OCEAN CITY — The night sky over Ocean City will see a major change this summer after the Mayor and Council on Tuesday approved a special events package that includes the proposed 100 Nights of Lights series after an often terse discussion over expenses.
Two weeks ago, TEAM Productions, which produces many of the value-added special event throughout the summer, pitched a new idea to the Mayor and Council that will clearly ramp up the free weekly offerings to residents and visitors. TEAM Productions’ Bob Rothermel and his son Jonathan presented to the Mayor and Council an enhanced and expanded package, or “bundle,” of added-value events, including the new 100 Nights of Lights, a nightly show on the south end of the Boardwalk that will light up the resort sky several times a 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 and night sky in the resort. The spotlights could utilize oversized lifeguard-style stands, for example, or be mounted on portable trusses. The proposed 100 Nights of Lights will feature 12 spotlights, each with 4,000-watt bulbs, in six displays. The displays will be featured six times a night, roughly every 20 minutes from 9-11 p.m.
The council, two weeks ago, opted to forward the proposed changes to the Tourism Commission for further review and a recommendation. On Monday, the Tourism Commission voted unanimously to approve TEAM Productions’ special events bundle including the 100 Nights of Lights special event. On Tuesday, the council ultimately voted to approve the special events package, but not before a discussion on the breakdown of the costs.
For each of the last five years, Ocean City has contracted with Rothermel and TEAM Productions to produce a myriad of free, family-friendly special events throughout the summer from the fireworks displays downtown and at Northside Park to the laser shows downtown and from Sundaes in the Park at Northside Park to the increasingly popular OCToberfest around Halloween. The intent is to bring more visitors to the resort and provide them with free value-added special events once they get here.
In each of the last five years, the town has funded the special events with a $300,000 line item in the annual budget earmarked for the Tourism Advisory Board (TAB). In the past, TAB has reviewed and recommended the special events package and the allocation of the $300,000 to pay for it. However, a recent change in policy has required the special events package contract to come before the council for review and approval.
It’s important to note the $300,000 allocation for special events comes through a funding mechanism tied to the room tax collected in the resort, thereby essentially paying for the fireworks and light shows not directly with taxpayer money but largely on the backs of the tourists who enjoy them.
However, some on the council have expressed a desire to see a breakdown on how the $300,000 is spent exactly and determine if a better policy would be to bid out each special event through a competitive bidding process similar to other major expenditures for the town. Rothermel has largely shown a willingness to share much of the basic information, but certain things related to the expenditure of the $300,000 are considered proprietary and can’t be divulged entirely in the interest of protecting TEAM Productions’ intellectual property.
However, Councilman Wayne Hartman on Tuesday continued to question just how the money is being spent on the special events and asked for greater detail in the breakdown. For example, Hartman said he solicited information on the cost of producing a nightly fireworks show for less than 10 minutes and determined there was a bid to provide the fireworks for the shows at around $2,000 per event. If that $2,000 figure was accurate and it was extrapolated over the number of fireworks shows presented on the beach throughout the summer, it would come in considerably less than TEAM Productions’ breakdown. However, it’s important to note that $2,000 was not confirmed and likely reflected the cost of the fireworks themselves and not the cost of producing the shows, setting them up, breaking them down, cleaning up after them and the costs of insurance and permits and fees for example.
Nonetheless, Hartman pressed Rothermel on the $2,000 estimate and suggested at that rate, it could be cheaper to expand the summer fireworks program.
“It’s cheaper to do fireworks,” he said. “Why not just do 100 nights of fireworks?”
Hartman said he was not questioning the value of TEAM Productions’ special events package for the resort and its visitors, but was merely questioning what essentially amounts to a blank check for Rothermel to put together the entire bundle, from the fireworks to the OCtoberfest events to the 100 Nights of Lights.
“Usually, we put things out to bid and we get recommendations from the staff before we accept a bid,” he said. “I don’t know why we are doing things differently with this.”
However, Council Secretary Mary Knight said Rothermel and TEAM Productions had been producing the special events and actually expanding them over the last five years without increasing the cost to the city. She said Rothermel had earned the city’s trust to do what’s best with the $300,000 special events funding and the proof was in the final product.
“I put a big value on somebody that does work for the city, who lives in the city, goes to church in the city and raises his kids in the city,” she said. “You can’t put a value on the trust we’ve gained over the years. We have a long history here. When you have a question, you get a return phone call in about 10 minutes.”
Essentially, Knight appeared to be saying everybody loves the sausage, but doesn’t necessarily need to know how it’s made. However, Hartman said the proposal on the table was basically for three things including the fireworks, the Octoberfest events and now the 100 Nights of Lights events. He said he didn’t think it was too much to ask for more information on how the $300,000 investment is being spent.
“I’d just like to see a breakdown on what these things cost,” he said. “I’m here working for the taxpayers. I wouldn’t conduct my own personal business this way.”
Rothermel explained there was much more going on behind the scenes with the production of the special events including the fireworks.
“It’s not just the cost of the fireworks themselves,” he said. “There are mobilization costs and set up and break down costs. We’ve put together a bundled package.”
Councilman John Gehrig said he appreciated the desire to see a further breakdown on the cost of the special events, but also realized how Rothermel bundled the special events package together.
“I understand what Councilman Hartman is saying,” he said. “I also understand the concept of bundling. It’s proven to be successful. When you take a look at the management costs, the labor costs and the insurance, he takes care of all of that.”
Mayor Rick Meehan said Rothermel is given some leeway in how he expends the $300,000 because he has so many costs associated with producing the special events and insuring them along with his out-of-pocket expenses for which he is reimbursed.
“He has steadily grown what we’re doing,” he said. “Those are his costs, not the city’s costs. It’s like we’re subcontracting our free special events and this is what it costs. I spend a lot of time up there and it really makes a difference. It’s done with ingenuity and thinking out of the box and that’s what we’re here to discuss today.”
Councilman Matt James agreed with the mayor’s assessment, but said if the special events package were to be approved, it should be because it makes good business sense and not because of some sense of loyalty alluded to earlier by Knight.
“We work for the taxpayers and we need to watch where we spend our money,” he said. “If we do approve this, we should approve it for the reasons the mayor said about the bundle and the added value of your intellectual property and not that we have a good relationship with you or where you go to church.”
Council President Lloyd Martin said the town has had a tacit understanding that Rothermel would utilize the $300,000 in TAB funding in the best way to get the most bang for the buck for the resort.
“We’re trying to do more free events in town and I never heard you say you were going to share all of those numbers,” he said. “I think you’ve put a good package together and expanded the number of events while keeping the price the same.”
Gehrig attempted to explain while the Mayor and Council were beholden to the taxpayers, the $300,000 in TAB money comes through a funding mechanism supported by the room tax. However, while the $300,000 does not come out of the taxpayer-generated general fund, the resident property owners do have a stake in how it is spent.
“This is not taxpayer money,” he said. “This is the tourists’ money, but that doesn’t mean we go around wasting our money. The residents of Ocean City are the majority partners in the tourism industry and every visitor that comes and spends money here reduces our property tax. With that said, we should invest in tourism not just to get people here, but also to provide value while they’re here.”
Gehrig said while he agreed with Hartman’s desire to see a further breakdown, he believed Rothermel and TEAM Productions were being good stewards of the special events funding over the years.
“You’ve done what we’ve asked you to do for five years,” he said. “Actually, you’ve gone above and beyond what we’ve asked you to do. In the past, we’ve asked for the bundle and you’ve provided that. That’s what we wanted.”
After considerable debate, the council voted 5-1 with Hartman opposed and Councilman Tony DeLuca absent to renew TEAM Productions’ contract for the summers of 2017 and 2018 including the expanded fireworks shows, the OCtoberfest events and the new 100 Nights of Lights shows.