OCEAN CITY — During the day, Walter “Buck” Mann may be best known as the owner of Mann Properties, one of the resort’s leading property management companies since the early 1970’s. But, for more than three decades, the former city councilman and long-time board member of the Delmarva Irish-American Club has been helping to put on and grow the city’s now-famous St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
Mann sat down with The Dispatch this week to talk about this weekend’s parade’s humble beginnings, its impact on the town’s economy, and what the recent construction boom in and around the region means for the resort moving forward.
Q: If you look around the region, everyone loves a good parade. Berlin’s Christmas parade has always been one of the historic evenings in town. If you look at Ocean City, there are a lot of parades, but the St. Patrick’s Day parade seems to have a little something different to it. Why do you think the St. Patrick’s Day parade has become really one of the staple events in Ocean City?
A: Well, other than the fact that it’s a fun time, I think it’s really because the winter months are coming to an end and it’s kind of the kickoff for the spring season. People have had cabin fever and they want to get out and party, and no one parties like an Irishman.
Q: When the Delmarva Irish-American Club was started (in 1980), there were about 75 members…
A: And probably not that many….
Q: Now it’s over 300 plus members…
A: About 325…
Q: Talk about the growth of the organization and because of that growth, how you’ve been able to do more things in the community, including grow this parade?
A: Well, a lot of the growth came from when I had an Irish bar. Shenanigans used to be McGhee’s Irish Pub which was mine for nine years. We had a lot of events there for the Irish club and it just kind of snowballed from that and the parades got bigger.
The first parade, we borrowed a convertible from Hertrich up in Seaford and had four of my waitresses and a couple of ‘old-timers’ and that was it. Now, it’s grown to the point where we have entries this year from Virginia, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and we have a lot from the Baltimore area. We’ve found that people are starting to come to our parade rather than the big one in Baltimore.
It’s a festive weekend, and we have our little festival but every bar in town will tell you now that it’s one of their biggest weekends ever. Two years ago, the Greene Turtle told us that it was their biggest weekend of the year and that’s just incredible.
Q: You mentioned the humble beginnings of the parade. After the second year, you and now Mayor Rick Meehan (and a few others) essentially took the ship’s wheel and ran the parade. Talk about what it’s become in the 33 years since you’ve been leading the charge. Did you honestly ever think that it could become this substantial and have this big of a footprint in the town?
A: No, I really didn’t. I thought it would be a fun, good fun weekend for a long time and we’d have 30 or 40 entries in it, mostly people walking. Then we started some friendly competition with some of the bars and BJ’s really jumped on board for us and then the Greene Turtle wanted to outdo BJ’s, and then in the latter few years, Seacrets and 98.1 FM have gone amazingly large on it. All the bars tie into a creating a festive weekend. They all hire the different pipe and drum groups that we have and they march around in their bars afterwards. It’s just a big weekend, and the parade is the catalyst.
Q: Was there any conversation all those years ago about what you wanted (the parade) to look like or even become, or was it just ‘let’s make it as fun as possible to help all the businesses in town’?
A: That’s a good part of it, and then we saw the opportunity the possibility that we could raise a little bit of money and it has become a real charitable thing for us. Being the Irishmen that we are, people will say, ‘where does it all go’, and I can guarantee you that 105% of it is given away.
Q: Well you have given over $300,000 over the years in scholarships.
A: And we give another $10,000 a year for local charities like Diakonia, and we sponsor six or seven rec (sports) teams a year. Anytime anyone needs something, we step up and that makes us feel good. We came up with $10,000 about a year ago for that new home that they are trying to build for Coastal Hospice … things like that, that help the community.
Q: Some winters are harder than others in this town. In the past, especially during the recession, people were really struggling to get through the winter, and once St. Patrick’s Day came, people started to ramp up toward the summer. Do you see excitement level for this parade directly contingent on what is happening in the town economically speaking?
A: I’m not sure that it’s dependent on the town having a great year, because people do still come out for it. It’s a feel good kind of thing, and I think it’s sort of stand-alone type thing, even if it’s a bad sales year, and we’ve had a bunch of those. It’s gotten a lot better in the past few years, but I think people will always have a few bucks to afford a beer on St. Paddy’s weekend.
Q: You say it’s a feel good thing, and that’s certainly true, but it most certainly draws a lot of people to town.
A: We had a hotelier, I won’t name any names but it’s one of the major ones, who had made a comment at a Chamber meeting and said that they weren’t sure if they got a lot of business out of it. So, Rick [Meehan] and I asked them to do a survey and they did. They came back to us a few weeks later and 73% of the people that checked into their hotels were here primarily for the parade. So, they’ve become believers.
Q: The growth of the group and the parade has been beyond imagination and beyond what you had predicted, so where does it go from here?
A: That’s a good question. This year, we really whittled out some of the small type things, like Uncle Sam on a bicycle, mainly because of the length of the parade. We are running out of lineup areas and we aren’t sure how much longer we’ll be able to use 45th street. The Convention Center would be ideal place, but it would be a conflict with the liquor licenses there. We are trying to work out some things. I started lining people up on 61st and 60th streets. Now, I’ve got people on 61st, 60th, 59th, 58th, and 57th. It’s incredible, but I’m sure it drives some of the business people nuts that morning but we try to move them out pretty quickly. The parade kicks off at noon and it goes pretty fair. We’ve got some good floats this year. We have three high school bands, we’ve got two bagpipe and drum groups and five of the floats are going to have bands on them.
Q: So, it’s a far cry from one convertible and a few waitresses.
A: Yes it is. The thing that amazes me is that people start coming out at 6 a.m. and start setting up their beach chairs along the street where they want to be.
Q: Things like that are one of the beautiful things about a small town, and this time of year, that identity Ocean City has always had: a small town that just happens to get very big in the summer months. Do you think that has anything to do with why this parade has become so beloved by locals?
A: Yes, absolutely. As you know, this is a very giving community and it steps up to everything. It’s incredible the amount of money that is raised by this town for charity. It just blows my mind. There are probably ten families that have been coming here for their family reunion on St. Paddy’s weekend and three of them are from Ohio. Each family has over 20 members who come here, and to me, that’s pretty outstanding.
Q: We’ve been talking about growth through the prism of the Delmarva Irish-American Club and the St. Paddy’s Day parade, but if you drive up and down Coastal Highway in recent months, we are starting to see another kind of growth.
A: There’s a lot of building.
Q: There’s a lot of building and it’s the first time we’ve seen this much construction and growth in a number of years. Assess this growth as far as what this means for the town moving forward?
A: Well, the business I’m in, my people have their finger on the pulse of what is happening as far as condominiums go, and there is an excitement about how things are changing. Even the people who have been holding off to sell, there are more buyers now, and what’s amazing to me is that there are more hotels being built. The average stay is changing now a little bit to long weekends from the week-long stay at the condo and I think we need both.
There are a couple new restaurants and it’s coming, no question about it, and it’s starting to spread out on Route 50 into West Ocean City and out on Route 54 [in Delaware].
Q: People I speak with in town, and experts in the industry, like yourself, they say that the hotel boom has been a long time coming and the real estate market as a whole is starting to look better and better. Has the industry stabilized since the big crash?
A: I don’t know if it’s stabilized but it’s definitely on an upward trend. I agree with what you said that things are changing and they we are getting into more hotels now. It’s amazing, the Marriott is here, the Hilton is coming, and the Holiday Inn is going to have two or three more. These are chains, and they usually don’t just go into places for two or three months. They usually want a little bit more. Now, I still think that January and February are dead months, but that’s just me and that’s why I like to get out of town around then.
Q: There has always been that conversation in town, and I think you and I have had it before, about the idea or the desire to grow Ocean City to being as close to a year-round resort as possible. Obviously, the weather plays a huge role in that, and it basically takes January and February off the table right off the bat. So, is a feasible goal to try and get the town to being a nine- or 10-month resort? Is that the ultimate prize?
A: I think nine months is very feasible, and that’s because I think you can see it now with a lot of the events that are happening on the weekends in the fall. There are a lot of special events, and sporting events are coming to town. The same weekend as our parade, there is a big soccer tournament in town, and there is a big cheerleading event too. There’s going to be a lot going on, on the 12th. The weather is supposed to be in the 50’s and that makes our parade. Man, people will really come out.
Q: For you personally, what’s your favorite thing that you look forward to with this parade?
A: Seeing it start on time. It’s never been late. A lot of people kid me about it. I really feel good when I see the quality of some of the floats now. These guys really get into it and they like being here. That’s what I like to hear. They look forward to it now, and to me, that’s a hit. These guys used to be in the Baltimore parade, and now they are in the Ocean City parade.
(To listen to the entire interview, click over to The Dispatch Download at www.mdcoastdispatch.com/podcasts.)