Will More Free Special Events Hurt Boardwalk Businesses?

OCEAN CITY — While most agree the value-added free special events on many nights throughout the summer season are successful in enhancing the visitor experience in Ocean City, a new perspective on their possible detriment for Boardwalk merchants and other businesses in the resort was revealed this week.

Ocean City’s Tourism Committee this week got a first look at the proposed 100 Nights of Lights free special event proposed for the downtown Boardwalk area this summer. TEAM Productions, which produces many of the value-added special events throughout the summer including the weekly fireworks and laser shows along with other events such as Sundaes in the Park at Northside Park and Octoberfest events in the fall, for example, first pitched the 100 Nights of Lights event to the Mayor and Council two weeks ago.

The event would light up the downtown sky several times each night from Memorial Day to Labor Day. The proposed special event would feature a dozen large spotlights with filters of various colors lighting up the beach and Boardwalk about every 20 minutes from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. each night, creating iconic images and enhancing the Boardwalk experience for visitors and residents alike. The spotlights could be mounted on lifeguard chairs along the Boardwalk or on portable supports.

The idea was pitched to the Mayor and Council two weeks ago as an addition to the package of other free special events produced by TEAM Productions, funded through the town’s annual $300,000 grant to the Tourism Advisory Board (TAB). The Mayor and Council embraced the idea, but sent it to the Tourism Committee for further vetting before making a final decision on it. At Monday’s Tourism Committee meeting, the concept was presented again, and although most appeared pleased with the presentation, not everyone in the room was entirely happy with expanding on the free events downtown throughout the summer.

Business owner Bill Dreibelbis, who owns and operates the Quiet Storm stores throughout the resort including a massive store on the Boardwalk at North Division Street, said the free special events in general, and the fireworks shows specifically, draw visitors away from the Boardwalk merchants at a time deemed most profitable.

“I can’t tell you enough how much the fireworks hurt my business,” he said. “That 9:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. hour is my best hour of the day, but when you have fireworks, it kills it. I’m talking thousands of dollars.”

Dreibelbis asked the Tourism Committee to consider the potential impact of expanding the free special events like fireworks and laser shows on the Boardwalk business community.

“The free events just don’t help business,” he said. “You want people to bring commerce. You are damaging the retailers on the Boardwalk. It’s not just me, a lot of us feel that way. The fireworks are a disaster for me.”

It’s important to note the proposed 100 Nights of Lights event is not expected to draw visitors off the Boardwalk, but rather enhance their experience while they shop and dine and enjoy the other attractions. However, the fireworks shows on a couple of nights each week do draw people off the Boardwalk and onto the beach, and even while the fireworks last just 10 minutes or so, the fact they go off at 10 p.m. on each of the scheduled nights does pull people off the Boardwalk for a significant amount of time during the peak time of the evening and many view the end of the shows as a signal it is time to call it a night.

TEAM Productions’ Bob Rothermel, who pitched the concept of the 100 Nights of Lights to the committee on Monday, said he is keenly aware of the fragile balance between the free events and Boardwalk commerce and said he always wanted the fireworks shows later in the night.

“A lot of Boardwalk merchants are finding their evenings are ending earlier than they would like,” he said. “When we started with the fireworks, I wanted to do 11 p.m., but a lot of people said it was too late. We went to 10:30 p.m. and then 10 p.m.”

Mayor Rick Meehan, however, pointed out the special events are geared toward families, which is the reason for the 10 p.m. start for the fireworks.

“Let’s keep in mind we’re a family community and not all of the kids can make it up that late,” he said. “I think 11 p.m. is too late, but that’s something we can work on.”

Nonetheless, Dreibelbis was persistent in his opposition to expanded special events in general and the fireworks specifically.

“You are detracting from my store,” he said. “I don’t know why after 150 years we feel the need to have free entertainment.”
Dreibelbis also owns a Quiet Storm store in north Ocean City and by comparison said the fireworks shows at Northside Park during the summer actually enhance business in that area of town.

“Not having them at all would be best, but if we must have them, then a little later would be better,” he said. “My best bet would be more at Northside Park, because it’s not hurting commerce up there. I have a store at 123rd Street and we think it’s great up there. It gets people out and walking around.”

Dreibelbis was not alone in his assessment of the impact of fireworks on downtown business. Cole Taustin, whose family owns and operates the Embers and Blu Crabhouse along with the adjacent miniature golf course at 23rd Street, agreed the summer fireworks often hurt business.

“I have a downtown business that’s not on the Boardwalk and our mini-golf takes a beating on fireworks nights,” he said. “I think business is about 30-40 percent less on the nights when there are fireworks.”

Dreibelbis said there are times when people flock out of his store when the first fireworks display is launched.

“I’ve had people in line at my store drop their stuff and head out the door as soon as they hear that first boom,” he said. “It’s brutal. You do a wonderful job with all of the other things you do. My only complaint is with the fireworks shows.”

Not all Boardwalk merchants agree with Dreibelbis’ assessment of the impact of fireworks on business, however. Tourism Committee member and Park Place Jewelers owner Todd Ferrante said he believed the fireworks and other free events only enhanced his business.

“I’ve been on the Boardwalk for about 20 years and I don’t think business dropped off when the fireworks started,” he said. “I think there are other reasons why people aren’t staying later. I have people come in the store all the time and ask when the next fireworks show will be.”

Of course, the “other reasons” Ferrante referenced were the 800-pound gorilla in the room that everyone acknowledges but few talk about. It’s no secret a different element takes over on the Boardwalk later at night when the families start trickling away. Dreibelbis said he would like to see the town invest more money in policing the Boardwalk later at night then on more special events.

“I’d like to the see the money spent on more policing on the Boardwalk,” he said. “I’d like to see those lifeguard stands be used by the police rather than for lights.”

Meehan said the existing special events, such as the fireworks and laser shows, along with the proposed 100 Nights of Lights special event, should only enhance the Boardwalk visitor experience.

“What we’re trying to build is an enhanced visitor experience on the Boardwalk with the free events,” he said. “If you took them away, the next year all we would hear is what happened to the special events? Anything that makes that Boardwalk experience better in the long run is beneficial.”

After considerable debate, the Tourism Committee voted to forward a favorable recommendation to the Mayor and Council on the proposed 100 Nights of Lights events. The Mayor and Council are scheduled to take up the debate on Tuesday afternoon.

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.