OCEAN CITY — The obvious divide between Ocean City and West Ocean City was clearly on display this week when resort officials shot down a proposal to allow a corporate restaurant on the opposite side of the Route 50 bridge to become a sponsor for Recreation and Parks Department special events.
It’s no secret Ocean City proper on the barrier island is an entirely separate entity from West Ocean City just across the bay in Worcester County at-large in so many ways, but there are obvious similarities. Residents and visitors move freely from one to the other, enjoying the shopping, restaurants and other amenities each offer.
The two jurisdictions also share fire and ambulance service, which is a separate and often contentious issue altogether, but when it comes to business and potential sponsorship and marketing opportunities, it appears Ocean City is strictly off limits for West Ocean City entities. During Tuesday’s Recreation and Parks Committee meeting, Special Events Director Frank Miller presented a proposal from Chick-fil-A, which has a restaurant in West Ocean City, to become a sponsor on some level for all of the Recreation and Parks Department’s special events.
However, some committee members were less than thrilled with the idea of having a corporate entity whose only presence in the area is outside the resort having its name all over special events in Ocean City.
“West Ocean City has become a big part of the competition for Ocean City,” said Councilman Wayne Hartman. “I can’t support a restaurant strictly in West Ocean City sponsoring all of our events. I think it would be a disservice to the businesses in town to encourage people to go outside Ocean City. Also, there is the whole food and beverage tax issue.”
Hartman said it would be different if a big corporation that didn’t offer the same products as businesses in Ocean City wanted to become a named sponsor on special events. For example, if Jeep wanted to sponsor events in Ocean City, that might be acceptable because there is nowhere in Ocean City to buy a Jeep. Miller said he understood the distinction, but Ocean City already shares a presence somewhat with West Ocean City, at Eagle’s Landing or the airport, for example.
“I completely understand where the tax revenue issue comes in,” he said. “We already have different events in West Ocean City with the golf, for example.”
Council President Lloyd Martin said he also understood the issue, but was not ready to shut down the idea of Chick-fil-A sponsoring recreation and parks special events.
“We’ve been looking for sponsorships for some of these things for a long time,” he said. “There are two sides to this.”
However, Councilman Dennis Dare agreed with Hartman it was not a good idea to have a West Ocean City business that competes with businesses in the resort to sponsor the special events.
“The hotels and restaurants are already disadvantaged with the whole tax differential issue,” he said. “I don’t want to make it even more difficult for them.”
Dare said being just across the Route 50 Bridge, Chick-fil-A does compete with Ocean City businesses that offer similar products, which was reason enough to put the kibosh on the proposal.
“If Chick-fil-A had a presence in town it would be different,” he said. “When we looked at where to place Coke machines around town, we were cognizant of not placing them near businesses that sell drinks, for example.”
In a separate but related issue, Miller told committee members he wanted to explore having in place a mechanism for securing corporate sponsorships for special events in the resort from businesses that don’t have a brick-and-mortar presence in the area. To some degree, it happening already with corporate sponsorships on special events like the laser shows and fireworks show, which utilize sponsorship money to offset the costs of the free, value-added events for visitors and residents. Miller said there were opportunities to expand on that, but wanted to explore some mechanism to control the marketing message, the length of time it could be in place and locations where it would be acceptable.
“There are opportunities for market activations to present a brand outside special events,” he said. “This has already been approved somewhat with the sponsorships on the laser shows and fireworks. We know we cannot put a market activation on the Boardwalk because it’s a right-of-way, but there could be opportunities to put some brands on the beach during special events.”
Miller said Ocean City is an attractive marketing destination for many corporations because of the millions of visitors that can be reached.
“The great thing about Ocean City is it has a huge tourism base,” he said. “There is a desire from a marketing standpoint to tap into that. For example, Jeep could come in and put a couple of vehicles on the beach during special events and take them away when they’re over. We have to have a mechanism in place when those opportunities arise and make sure we have controls in place.”
Recreation and Parks Director Susan Petito said allowing some corporate sponsorships on special events could produce a revenue stream for the resort.
“There is a potential for the town to get a substantial amount of revenue from marketing and sponsorships,” she said. “We need to explore a mechanism for taking advantage of that.”
While they didn’t dismiss the concept, some committee members expressed concern about it.
“When you talk about putting marketing efforts on the beach, there are zoning issues to consider,” said Dare. “You could possibly be opening Pandora’s Box and I think we need to tread carefully.”
However, Miller pointed to the corporate sponsorships already attached to events such as the laser shows and fireworks.
“I’m afraid it’s been opened already,” he said. “Look at the laser shows and fireworks and the sponsorships that are out there already. I want to look into getting procedures and controls in place.”