Q&A With Buddy Jenkins On His Five Decades Of Operating OC Amusement Parks, Hotels, Thrashers Fries And Much More

Q&A With Buddy Jenkins On His Five Decades Of Operating OC Amusement Parks, Hotels, Thrashers Fries And Much More
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OCEAN CITY — To say that Charles “Buddy” Jenkins has been one of the most influential figures in the history of Ocean City is almost an understatement when you look at the sheer number of different things that he and his company, Bayshore Development Corporation, own and operate today.

From the two Jolly Roger Amusement Parks and the beloved Thrasher’s French Fries to the iconic Ocean City Fishing Pier, multiple hotels and a slew of other businesses, Jenkins has already cemented his place in the local history books by creating a significant portion of the landscape of this seaside resort that attracts millions of people from all over the globe each year.

Yet, Jenkins is a quiet and unassuming figure who can sometimes be found standing on the porch of his office at Jolly Roger Amusement Park looking out over the masses of families from all walks of life letting go from life’s stresses and making memories together. It’s evident if you stand next to him on that porch just how important the idea of family is to him.

Talking with Jenkins for any length of time is like getting a valuable history lesson on our region, and that conversation can steer into the realms of the deeply intellectual and even somewhat philosophical. Yet, at the root of it, Jenkins says he is a do-er, and all that he has done over his long and successful career has simply been choked up to doing what his parents taught him to do.

In a rare interview, Jenkins sat down with The Dispatch for a two-part conversation that focuses on his success in business in Ocean City stretching over more than five decades, and a long chat about one of his greatest passion projects — the almost 30-year mission through the Joan W. Jenkins Foundation to help fight addiction of all kinds in this region.

(Editor’s Note: The interview with Jenkins on addiction and the Jenkins Foundation will be the subject of part two of the Q and A, which will run in next week’s paper.)

Q: You’ve been called a visionary for this amusement park, and you’ve been given the nod as one of the leading entrepreneurs and one of the elder statesmen that helped transform this beach resort into what it is today. Yet, I know you are a very private person and you don’t often give many interviews. I wonder if you view your contribution to the town or even your family with the same sort of grandiosity as others in the community do?

A: Not really. I think you have to go back to your parents and your beginnings. My grandfather Clark was a pound fisherman back when there were so many fish offshore all you had to do was have the pounds and when the tides went out, the fish would be in the nets. They’d pull the fish in by mule, and then, of course, the railroad came here in the 1860’s or 70’s and the fish were shipped up to Philadelphia. They were strong people as far as work ethics were concerned. They were simple people. My mother was a school teacher. She always believed she could make something better and she instilled that in me. My father came from very humble beginnings in Hooper’s Island. He was an oyster “tonger” with 32- foot tongs, and then he went to work for the A&P Tea Company and he rose to be the person that would go to small towns where A&P stores were not performing well and he would enhance its performance.

They were both what I would call astute and willing to take risk after due diligence, and today, I have that in me. I can remember the early history of Ocean City well, and I can remember being implanted with the four words of what Ocean City is. It’s all about sun, sand, surf, and it’s about safety. All those things have to be constantly monitored. They’ve been monitored closely since the 1940’s and, I’m proud to say are monitored today, with the Mayor and Councils in our community, which in my opinion have been far superior to other communities. They have always looked at sun, sand, surf, and safety.

Q: You’ve seen this town grow, year after year, from a small and quaint fishing village, and now it’s become during the summer months, the second largest city in the state. Does that rise or growth surprise even you as you look back on the town’s history with that clear 20/20 hindsight view?

A: It does not surprise me at all because I’ve seen the population increase in the Mid-Atlantic, and with that I’ve seen the improvement and dualization of roads, and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, and after that, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. So, all of these things, if you pay attention to them, and I do, statistically. Now statistics can be phonied and played up and down and sideways, but I always like to look at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge crossings. That always tells you how many are coming here this year versus last year and what the increase or decrease in the percentages are. The other great statistic I look at is the Demoflush and I hope they never change it. That tells you how many people are in town, so if you take these things and you look at them, such as the building booms that have occurred and the number of rooms available, the number of condominiums in the town, and you keep them firmly implanted in your mind, you can see changes and you can adapt to those changes.

Q: Earlier, we were standing on your porch overlooking the entirety of Jolly Roger Amusement Park. Over the years, your organization has always been able to keep your fingers on the pulse of what customers want. You try to add something new each year, while still trying to keep a good bit of nostalgia as well. How do you stay so in-tune with what customers want after all these years?

A: Well, as I was remarking on the porch, we have a very advanced technological system in this company to where we are able to look at each and every change and compare it from year to year, same date, same weather conditions, etc. That information will tell you a story if you have the right data and you can interpret that data properly. That’s a big thing. It lets you see what people are using, and if they are using it, you can continue to embellish that use.

Everything here started with a singular type thing. The first thing here was a Formula One track. Now, there are probably 12 or 14 tracks, and it’s probably the largest go-kart track in the country today. I remember the first thing here at the water park was the Lazy River. I could see growth coming and that became critical from not only a mechanical standpoint but also from a transportation standpoint. So, once you establish a base, you can start to see growth occur. It’s all really second nature to me, and it comes from my mother and my father and the things they implanted in me.

I can recall them taking gambles and risks, and I can recall living in a little house around Taylorville that had tar paper on the side because they wanted to save money to buy a bigger chicken house. I can remember that chicken house with a conveyer belt and hundred pound feed bags, and riding with my father as he would physically pick up all those feed bags and put it out there for those chickens. I remember my sister having her dresses made from colored feed bags. All those things are character builders.

Q: I’m sure those experiences also implanted your ‘hands-on’ approach when it came to running your business…

A: That’s right. Now, running a business is fairly simple if you pay attention and you have fire in your belly and if you try to gain what some people would call wisdom. Wisdom is very simple. Wisdom requires you to take a step forward, and it requires you to fail or be mediocre, and then requires you to remember that, and then not repeat that again. Once you achieve those steps, then you become able to very quickly discern things and, honestly, I wouldn’t even call it wisdom. It’s more of a growth process.

Q: Let me ask you this and this is switching gears a bit. As I mentioned, you are a very private person and you aren’t seen in the public eye very often. Yet, when we have seen you in the past few years, it’s been right after the famous fishing pier has been damaged or destroyed and oftentimes, the question is asked how many times will you fix it? Will you ever just let it go and say ‘Mother Nature wins?’ You talked earlier about doing what you are supposed to do. Many people look at that pier as an iconic-needs-to-be-there-thing for Ocean City. Is that how you view that pier, that every time it gets destroyed you will fix it because it needs to be there?

A: I will fix it. I will fix it. It’s been very painful I can tell you that [laughing]. It’s unbelievable what it takes to do that, but that’s neither here nor there, because it’s my responsibility and I will live up to that. The pier is iconic because, number one, it’s the only one here that goes out into the Atlantic Ocean. It’s a vista point for a lot of good stuff. I’ve seen people meditating out there, being able to look out into that ocean and see nothing but God, as they view God. I’ve seen people wanting to get married out there because of the spiritual aspect, a feeling of being one with nature and one with each other. I’ve seen people that stand out there and just stare at Ocean City because they remember when they could look and you couldn’t see all the tall buildings, you could just see the beach. So, it’s all those things.

Q: Is this town, to you, still those four core principles: sand, surf, sun and safety that we talked about at the beginning of this conversation?

A: Yes, and I think it’s been implanted in every Mayor and City Council going back. Some are better than others, but that’s human nature. But, generally speaking, as I said earlier, I think we have the best Mayor and City Council of any community that I’m aware of. We are generally ahead of the curve on everything, especially when you look at our sewer system, our water, our advertising, or our understanding of where the public is today. The public wants to be able do what it wants when it wants to do it.

If you want to watch fireworks on the beach, or if you want to watch a movie on the beach, you can do it.  It’s a fun thing. That’s the whole reason for success, other than where it’s located. For Berlin’s whole success, generally speaking, you can walk down Main Street and if you want to go into a shop and spend $10 you can, but you don’t have to. Generally speaking, in spite of our growth, or our population, or the large numbers in a very small geographic area, this is a very pleasant place to be. The town, and the Mayor and Council {in Ocean City] have reflected that. So, yes, it’s different, but no, it’s not any different.

Q: Tell me how you feel when you stand out on your office porch and you look out on all that you and your team have created here. I would imagine that it has to be very gratifying?

A: Well, it is, but you have to remember that all of this stuff in this town was secondary. I’ve had a very wonderful business career, not just here, but everywhere. This is kind of like playing.

Q: Does it still feel like playing?

A: [Laughing] Well yeah, because after all, you never have to grow up here. You always play. But, my gosh, I’ve been in the food industry, I’ve been in agriculture, I had the largest canning company east of the Mississippi, and I was in the seafood industry. I mean, at one time, six out of every eight clam strips you ate came from my company. I’ve been in all those things and I’ve had the good fortune to try my hand at drilling an oil well in Texas. I’ve done a little bit of everything, and it’s all the same. Two plus two is always four. It’s not five. You can always make it better.

So, that’s just a wonderful thing my parents gave me. I know I keep going back to that, because that’s where I got instilled with ‘do it, just make it better.’ Now, am I doing in my mind that’s any different than anybody else? No, I’m just doing what I think everybody else should be doing: accepting responsibility and just doing it. This has all been a lot of fun. It’s also been a lot of fun at the pier, because Ocean City, as you well know, is divided into three or four component parts. You have downtown, midtown, a little bit above midtown, and then you have uptown. Each part has a different beat and each part has a different patron. Some start earlier than others and some start later.

The allure of the Boardwalk is great during certain times of the year, but during other parts, it’s not. People would rather be somewhere else. It’s fun to look at the differences, but for what we do downtown, as far as the pier and upgrading it is concerned, it takes a lot of time and a hell of a lot of money, and it’s not always what people might think it is, as far as money is concerned. There is a lot of responsibility there and we are constantly trying to upgrade. Then you see our Ripley’s Believe it Or Not, or our ice cream stores, or Thrashers, or Boog’s BBQ, those are special things. On the pier, you have a totally different clientele [at Jolly Roger] than we would up here [at the 30th street Jolly Roger location]. So, when I look at it, to answer your question, always ask the next question mentally. If you can learn to mentally to ask the next question- you don’t even have to verbalize it, just ask it. Then say, ‘well, what does that mean’ and ‘what does that mean?’ You’ll get your answer. You’ll separate chaff from wheat. If you learn to think like that, it’s fairly simple. But, people shut down. People stop.

Q: They get complacent…

A: They get complacent, which, my gosh, could lead to a question and answer session that we could have for the next two days about complacency and what all that means.

(Editor’s Note: To listen to the entire interview in The Dispatch Download podcast, click over to www.mdcoastdispatch.com. Also be sure to check back next week for part two of the interview that will focus on Jenkins’ commitment to addressing addiction issues, which stem from several personal tragedies he and his family have endured.)

About The Author: Bryan Russo

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Bryan Russo returned to The Dispatch in 2015 to serve as News Editor after working as a staff writer from 2007-2010 covering the Ocean City news beat. In between, Russo worked as the Coastal Reporter for NPR-member station WAMU 88.5FM in Washington DC and WRAU 88.3 FM on the Delmarva Peninsula. He was the host of a weekly multi-award winning public affairs show “Coastal Connection.” During his five years in public radio, Russo’s work won 19 Associated Press Awards and 2 Edward R. Murrow Awards and was heard on various national programs like NPR’s All Things Considered, Morning Edition, APM’s Marketplace and the BBC. Russo also worked for the Associated Press (Philadelphia Bureau) covering the NHL and the NBA and is a critically acclaimed singer/songwriter and composer.