OC BikeFest Takes Shot At Liquor Sales, But Council Votes Down After Spirited Debate

OC BikeFest Takes Shot At Liquor Sales, But Council Votes Down After Spirited Debate
File photo by Chris Parypa

OCEAN CITY — Resort officials this week rejected a request to add liquor sales to beer and wine sales at the OC BikeFest event at the Inlet lot in September, but not before a much larger philosophical debate on the virtues or evils of alcohol in general in the perceived family-friendly resort.

OC BikeFest officials appeared before the Mayor and Council on Monday with a handful of requests related to a renewed Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the town for the annual motorcycle event in September. OC BikeFest officials expressed a desire to add liquor in addition to beer and wine at the weekend-long events at the Inlet lot, a request that was ultimately denied after a long, often contentious debate. It appeared to be on the path to a quick approval with a motion by Councilman John Gehrig and a second by Councilman Dennis Dare, but Councilman Wayne Hartman raised concerns that touched off a major larger debate.

“I have concerns with crossing that line in the sand to allow liquor other than beer and wine,” said Hartman. “There’s just a whole list of issues that come up. It’s not this individual promoter, it’s about the fact we’re a family town and there is plenty of availability of liquor already. To add liquor, to me, is setting us up for potential problems.”

Hartman seemed to suggest adding liquor to the OC BikeFest events at the Inlet lot could somehow add to the intimidation level for residents and other visitors not associated with the motorcycle event.

“With the number of bikes in town that weekend, it’s already intimidating for a lot of people,” he said. “I just think we’d be putting people in harm’s way that isn’t necessary. For this event, or any event, I just don’t like us crossing that line. We’re a family town.”

Council Secretary Mary Knight said she too had concerns, not necessarily about the family image perception, but the potential impact on businesses that cater to OC BikeFest attendees.

“My concern is a little different,” she said. “My concern is for the business community. They have an event that allows them to accomplish everything they want to do in Ocean City except stay there. You have food, you have beer and wine, you have entertainment and now you have liquor. You have a self-contained event now. Hopefully, they’re staying in Ocean City and spending time in our hotels, maybe, maybe not. Maybe they’re staying in West Ocean City or somewhere else, so my concern is for the other businesses in town and the potential business loss they might have.”

However, Knight agreed adding liquor to the beer and wine sales at the BikeFest events, or any other special events in town, might damage the image of a family-friendly resort.

“I do agree with Councilman Hartman on perception because sometimes I know we’re perceived as not family-friendly,” she said. “It’s not because you aren’t a good promoter because you’re excellent, I just can’t support this.”

Gehrig asserted adding liquor to the beer and wine sales at BikeFest or any other event was not suddenly going to change the town’s perceived squeaky clean image.

“It seems like this is just fear and trepidation and a lot of speculation that there are potential problems with putting people in harm’s way,” he said. “Somehow this isn’t family friendy? If you go to a Mexican restaurant and have tacos and a margarita, are you okay with that? It seems like we’re crossing a line here. Is wine family-friendly? It has a higher alcohol content than a Jack and Coke. What are the potential problems here and who are we putting in harm’s way?”

Gehrig explained the alcohol contents of various beverages to illustrate his point, explaining wine is typically 12 percent, craft beers are around 8 percent.

“If people want to get drunk, they’re going to get drunk,” he said. “To assume liquor is going to cause bad behavior is just logic I don’t understand. I respect your opinion, I just don’t agree at all.”

Gehrig said the OC BikeFest promoters had a great track record in Ocean City and adding alcohol sales at the Inlet events wasn’t suddenly going to change that.

“We have a good promoter who is willing to manage this,” he said. “We can control the language and make this a trial. The responsibility is on the promoter. Since these roots have grown so long in Ocean City, there is no reason to believe there are potential problems that no one can seem to identify.”

Gehrig also attempted to dismiss any notion adding liquor sales at the Inlet events was somehow going to hurt the local business community.

“As far as the business community, this event is extremely business-friendly,” he said. “It brings a lot of people to town and they make a conscious effort to enjoy our businesses. By the way, this is Bike Week. I guess this could be a family event, but my guess is it is not.”

Gehrig continued to assert it was somewhat disingenuous to single out OC BikeFest as an event for which adding liquor sales would cause problems.

“We’re essentially saying that bikers are out of control, that we’re their parents and we know what’s best for them and you drink what we tell you to drink,” he said. “I don’t know how we’re holier than thou, but every year when BikeFest comes before us, it seems like somehow we have to protect the community. If you’re fearful of alcohol, wine is much more toxic and can cause much more problems. I believe this event is responsible with a responsible promoter and we can give them a trial here.”

Hartman said the potential problems outweighed any potential benefits, however.

“What is there to be gained by adding alcohol to this event?” he said. “I hope they’re coming here for all of the BikeFest events, but I also hope they’re coming here for all Ocean City has to offer. Certainly, the folks coming to this event can go somewhere else to get alcohol or whatever they desire. Like Council Secretary Knight said, if everything is self-contained there, then there is no reason to go anywhere else. What’s the advantage to the town in bringing these people in if they’re not going to support the other businesses in town?”

As the debate continued back and forth, Gehrig said it was hypocritical to single out BikeFest when alcohol is flowing freely all over the resort.

“We cannot just assume because it’s a bottle of Jack Daniels or whatever it is that people are going to get out of control,” he said. “Do any of us like to have a mixed drink once in a while? Do we get wild and out of control and become irresponsible? We can’t assume that a legal beverage is going to make people crazy and go nuts. These people are just regular people who happen to like to ride motorcycles and enjoy live entertainment and have a good time. They’re not an out-of-control wild bunch. What is there to gain? I think it’s serving our guests. What are the potential problems? If we can’t identify the problems, then we shouldn’t be the adults in the room for the people who come here to enjoy Ocean City.”

Mayor Rick Meehan attempted to be a voice of reason and explained any concerns were with the sale of alcohol at special events in general and not BikeFest specifically.

“I don’t think it’s a concern for this particular event or the people who attend this event,” he said. “I think it’s a total change in philosophy from how we’ve handled the sale of liquor at any event. I don’t think it’s in any way an accusation that those who attend BikeFest are going to be different than anybody else. I just think it’s a change in the mindset on what we should do today with this and what we should do on a case-by-case basis in the future.”

Gehrig said he understood there was potential precedent to be set, but continued to argue OC BikeFest had earned a shot at it on a trial basis.

“I know there is some fear of a precedent, but they have a great track record for seven years and the precedent is, if you’re a good partner, you may have a trial for liquor,” he said. “The perception is based on history and it’s time to break those chains now. I think a case-by-case basis is a great idea.”

Gehrig then took a larger view of the resort’s alcohol policies in general and not just BikeFest.

“If we want to have a conversation on alcohol in general, we can have that now,” he said. “One of the great successes this year was the opening of a distillery and now all of the sudden alcohol is evil? What is it? You can’t have both.”

Hartman said a “no” vote on alcohol sales at the BikeFest events at the Inlet lot did not signal a change in the town’s position on alcohol in general.

“I don’t think anybody is saying this is evil,” he said. “What I’m saying is we’re a family-friendly town and there are plenty of places to get alcohol here. I’m just saying everywhere you go there is alcohol available. I don’t think it needs to be everywhere all the time and there are enough opportunities for visitors to this event or any event to find what they want. If somebody asks for something, you can point them to a business that offers it.”

The council voted 5-2 to oppose the sale of alcohol at the Bike Fest events at the Inlet lot in September with Gehrig and Dare in favor and Hartman, Knight, Council President Lloyd Martin and Councilmen Matt James and Tony DeLuca opposed.

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.