Council Agrees to Support Chamber Sign

OCEAN CITY- After considerable debate, Ocean City officials this week agreed to help offset the cost of new digital sign at the Greater Ocean City Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center on Route 50 in West Ocean City.

The Mayor and Council had before them on Tuesday a request to help pay for a new state-of-the-art digital reader board at the chamber’s visitor center on Route 50 in West Ocean City about a mile from the resort. Greater Ocean City Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Melanie Pursel presented the potential funding options to the Mayor and Council during Tuesday’s work session. She explained Ocean City had agreed to partner with the chamber on the original sign back in 2008, but that sign had reached the end of its useful life and had to be replaced.

“Unfortunately, they have a lifespan of about six to eight years and we got eight years out of this one,” she said. “We feel we are the gateway to Ocean City with 40,000 vehicles driving by there on a typical summer day and 30,000 during the offseason. We use this to promote all of Ocean City’s special events and other activities and also to welcome groups that are coming in to Ocean City.”

In addition to promoting the many special events and promotions in Ocean City throughout the year, the chamber’s sign along Route 50 about a mile from the bridge into the resort also had many practical public safety applications.

“We also use the sign to get out amber alerts, silver alerts, weather issues and evacuation notices during storms,” she said. “The various Ocean City emergency services departments have access to it and get important messages out to the public. When there was the issue with the bridge a few years ago, the sign was used to get messages out to the motorists.”

Pursel said the replacement sign was already put out to bid and front-funded by the chamber at a cost of around $41,000. In addition, the annual maintenance cost of the operating the sign including the electricity needed to service it comes in at around $13,000.

She told the Mayor and Council the chamber was seeking from Ocean City one of two options, the first being a one-time investment of roughly half the cost of the new reader board at around $20,000. The second option was an annual advertising or promotional agreement of $10,000 per year, which would defray the costs in out years while providing Ocean City with an ongoing partnership with the chamber on promoting its special events and getting the word out during emergencies, for example.

While none on the council opposed the concept of continuing to partner with the chamber on the electronic message board, some wondered if there was any effort to share the costs with other areas and Worcester County in general, which benefit from its many uses.

“You’re called the ‘Greater Ocean City Chamber of Commerce’ because you represent the entire area,” said Councilman Tony DeLuca, who also wondered why the chamber sent out the request for proposal and accepted a bid before coming to the Mayor and Council with a funding request. “Did you approach Berlin or Ocean Pines about sharing the cost? I think those communities also benefit from that sign.”

Pursel said the chamber had some conversations with Worcester County and its tourism agencies about partnering on some level with the cost of installing the operating the sign although nothing firm had come from the discussion. Councilman Wayne Hartman said the county should contribute as well.

“You said you went to the county because it represents all of the municipalities,” he said. “Wouldn’t we fall into that? I think the county has an obligation to participate because a lot of the businesses you serve with it are in West Ocean City.”

With that said, Hartman made a motion for the town of Ocean City to pay half of the $20,000 requested, or $10,000, with the understanding the chamber would reach out to the other communities in the north end of Worcester and the county itself to make up the other $10,000. That motion was seconded by Councilman Matt James.

Councilman Dennis Dare said the chamber has been a long-time partner in the success of Ocean City and advocated for contributing the full $20,000 requested.

“The chamber has been a good, long-standing partner with Ocean City and when I come into town and see that sign, I know it’s doing a good job of promoting our events,” he said. “I think maybe you need to look at some of these other areas. Berlin has a chamber and Ocean Pines has a chamber and I agree it would be a good idea for the county to help fund this for the at-large areas it serves. I think we should do the $20,000 contribution paid in increments over two or three years.”

For her part, Pursel said the chamber was going to move forward with the new sign regardless of the funding contributions from Ocean City, Worcester County of any other community. She said it was important to note the electronic sign does not promote any individual businesses, but mere special events and other activities that support the entire area.

Council Secretary Mary Knight also urged her colleagues to support the requested $20,000 investment in the sign from Ocean City.

“I don’t think the council realizes some of the things the chamber does for us at no cost,” she said. “They distribute our visitor surveys and partner with us on so many things. I have never had a request to the chamber to help us with something ever turned down. If we have the wherewithal in our budget, I think we should fund the full $20,000.”

Hartman said he appreciated the city’s partnership with the chamber, but continued to push for some contribution from the county and other communities. He pointed out 62 percent of the chamber’s registered businesses were in Ocean City and adjusted his motion to reflect that.

“I’m aware of the partnership,” he said. “I’m also aware 62 percent of the chamber’s members are in Ocean City. If the business community is paying half and the local government is paying half, since 62 percent of your members are in Ocean City, I would amend my motion to give $12,000 if that helps.”

Dare, however, continued to push for the full $20,000 contribution from the resort.

“I’d like to support $20,000 as well,” he said. “What I’m interested in is that second option. We dedicate 2 percent of the room tax to marketing and that’s where this money should come from. I don’t think it’s a stretch to dedicate $10,000 a year for two years to pay for half of that sign and its associated expenses.”

Tourism Director Donna Abbott said the sign’s value was on full display last Saturday in the lead up to the St. Patrick’s Day Parade and urged the council to consider funding it.

“AS I was driving into town on Saturday, the Springfest message was up and it really popped with the new lighting technology,” she said. “I think we can find the funding in our budget to support the town’s contribution to the new sign.”

After considerable debate, Hartman was willing to change his tune somewhat on the town’s proposed contribution to the chamber sign, but continued to push for some contribution from the county.

“Sometimes, you have an idea and hear discussion and you change your mind,” he said. “I agree with everything I’m hearing, but I would still like to see the county pick up not more than us, but at least a significant contribution.”

With that said, Hartman amended his original motion to include a $10,000 commitment from Ocean City for a period of five years to help offset the cost of the sign and its maintenance and utility expenses. The council voted 6-0 with an abstention from Councilman John Gehrig, who recused himself at the beginning of the debate because he is also the president of the Greater Ocean City Chamber of Commerce.

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.