OC Council Supports Expanding Holiday Decorations

OCEAN CITY — With the holiday season in the books and decorations around Ocean City quietly going away, resort officials this week turned their attention to expanding the town’s Light Up OC campaign in the future.

Downtown Association President Kevin Gibbs on Tuesday presented to the Mayor and Council his vision for expanding the resort’s holiday season offerings in the form of more decorations and more special events to attract visitors and improve the experience for locals in the future.

There was a time not so long ago when the Inlet hosted a mini-Winterfest of Lights of sorts with drive-through displays on the beach and parking lot. But financial concerns, a general apathy in the downtown area, spending reductions and the harsh winter weather conditions conspired to have that go away nearly a decade ago. The Downtown Association along with the Ocean City Development Corporation (OCDC) has been successful in reviving holiday decorations throughout the resort in recent years thanks to private partnerships and Gibbs on Tuesday said the organizations were hoping to expand on that momentum with a larger Light Up OC initiative.

“It’s really evolved,” he said. “We changed it to Light Up OC because there is a need to approach this as a town-wide issue including the north, south and middle.”

Gibbs said he and others have visited other communities during the holidays to gauge what they are doing with decorations and events and came away feeling Ocean City could do more.

“We need to expand Winterfest and need to expand Christmas in Ocean City,” he said. “It needs to be extended to the entire town. We need to get up to par. We finally got some lights downtown, but it’s not enough.”

Gibbs said he envisioned restoring the long-gone light displays at the Inlet as part of a first phase. Already, the public-private partnerships have been able to expand the decorations in many of the parks downtown and at the Boardwalk.

“The first phase would be to move lights back to the Inlet,” he said. “Maybe there are things that aren’t being used at Winterfest, or that wouldn’t be missed up there. Christmas is big business, but this would also serve the locals and the community. I feel like we can really grow this and get on board with what other communities are doing. People miss being able to drive down to the Inlet and look at the lights. People miss that part of their holiday routine.”

Gibbs was quick to point out the initiative did not merely focus on the downtown area, however.

“We definitely want to bring the lights back to the Inlet, but it’s not a downtown issue, it’s a town-wide issue,” he said. “I just need to know when I sit down with the business owners to convince them to get on board, the town has my back. There is a lot of momentum and things are moving fast. The business community is already on board with this.”

Council President Lloyd Martin said the momentum is already evident downtown and will a little public support and private partnership from the business community, it could grow.

“It seems like people downtown are getting more passionate about Christmas then they were even eight or 10 years ago,” he said. “It’s nice to see all of the homes lit up. We work very hard on Winterfest to market it and make it profitable and it looks like things are moving in the right direction in the downtown area.”

Councilman John Gehrig agreed there appeared to be momentum downtown.

“There was a huge, huge difference this year,” he said. “I think it’s time to bring some of these things back and start cementing some of the private-public partnerships.”

While there has been great success in fostering private partnerships in expanding the holiday decorations in Ocean City, continuing the momentum would likely require some public investment, which is where the otherwise feel-good discussion turned to the potential costs for the city. Councilman Dennis Dare, former city manager, harkened back to the time not long ago when holiday decorations were considered low-hanging fruit and were cut from the budget when the recession hit nearly a decade ago.

“In 2008, we faced a financial crisis and a lot of things were cut and haven’t come all the way back,” he said. “One of the things that were cut was the holiday decorations downtown.”

While Dare supported the Light Up OC initiative, he cautioned about the potential costs weighed against other town necessities that haven’t yet been restored.

“Already tonight we’re talking about re-decking the Boardwalk and putting trashcans out on the beach in the winter, but those things come with a price,” he said. “We’re trying to go back and do some of the things we used to do because we cut a lot of things out. Special events are huge for the town and for the business community, but to have the taxpayers pay for more decorations downtown seems a little unfair.”

However, Dare did suggest exploring other revenue sources to restore some things that went away during the recession.

“I think it’s time to consider raising the room tax from four-and-a-half percent to five percent and find a revenue source for some of these things,” he said. “A half a percent on a $200 room is only a dollar, but it could provide some additional revenue to bring some of these things back.”

Councilmember Mary Knight echoed that sentiment.

“I agree with Dennis,” she said. “Our room tax rate has remained the same, but our costs associated with providing some of these things have gone up. The taxpayers shouldn’t pay for that. The visitors should pay for that.”

For his part, Gibbs said he wasn’t looking for any financial contribution from the town for the Light Up OC initiative at this point.

“I understand the financial side,” he said. “That’s why the first phase is just reusing or repurposing some of the things we have. I don’t want to raise taxes to pay for Christmas decorations and I don’t want this to be lumped into anything related to budgets. I’m just looking for support. I want to look for private donations and I think people want to reinvest in the town.”

Mayor Rick Meehan said the spirit of the initiative was nurturing private-public partnerships and not a financial outlay for the town.

“This is one of those instances where you have to see the can-do attitude,” he said. “I challenged the Downtown Association to show some initiative and they did. When I was acting city manager, I worked with the Downtown Association and the OCDC and they came up with some great initiatives and I can see the same thing happening here.”

After considerable debate, the council voted to support the Light Up OC initiative and move the discussion to the Recreation and Parks Committee. Meehan said it would work with the right private business partnerships and reminded Gibbs other towns were likely following Ocean City’s lead already.

“You mentioned visiting other places and I’m sure they visited us also to get ideas,” he said. “I support your efforts and if we can get the community support behind this, we can spread out some of the costs. I think we have the momentum to really improve on what we do here during the holidays.”

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.