Mayor: ‘Something Needs To Change’ After ‘Unacceptable’ Week

Smoke from vehicles showing off on Coastal Highway is shown over mid-town Ocean City last weekend. Photo by Chris Parypa

OCEAN CITY — When the smoke cleared and the dust settled after one of the more troublesome Cruisin’ Ocean City events in recent memory, resort officials this week were left pondering the future of the annual event.

The annual spring Cruisin’ Ocean City event draws thousands of registered classic car enthusiasts and their fans and an exponentially higher number of hangers-on who piggyback on the sanctioned event. The intent of the event created 27 years ago was to bolster the shoulder season and bring visitors into the resort and three decades later, it has clearly achieved the desired results.

To be sure, Cruisin’ Ocean City puts heads in beds and backsides in restaurant seats to a large degree and creates one of the busiest weekends of the year, but there is a quality of life cost associated with the obvious economic benefit. While most of the 3,000-plus registered attendees participate in the officially sanctioned events such as the Boardwalk parade and the car shows at the Inlet and other locations, a far greater number of hangers-on race up and down resort streets, peel out and leave rubber on the roadways and smoke and fumes lingering in the ocean air, and line the sidewalks with beach chairs and watch the displays with coolers and open containers of alcohol.

It’s certainly not a new issue. Naturally, when a narrow 10-mile barrier island hosts thousands of classic cars and hot rods of all shapes and sizes, there inevitably comes traffic jams, parking problems, noise, trash and other illicit behavior. After a particularly troubling spring Cruisin’ event two years ago, the Mayor and Council considered a variety of ordinance changes including expanding the Ocean City Police Department’s ability to enforce open container and public consumption laws and address some of the issues with crowds gathering along the highways during the special events.

After considerable debate, cognizant of the economic importance of special events and the need to strike a balance for the quality of life for residents and non-participants, the Mayor and Council instead opted for a different approach encouraging the OCPD and its allied law enforcement agencies to strictly enforce the laws already on the books regarding disorderly conduct and disturbing the peace.

Last weekend’s Cruisin’ Ocean City event was particularly problematic with a larger-than-anticipated crowd of hangers-on, or unregistered attendees, intermingling with a normal heavy weekend crowd in mid-May. The trouble began on Friday afternoon when a power outage across most of the south end of the resort snarled traffic and created huge backups and it ended early Sunday morning with a fatal pedestrian collision. It’s important to note the vehicle involved in the fatal collision was not a registered participant in the Cruisin’ Ocean City event, but for most already weary from the endless burnouts, noise, smoke and traffic, the tragedy served as a punctuation mark for their frustration with the event and the weekend in general.

Locals Express Frustration About ‘Smear’ On Town

Many local residents have voiced their concerns with the growing issues surrounding the Cruisin’ event and similar vehicle-related special events, but last weekend touched off a firestorm of criticism and a call from some corners to eliminate the event altogether. Resident Sarah Tilghman said this week she shared the belief of many locals that the proverbial rubber has hit the road for the Cruisin’ event and it could be time for it to just go away.

“Many of our friends and neighbors agree that this event keeps getting worse each year,” she said. “We live along beautiful beaches and bays, yet people come to sit by a highway and watch cars peel out. Driving home late Saturday night from my second job was depressing.”

Tilghman outlined a first-hand account of the goings on from early Sunday morning.

“At 1:45 a.m., crowds were still along the sidewalks cheering for peel outs,” she said. “Some were holding lewd signs. Pedestrians were darting across the highway. Police cars were everywhere, but that didn’t seem to deter the peeling out, racing and drinking in public. One hour after I got home, a pedestrian was killed on 45th Street where I had just driven by. That is so terribly tragic, but I was not surprised after seeing what that area was like just a short time before the accident.”

Again, it’s important to note the pedestrian fatality did not involve a registered Cruisin’ vehicle, but the event has suffered somewhat from guilt by association because of the timing. Tilghman said the event is supposed to be bringing people into town on an otherwise quiet weekend, but could be having an adverse effect on business.

“Some local business owners I talked to think this event hurts business rather than help,” she said. “Tourists that don’t want smoke, noise or trash are staying away.”

Tilghman urged town officials to move away from vehicle-related special events and return instead to events that promote Ocean City’s best assets.

“It is my hope that tourism officials look for true family-friendly events like sailboat regattas, paddleboard races, marathons, sand castle contests, etc.,” she said. “These could start small but grow to draw big crowds. It’s not too late to turn things around in Ocean City. In my opinion, Cruisin’ week should be cancelled.”

Downtown business owner Allen Sklar urged local residents and business owners to voice their displeasure with Cruisin’ and the vehicle-related special events.

“It’s time now for all residents, non-residents, business owners — yes, even the bar, hotel and restaurant people — and anyone else who as ever said ‘I love Ocean City’ to speak their mind concerning the continuing city promotion of this event,” he said. “I used to enjoy the event, actually riding around town on a bicycle taking shots of the really cool old cars. Now, today this would be a suicidal act as crossing at any intersection is ripe with danger. The cool people who are respectful participants are incredibly outnumbered by persons who only want to be drunk and burn rubber. It’s sad, but oh so true.”

Sklar said the event has had an opposite impact on many resort businesses, including his — a bike rental operation off the Boardwalk.

“Now, I’ve owned a truly family-oriented business for 40 years in the same location and trust my opinion on the money end of this,” he said. “Not only do I make almost nothing for the four days, but neither do any businesses that cater to families with kids. Why would anyone want to come here and risk their children’s lives, breathe filthy, unhealthy air and spend sleepless nights filled with noise, smoke and police sirens? Business has declined for all but the alcohol, food and hotel folks.”

Sklar called on town officials to go back to the drawing board and revisit the event, if not consider getting rid of it completely.

“This problem rests solely on the Ocean City government,” he said. “They must realize by now they cannot control the event, but by sanctioning it, they invite the thousands of disrespectful burners to attend. The event must be totally banned, period.”

The OCPD and its allied partners take some criticism for their apparent lack of control over the weekend event, but Sklar said they are simply overwhelmed and should not be held at fault.

“I would like to thank the Ocean City Police Department, who, like soldiers overwhelmed in battle, continued to do their best but were helpless against thousands of simultaneous lawbreakers,” he said. “Please do not take your frustrations out on them. If there were a thousand more officers, it would be the same.”

Another local business owner Wyatt Harrison said the spring Cruisin’ event reached its boiling point last weekend.

“I think this year more than any other year was a wake-up call for the town,” he said. “I’ve heard the town is not going to sanction any new motor-related events, but we still have Cruisin’ to deal with. This is the first year that not only the residents have had it up to their necks with this event, but also the business community. It seems like more a smear on Ocean City than a benefit.”

While the event clearly brings tens of thousands of people into town during a mid-May weekend, many more circle the dates on the calendar and avoid the resort, according to Harrison.

“It has become something the town sponsors that actually causes people not to want to come into Ocean City,” he said. “We hear people say all the time they avoid going into Ocean City during the street-related events. Why are we having events that are causing people to actively avoid coming into town?”

Harrison said when the Cruisin’ event was conceived nearly three decades ago, the intent was to bolster the offseason weekends, but much has changed in the last 27 years.

“When Cruisin’ was created, the idea was to extend the season in bring people into town during May, but the argument that we need this event and similar events to bring in more people and more money 20-some years later is irrelevant now,” he said. “We have a thriving year-round community and I’m not sure we need events like this in mid- to late May.”

Promoter Defends Event

TEAM Productions produces many of the special events in Ocean City including the spring Cruisin’ event. The event is tightly run with a cap on the number of participants, most of whom enjoy the Boardwalk parade and other sanctioned activities. However, unlike some of the other special events, the promoter has little or no control over the thousands of hangers-on that cause the lion’s share of the problems.

“I think we run a great event,” said TEAM Productions’ Bob Rothermel this week. “We’ve done everything the town has asked of us. We stand by the quality of our event.”

Rothermel said the spring Cruisin’ Ocean City event reached its official capacity weeks before last weekend. He said there are carefully spelled out criteria for officially participating in the event.

“The 2017 edition of Cruisin’ Ocean City welcomed 3,300 registered vehicles to the resort,” he said. “Only cars with registrations 1976 or earlier are allowed to register. We stopped taking applications in the early part of April and considered the event sold out.”

Last weekend’s event was marred by a large contingent of hangers-on including an inordinate number of large pickup trucks and later-model Mustangs and other sports cars that appear to have been organized by outside forces.

“There have been a lot of questions regarding trucks and Mustangs,” he said. “The vehicle has to meet the above-referenced criteria in order to be registered. The application also states ‘no excessively loud exhaust systems’ including diesels. Generally, the large diesel pick-up trucks and the later model Mustangs are not capable of meeting the criteria. It is our understanding that someone other than our company was organizing these two groups.”

Rothermel said participants in the past have complained about an overly aggressive law enforcement presence, but the opposite had proven true this year.

“As far as complaints, this is the first year we didn’t hear any complaints about the police being too harsh,” he said. “Most of our participants were complaining about the lack of police presence. Ironically, we have always advocated for the town of Ocean City to aggressively enforce all of the laws regarding motor vehicles and noise. Over the years, we have encouraged and authorized the OCPD to pull a vehicle’s Cruisin’ registration if the officer deemed it appropriate to do so.”

Law Enforcement Challenges

The OCPD is supported by allied law enforcement agencies from all over the region and beyond during the Cruisin’ event and other vehicle-related special events. However, with the sheer number of unregistered participants, the OCPD and its partners often still have trouble keeping up with most of the infractions.

“This event presents challenges for us each year and this year was no different,” said OCPD Public Information Officer Lindsay Richard. “The power outage on Friday caused major traffic delays and officers were tied up for the duration directing traffic on the already busy roadways. Large crowds filled the sidewalks and there was significant traffic throughout the weekend.”

Richard also pointed to the fatal pedestrian collision early Sunday morning as a sobering end to the otherwise raucous weekend.

“The tragic pedestrian collision early Sunday morning ended the weekend on a somber note, however, most of the collisions that took place throughout the weekend were relatively minor,” she said. “Statistically speaking, the weekend was very similar to years’ past as far as calls for service and the number of arrests. As is typical with this event, there were no significant criminal incidents that occurred.”

New Date Being Considered?

In the wake of what was perhaps the most troublesome Cruisin’ event ever, the city’s elected officials have begun considering changes to the event including possibly moving it earlier in the spring. For now, at least, there appears to be no will to eliminate the event completely, but the Mayor and Council are acknowledging the problems.

“I share the concerns of the community over the events of the past weekend,” said Mayor Rick Meehan. “Something needs to change.”

Meehan outlined the roughly three-decade history of the event.

“The Cruisin’ event was started 27 years ago in conjunction with Springfest to bring people to town in early May when there were, believe it or not, very few people in Ocean City,” he said. “Both events became successful and after a few years, the Cruisin’ event was moved to a different weekend. The event at the time basically consisted of those that had registered for the event and were here to participate in the show.”

Nearly three decades later, the dynamics in Ocean City have clearly changed, causing some elected officials to reconsider the future of the event.

“Fast forward to 2017, or 27 years later, and a lot has changed in Ocean City,” said Meehan. “We have built thousands of new condos and numerous hotels. These newer condos and hotels offer more modern year-round accommodations and have attracted new owners and visitors to town during the early part of the season that we did not see 27 years ago. Add to this vehicles such as the big pick-up trucks, high performance cars and other vehicles that are not part of the actual event and we end up with what we experienced this past week, which was unacceptable.”

Meehan said one option to explore is moving the event back earlier on the spring calendar during a time when there are fewer visitors to the resort.

“If the event is to continue, my suggestion would be to move it back to the middle of April,” he said. “This is a time period much like May was 27 years ago. There are fewer visitors in town and the police department has stated they would be in a much better position to handle the event. With fewer vehicles on the road, it would give the department the ability to maximize enforcement and address the issues we faced with the big trucks, high performance vehicles and renegade cars.  I would also think about changing the name of the event to something like Classic Car Show 2018 to get rid of the reference to Cruisin’ altogether.”

Meehan said the current mid-May event dates come at a time when visitors are starting to enjoy the town’s other more celebrated amenities.

“Moving the event to the April time period would create business during a time period that is much slower in Ocean City and open up the third weekend in May for today’s visitors and residents  to take advantage of the weather and what Ocean City is really all about — the beach, Boardwalk, shops, restaurants and the beautiful outdoors,” he said.

Councilman Matt James, who is a hotelier, agreed it could be time to consider moving the spring Cruisin’ event dates.

“I probably had the most interaction with the Cruisin’ people out of anyone on the council,” he said. “The weekend was profitable, but there were definitely a lot of issues. As a council, we’re not in it for one weekend. I like the cruisers, but I think the volume of people in town already at this time of the year really complicates the event. The council and the city as a whole needs to reassess this event and maybe look at alternative dates. The third weekend in May is a busy weekend anyway. I like the event and I like the cars, but I think it has gotten out of control.”

Like many others, James believes some of the issues related to the vehicle-related special events have become counter-productive.

“If we’re going to have special events like this, we have to take a look at the long-term damage to the image of the resort,” he said. “We have to hope too many people weren’t turned off this year. Return business is so important, so if a lot of people not related to this event came this weekend and left disappointed, they might not come back.”

James said some of the problems could be alleviated by moving the event earlier on the spring calendar.

“There are a few different things to look at,” he said. “First is the timing of the event. Do we really need this event in the second half of May or would everyone be better served if this was scheduled earlier?”

Councilman Wayne Hartman said he believed everybody was taken aback by the sheer attendance totals in the resort over the weekend.

“I don’t think anybody expected this,” he said. “It was probably the largest attendance for this event than I can recall.”

Hartman said everything lined up just right for a jam-packed weekend at a time when the resort is really starting to come back to life.

“For me, there are obvious concerns,” he said. “It was really the perfect storm with the registered attendees, the thousands of unregistered hangers on and the all of the people who don’t have anything to do with the event here on the same weekend in May. We have to take a closer look at this and see what can be done. I would not want this event to go forward without some changes.”

The economic benefits of the event are obvious, particularly for the lodging and hospitality industries, but at what price for the quality of life for residents and those not associated with the event. That’s what is on the minds of the city’s decision makers.

“It’s a balancing act,” said Hartman. “We want the special events and they are good for business generally, but this is not a win-win for everybody. It certainly isn’t a win-win for quality of life. I think it needs to continue as a sanctioned event because if it was not sanctioned, there wouldn’t be any controls.”

About The Author: Shawn Soper

Alternative Text

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.