawfulness that drives people crazy.”