OCEAN CITY — The weekly fireworks shows in downtown Ocean City will continue to go off at 10 p.m. as they have in years past after a tense Mayor and Council debate over possibly moving the start times to accommodate certain Boardwalk merchants.
While most agree the value-added special events on many summer nights throughout the summer are successful in enhancing the visitor experience in Ocean City, a new perspective on their possible detriment to Boardwalk merchants and other businesses in the resort emerged this week. The discussion began at the Tourism Commission on Monday and spilled over to the Mayor and Council meeting on Tuesday.
On Monday, the Tourism Commission got its first look at the proposed free special events package for the summer of 2017 and beyond including the much-ballyhooed 100 Nights of Lights special events that will light up the downtown sky each night during the summer with a series of color-shaded spotlights. Included in the special events package under consideration was a continuation of the weekly fireworks displays on the Boardwalk and at Northside Park on certain nights.
However, it came to light during Monday’s Tourism Commission meeting not all business owners in the downtown area are completely enamored with the 10 p.m. start time for the fireworks shows on the beach downtown.
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.”
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. He 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.”
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 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 agreed 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.”
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 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 than 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.”
After considerable debate, the Tourism Commission voted on Monday to forward a favorable recommendation to the Mayor and Council on the proposed 100 Nights of Lights event and the associated bundle of other special events including the fireworks with the stipulation consideration would be given to moving the fireworks shows back to 11 p.m.
On Tuesday, the Mayor and Council picked up the debate on the special events package in general and the later start time for the fireworks shows specifically. Councilman John Gehrig, who also serves on the Tourism Commission, pointed out the total special events package should not be approved without careful consideration given to moving the start time for the fireworks shows to 11 p.m. Gehrig cited as many as four downtown business owners had pointed out the negative impact of the fireworks shows during Monday’s meeting.
“All four plainly stated when the fireworks go off, they take people out of their businesses,” he said. “Some cared and some didn’t. I’m not interested in taking anyone out of anybody’s business.”
Council Secretary and Tourism Commission Chair Mary Knight said the approval of the special events package should be considered in one motion, with the start time for the fireworks considered in a different motion after vetting and input from the business community. However, Gehrig said the two issues weren’t mutually exclusive and said the start time for the fireworks was intrinsically linked to the approval of the special events package.
“We might as well be just voting for fireworks in general,” he said. “We’re not voting for the days or the locations or if it’s at midnight or in front of somebody’s house. I don’t get that. The times, dates and locations are all part of whether we do the deal or not.”
Some on the council said moving the fireworks start time to 11 p.m. was not in keeping with the spirit of the family-oriented special events.
“I don’t see fireworks at 11 p.m. being a family event,” said Councilman Wayne Hartman. “I think 11 p.m. is too late. I’ve heard from food vendors that they like the fireworks because people come there, buy something to eat and drink and hang around. Retail vendors don’t like it because it takes people out of their stores.”
Councilman Dennis Dare said the fireworks bring people to the Boardwalk and setting the start time to accommodate families with young children was paramount.
“We talk about Ocean City being a family resort and fireworks are a natural for attracting families,” he said. “I agree 11 p.m. is too late. The idea is to bring people to the Boardwalk. If somebody is leaving a store to go see fireworks, they probably came to the Boardwalk to see fireworks and not necessarily to visit one particular store.”
Gehrig, however, asserted the Tourism Commission a day earlier had unanimously endorsed a later start time for the fireworks shows.
“This is our Times Square,” he said. “We talked earlier about 100 percent approval from the Tourism Commission and part of that approval was switching to 11 p.m. To interrupt business right in the middle of our busiest time in what is our Times Square when commerce is happening in the area with the most expensive rents in town in the middle of the summer is irresponsible.”
Mayor Rick Meehan said the special events, including the fireworks, draw people to the Boardwalk at the busiest times of the night in the summer and should enhance business for Boardwalk merchants.
“The whole thing isn’t just to bring them down to one store or this block or to go there,” he said. “It’s to create the energy and make our Boardwalk and other areas more family-friendly and to maybe push out some of the elements that tend to creep into some areas and reinforce that fact this is a family destination with good, clean, family events. That’s what this is really all about.”
Meehan said moving the fireworks’ start time a half an hour one way or the other probably wouldn’t please everyone.
“As far as the time, I bet you could get 50 percent to say 10 and 50 percent to say 11,” he said. “Maybe 10:30 p.m. is where we go. I am not sure really if it makes any difference if we go to 10:30 p.m.”
Knight said she could not in good conscience agree to move the fireworks start time to 11 p.m. based on Monday’s limited input from business owners without taking into consideration the wishes of the larger percentage of merchants.
“I’m respecting the other people,” she said. “I think there are about 300 businesses on the Boardwalk and I’m respecting the other 296 that didn’t have a voice yesterday. It was not on our agenda yesterday and it is unfair to those other 296 that didn’t have a voice in this. I hope we can vote on this and come back to discuss the best time after we get some input from our partners.”
However, in one of the more terse exchanges during the larger debate, Gehrig questioned if every decision by the Mayor and Council should essentially be a referendum for the citizens and the business owners.
“The recommendation from the Tourism Commission was unanimous and part of the deal was not just for 11 p.m., but against 10 p.m.,” he said. “That’s what the concern was and now we’re saying that doesn’t matter. Are we representatives, or are we going to poll every business and every citizen for every little thing we do? We get elected to represent them.”
Councilman Matt James attempted to be the voice of reason to get beyond the fireworks start time issue and consider the larger approval of the special events package.
“Yesterday, we talked about compromise,” he said. “I think 10:30 p.m. is a good compromise in this case. There are some business owners that like 10 p.m. and some that like 11 p.m.”
Knight made a motion to approve the special events package including leaving the fireworks start time at 10 p.m. for now and reconsidering a change after input from the business owners. That motion passed 5-1 with Hartman opposed. Gehrig then made a motion to move the fireworks start time to 10:30 p.m. and that measure failed on a 2-4 vote with Gehrig and James in support and Knight, Dare, Hartman and Council President Lloyd Martin in opposition.