OCEAN CITY — There are few people with more good things to say about Ocean City than Mayor Rick Meehan. Of course, it’s part of the job description for Meehan to get people fired up about Maryland’s favorite vacation destination, but he has always quietly balanced his not so quiet optimism for and promotion of the resort with consistent and level-headed leadership.
While some may laud him for being Ocean City’s biggest cheerleader, many others feel a quiet security knowing that he is at the helm and leading the resort’s charge into the great unknown. Yet, by mostly all accounts, the summer of 2015 was a pretty strong one here in Ocean City. The weather was decent, the crowds were sizeable, and almost collectively, there were profitable cheers coming from the business community rather than frustrated jeers.
Meehan sat down with The Dispatch to talk about the year that was, and the year that lies ahead.
Q: What do you attribute the success of 2015 to,and how welcoming was that sort of collective and comprehensive success?
A: I think we’ve positioned ourselves well in the marketplace. We’ve been very consistent over the last seven or eight years in our advertising efforts and in our efforts to continue to improve the vacation experience in Ocean City and to continue to add value to that vacation experience. We’ve continued with the free events that we’ve been sponsoring for the last few years, and enhanced those events. You are seeing some new development in town and seeing some new hotels and restaurants. There’s something new in Ocean City and I think that combined effort along with good weather really enabled us to set a lot of records this year as far as the success of our businesses and the number of people that visited Ocean City. It’s going to be difficult to duplicate because the weather played such a big role in that but I think that so many people were entertained here that they will be returning in 2016.
Q: The conversation surrounding economic conditions has been going on for years. We’ve trended from a very dire time where we needed to tighten the belt to what we are seeing now which includes redevelopment, a hotel boom, and businesses reinvesting in themselves. How exciting is this to see that we have come from a rough economic time and we’ve gotten through it and are getting better?
A: I think that we were very fortunate that we were able to address the economic issues in Ocean City and continue to provide that great experience and build on it, which helped us maintain our momentum, and now that the economy is hopefully to turn a little bit, we are again positioned well in the marketplace. Our visitors have high expectations, and I think that has developed even more so in recent years when people didn’t have the opportunity to travel as often. And when they did spend those hard earned dollars, they wanted value in return. They wanted to have a great experience, and I think that has forced us to raise the bar. I think some of new development that you will see, and the new hotel rooms, that is living up to the level of expectation of the visitor.
Q: You find yourself finishing 2015 in a position you’ve been in before: as acting city manager in addition to being the mayor. The last time you were city manager, it was a very different City Council that you were working with. Now as the city’s national search for a new candidate comes to an end, talk about how this time has been different than the last time?
A: A few years ago, when I was put in this position, it was the result of a dysfunctional council. The council really was not operating in the best interest of its citizens or our government. Fortunately, the citizens recognized that and a change was made in the council.
We have a tremendous council right now. They are focused on moving forward, and that doesn’t mean that you always agree on everything. What it means is that you are all looking to listen to each other and make decisions that will be in the best interest of the community as a whole. No one is there to disrupt the process, nobody is there for personal reasons; they are there collectively, to work hard together. It’s refreshing. I think the public sees it, and I think it’s evident in the way business has been conducted in the last year and I think it leads to a bright future ahead.
Unfortunately, when our former City Manager David Recor parted ways with us in July, I did step into the role again, but I had the complete support of the council. We didn’t miss a beat and that’s always been my goal when I’ve taken over this position. I think we are primed when someone new comes in, which we hope will be in the next month or so, we are handing it over to him or her and continuing to move forward.
Q: I know that you and former City Manager David Recor became reasonably close, both personally and professionally. I’ve heard murmurings that he felt abandoned by a City Council that largely supported him while he was here. Is it more disappointing or unfortunate how his tenure as City Manager ended?
A: I think it was a little bit of both. David brought some really good initiatives to Ocean City. The strategic plan really set forth our goals and objectives for the future and it really got us organized and got us pointed in the right direction. David began that. It was his initiative and after the first year, when he gave a report of not only what the plan was but also all that we had accomplished, it was significant. I think everyone bought into that and we continue to.
When David left, he left us with that plan, and we are getting ready to update it again. Financially, we were left in a very solid position. There were a lot of good things about that particular administration. David’s management style was a little different than some wanted to see. David was more of a planner and a thinker, and less hands on in certain situations. Most of the councilmembers are small business owners or come from private enterprise and are used to a different type of management. It didn’t adjust as well as maybe it could of. It was unfortunate.
I wish David the best, and I think during his time here he brought some great ideas and some things that we will continue with. Hopefully, he’ll move on with his career and be able to assist other communities with these initiatives as well.
Q: We can’t talk about 2015 without talking about the street performer debate. I’ve heard you say it before that if this is the topic that we are talking about the most, it’s actually a good thing for the town because that means we aren’t talking about crime or something worse. Obviously, the street performer law has been a moving target, but now, with another lawsuit in front of the city, how much further is the city willing to go to make the street performers feel like compromise is the goal?
A: It’s a big issue, and I think we’ve made great strides. I think we’re helping define its course here in the state, and maybe in other places. Our goal has always been to allow the street performers to express themselves on the Boardwalk and be able to have the rights that they are entitled to, but at the same time, protect the rights of others as well. I think we went to great lengths to try to do that by establishing the task force, and by going through hours and hours of public hearings so we could hear from the performers, the merchants and the residents, then compiling all that information, making recommendations to the council and passing an ordinance, which I think, in many ways, works very well. I think if we all would just take a step back before we taken another step forward, this will be something this year, next year, or the year after this could be yesterday’s news.
Q: I agree, but if you look at where this debate has gone, it’s coming with much more venom now. Street performers, largely, before these two settled lawsuits and this new looming one, existed very much under the radar in Ocean City for decades. Why has this gotten so venomous?
A: I think the type of street performer changed. It changed from the roving minstrel or someone doing some sketches or someone doing a small magic act to more almost bricks and mortar types of street performers with big elaborate spray painting and bringing in speakers and props and small stages. Those were the kind of things that changed street performers as we knew had formerly known them in Ocean City. They took up more space, drew bigger crowds and caused some of the concerns with the Boardwalk tram or the type of music that was being played with the big bass and the speakers.
It isn’t yesterday’s street performers. It changed dramatically and I think it’s that change that brought the attention to it. So now, we have to adapt to that change. Also, as with everything, there are those that are supporting it for not necessarily the right reasons. Mr. [Tony] Christ has gotten involved now, and maybe some of his actions with the courts, are they really about the street performers or are they about Mr. Christ? Are they really about bringing people together or are they about further dividing them? Are they really about what he expounds upon many times about the city saving money, or are they now about the city now having to spend more money? Let’s really look at where we are, and sometimes, we have to get by some of those individuals so the majority can get together and work something out. That’s going to be our goal.
Q: We are wrapping up 2015, and collectively, it looks like it was a pretty good year. But, what are we going to be talking about a year from now when we are talking about the year that was in 2016?
A: That’s an interesting question isn’t it? You know, we made some bold moves in 2015 in Ocean City. We made our Boardwalk smoke free and our beach basically smoke free with designated smoking areas. We took this first year to do an educational process about that to get people to know what that new law was. When you have 200,000 new people each week, you kind of have to start over with educating them each week, and we did that all through the summer and we are going to continue that in 2016, but we are going to step up enforcement now, because that’s the next phase. We are going to continue to hopefully make great progress with the street performer issue. I hopeful by the end of 2016, again, it will be yesterday’s news.
I think there are a lot of bright things on the horizon for Ocean City. We are watching hotel growth in Ocean City. We have four new hotels, two of which are currently under construction. I think that’s great. We are going to be updating our comprehensive plan to recognize where the town is going. We are positioned well to take advantage of that opportunity because of the council that we have in Ocean City. We are working together collectively, following the comprehensive plan, and we continue to address the needs of our visitors and our residents. So, I think it’s going to be a very good year in 2016.