Council Candidates Weigh In On Performing Arts Center, Union Stalemate, Hotel Boom

Council Candidates Weigh In On Performing Arts Center, Union Stalemate, Hotel Boom

OCEAN CITY — As they did last week, the five Ocean City Council candidates vying for the four open council answered some questions posed by this publication.

Incumbents Doug Cymek, Dennis Dare, Tony DeLuca and Mary Knight are being challenged by John Gehrig in next Tuesday’s election.

Cymek was elected to office in 2008 and is seeking a third, four-year term. Dare is looking to serve his second term after being the top vote getter in the 2012 election. DeLuca was elected two years ago to serve the remaining two years of Joe Mitrecic’s council term after he was elevated to the post of county commissioner. Knight, who has served as council secretary since 2012, was first elected in 2006.

Gehrig has served in a variety of leadership capacities of local non-profit organizations, including currently as president of the Greater Ocean City Chamber of Commerce but has never held elected office.

The Dispatch posed three questions to the candidates this week and their written responses are included below.

  • The Performing Arts Center inside the Roland E. Powell Convention Center is a beautiful facility but many argue it’s underachieving from the standpoint of new bookings. The city has maintained the center is a success because it’s assisting existing conventions and given staff more flexibility when pursuing new groups. It has been proposed that the city create some sort of arts foundation to assist in the process of bringing in new entertainment. How can the city increase the usage at this center?

Doug Cymek

Doug Cymek

Cymek: The Convention Center currently hosts over 85 events annually, including large groups such as the State Fireman’s Association, Maryland Municipal League, American Legion and the Maryland Association of Realtors, which utilize the Performing Arts Center (PAC), for multiple day events between September and July. Just during the last two months, the Transportation Association of Maryland and the Maryland State Education Association have also used the PAC. The PAC is certainly not sitting idle. In fact, some upcoming cultural events between now and the end of the year will include the Sleeping Beauty Ballet, Celtic Yuletide and The Nutcracker, plus other contracts currently being negotiated.

The initial PAC study detailed different phases of growth during the first five years. A methodical evaluation of the facility brought to light the need for a State of the Art, professional quality sound system to attract top entertainment. Such a system was just recently installed and within budget.

I am a supporter of the PAC and look to the citizen based, Ocean City Cultural Arts Advisory Board to work jointly with the Convention Center staff to help the facility expand their entertainment offerings and continue into the next phase of growth.

Dennis Dare

Dennis Dare

Dare: We are only beginning to scratch the surface of the potential of the Performing Arts Center. It has been well received by many of the groups and conventions that use the Convention Center. In fact, having the PAC as an added amenity has resulted in several users, including the cheerleading competitions and the dance groups, committing to long-term contracts.

The public use of the PAC is prospering with performances in the next several weeks of “Sleeping Beauty Ballet,” “Big Daddy Weave,” “Celtic Yuletide” and “The Nutcracker.” Good public support of these offerings will lead to more bookings.

The concept of an arts foundation is certainly worth pursuing. It has worked well for the Freeman Stage at Bayside with the Joshua M. Freeman Foundation. I would welcome a philanthropic individual or group establishing a foundation perhaps naming the PAC after them.

Tony DeLuca

Tony DeLuca

DeLuca: I, for one, think that this has been successful since only opening just under two years ago. Of course, there is always room for improvement by booking higher caliber entertainment acts. I would like to see it more like a smaller version of the Freeman Stage at Bayside. They book a great combination of upbeat smooth alternate groups, old school cool groups and a combination of all different genres. I envision an increase in cultural bookings also, like those presented at the Lyric Opera House in Baltimore. For example, let’s test some ideas, like opera, ballet and plays. The Lyric has a great schedule that we could piggy back on, since the acts would already be performing in Baltimore. Examples include the Nutcracker, the Piano Guys and Riverdance, to name a few. We have had great success with the Texas Tenors. Just think about what the Art League has done for Ocean City.

John Gehrig

John Gehrig

Gehrig: The Performing Arts Center (PAC) is indeed a beautiful venue. While the PAC is assisting existing conventions, that was not its proposed purpose prior to construction. The “in-between” size seems to be somewhat of a challenge. The first thing that needs to be done is to determine when the PAC has what it needs to succeed. The original sound system was determined to be inadequate and was recently replaced. I am not sure the cost of that upgrade but we all need to know when the PAC is determined to be ready to sell. Then we need to review the original business plans to determine the sources of projected revenue. This plan can then be updated to include things we have learned since PAC’s construction and to account for objections we are hearing from potential clients. Finally, the marketing strategy will be reviewed and updated to showcase PAC as a world-class facility. It is time for the Performing Arts Center to begin performing.

Mary Knight

Mary Knight

Knight: The Performing Arts Center (PAC) has proven to be beneficial in booking conventions, currently 50 of the 85 annual events use the PAC. Marketability of the Convention Center has clearly increased so that goal has been realized.

Establishing a foundation to provide financial backing for the PAC would enhance its ability to book up-scale acts. The PAC in lower Delaware boasts a $7 million ndowment, insuring the commercial success of their productions.

The recent addition of a state-of-the-art sound system will increase bookings as performers will no longer have to supply their own audio set up. Yes I do endorse the idea of a foundation and other innovative modes of fundraising to present new entertainment while removing any financial liability from the taxpayer.

  • Earlier this year, the Ocean City Mayor and Council and the firefighters/paramedics union hit a stalemate over scheduling. The city was resolute in its stance that 24-72 schedule need to be phased out in favor of 12-hour shifts with mixed days off. The resulting stalemate led to the union starting a petition drive to add binding interest arbitration to their current rights for collective bargaining. How do you view this disagreement? Do you favor the 24-72 schedule or support the city’s position?

Cymek: Beginning last January, the town began negotiations for a new contact with the Firefighter Paramedics Association through their union representatives, IAFF Local 4269. The negotiations with the town came to an abrupt halt when the IAFF essentially failed to come to an agreement prior to the deadline of Feb. 29, as prescribed in the town charter. Because of the IAFF’s apparent lack of desire to further negotiate at that time, the town’s best and final offer became the new contract effective on July 1, 2016, which allowed for a delay in implementing any scheduling changes until Oct, 1, 2017, to provide 15 months for the effected parties to adjust.

I sincerely hold all first responders in the highest regard and remain hopeful we are able to continue the dialogue with the IAFF, as to the implementation of a mutually acceptable, but less than 24 hour or hybrid shift rotation to ensure the highest level of service for our residents and visitors and the safety of our personnel. Other departments have successfully worked through these same scheduling issues and have met with the approval of their union members and I hopeful we can as well.

Dare: Being a firefighter/paramedic is a dangerous and demanding job. Working for 24 hours straight can be exhausting and could lead to a disaster such as sleeping through an alarm, falling asleep driving back from the hospital or administering improper care. With 85 percent of their calls being medical in nature, we simply cannot put ourselves in a position to fail.

I support our firefighter/paramedics 100 percent. We have the most talented, best trained and best equipped personnel in newly-constructed and -renovated facilities. Their pay and benefits are fair and competitive. I will continue to support them, but I simply cannot support what I believe to be a dangerous schedule.

Three years ago, the IAFF union agreed to 12-hour shifts for all new hires. During recent negotiations, the town was simply asking that the policy be extended it to all personnel.

To ensure the safety of our firefighter/paramedics and the public, it is time to abandon working 24 hours straight.

DeLuca: I support moving away from the 24/72 shift schedule. I think a non-24 hour shift is safer for the residents and visitors of Ocean City. When working the 24-72 schedule, there is always the risk of first responders being overly tired, sleeping through a call or showing up just a few minutes late. The firefighters and paramedics do an excellent job and provide an invaluable service to Ocean City, but why not make it better for everyone? I do believe that the shift worked successfully by the Baltimore County firefighters (two ten-hour days, two fourteen-hour nights, and four days off) would also work for our firefighters as well as the Town’s citizens and visitors and feel that it is appropriate to move to that shift. Public safety is one of my top priorities.

Gehrig: It is unfortunate that this negotiation has not reached a conclusion satisfactory to both parties. Public safety is obviously critical to Ocean City and, as a board member of the OC Paramedic Foundation, I am committed to having the most highly trained and prepared personnel. Regarding the disagreement, I respect everyone’s right to petition. If elected, I will enter the negotiation with a fresh mind and perspective. I will speak with both parties, review the existing deal/arrangement, and determine the problems, separating those that are perceived from those that are real. Then, we can see where there is a meeting of the minds and go from there. I support a resolution; if the two choices on the table don’t lead to that then we need to keep thinking.

Knight: I support what is best for the residents and visitors; shift lengths less than 24 hours. The role of the firefighter/paramedic has transitioned from suppressing fires to managing medical emergencies. As duties transformed to acute care many agencies moved away from 24 hour shifts. It has been proven that deep into those lengthy shifts performance and decision making skills degrade, and response time increases. I know the patient deserves the same care at 3 a.m. as they receive at 3 p.m.

Under the current contract, the city is allowing personnel 18 months to adjust their schedules before new shifts are implemented without any loss in compensation.

Personally, I am disheartened that the IAFF chose to walk away from the bargaining table.

  • Ocean City and West Ocean City are amidst a major hotel boom. In some cases, independent family-owned hotels are being replaced by corporate brand hotels. One example is the planned Hyatt brand coming to 16th Street where the Sea Scape Motel will soon be demolished. There are other examples as well. What’s your opinion on this evolution? Is this good for Ocean City or an example of unfavorable progress for the resort?

Cymek: I know some individuals feel the sudden revitalization that we are currently experiencing is eroding away the true charm and nostalgia of Olde Town Ocean City. However, I believe that as Ocean City continues to prosper and more and more individuals and families are coming here to visit, more accommodations will undoubtedly be necessary. There are those that like to stay at the family owned hotels and motels, along with those that desire a brand name. We can accommodate both here in Ocean City! I also believe some see this as an opportunity for long time hotel and motel owners to divest themselves by selling their properties and entering retirement or other investments, which allows new owners and developers to take advantage of a strong market and the record low cost financing for their projects.

Dare: Whether a hotel is branded or not is solely the owner’s prerogative. What is important is to provide a quality facility and good customer service. Ocean City continues to have a wide range of accommodations for every guest. Whether to brand or not to brand a property is best handled as a private business decision and can be managed very well without government intervention.

DeLuca: I think large, corporate-owned hotels are very beneficial to the town of Ocean City, its residents and visitors. Competition makes everyone better! It ensures improved cleanliness, and major remodels and upgrades, all which are great for the consumer. There are still plenty of independent, family-owned hotels where guests can enjoy coming back year after year as a family tradition. The only hotels that will be affected are the ones that aren’t up to the standards their guests expect and demand. It is good for our residents because Room Tax at $14.6 million last year is the second largest Revenue generator for the General Fund. This helps keep Real Property taxes at no increase like last year, and/or a slight decrease, like this year for our property owners, as Revenue increases. The Hampton Inn and the La Quinta Inn are two prime examples of fine, new, successful hotel additions in Ocean City. There is plenty of opportunity for both small, family-owned hotels and larger, corporate ones.

Gehrig: I am happy and grateful that people want to invest in Ocean City. If done properly, this investment improves the aesthetics and economic development of the area, thereby keeping resident property tax rates low and helping them go lower. There is a caution flag, however. While we are adding significant new lodging supply to the market, visitor demand is largely flat. This economic equation does not add up. When you add the vast new demand from “new economy” sources such as AirBnB among others, the supply skyrockets since every home and condo is a potential nightly rental.

Further, our demand is very inconsistent, with high demand during weekends and much less during weekdays, even during the summer. This leads to wild rate swings, which is not healthy. The town’s advertising budget is funded by tourists. This budget must be reviewed and reallocated to maximize demand and to meet the needs of the modern traveler and new travel trends. If done properly, this will lead to an increase in revenues, resulting in lower property tax rates for all of us.

Knight: This is not a question to be resolved by local government. The market will determine how this expansion ends and Ocean City’s next chapter begins. Government’s task is to furnish an environment that attracts residents and allows established and new businesses to prosper.

Once our advertising draws the tourist, the burden falls on the lodging industry to put heads in their beds.

However, the proliferation of online rentals does need government oversight. VBRO, AirBNB, etc. are avoiding the regulations that legitimate businesses must follow. The lack of oversight compromises the safety of the customer, and denies the city of fees that pay for provided services.