Cruisin’ Debate Long On Questions, Comments, But Short On Easy Solutions

The Inlet parking lot’s daily car shows are a part of the Cruisin’ Ocean City official event offerings. Photo by Andy Davis

OCEAN CITY — Local residents and business owners weighed in Monday on some of the issues related to Cruisin’ Ocean City after one of the more troublesome events in May, but it appears there are more questions than answers for now about the future of the event.

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, 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 otherwise clean ocean air, and line the sidewalks with beach chairs and watch the carnage 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. This year was particularly troublesome for a variety of reasons, including the summer-like weather that attracted thousands more not associated with the event, resulting a jam-packed weekend that kept cash registers ringing, but created headaches for residents and the Ocean City Police Department (OCPD).

In the wake of the spring Cruisin’ event, the Mayor and Council vowed to revisit the issue and suggested possibly moving it on the spring calendar. On Monday, several business owners and residents voiced their collective displeasure or satisfaction with the event, and after listening carefully to the comments, the Mayor and Council are no closer to deciding how best to improve the Cruisin’ weekend in the future.

Local resident Kathy Flagler said she has been in Ocean City for 40 years and believes the problem with the spring Cruisin’ event is not a strong enough police presence.

“We feel like you don’t have enough police in May,” she said. “I don’t know how you think you can have enough in March or April.”

Flagler agreed the problem lies not with the registered attendees for the event, but the countless number of hangers-on who create most of the issues.

“These young kids are different these days,” she said. “They’re going to come no matter what. They’re not part of the Cruisin’ event, but they’re going to come anyway. Let the police give out tickets to the non-participants and better yet, give them points on their license because a $200 or $300 fine is nothing for young people. Give them points on their license or impound their vehicles and you’ll get results.”

Bill Goodwin, a member of the Ocean City Cruzers Club, agreed the May event was particularly troublesome for a variety of reasons, especially with the thousands of vehicles in town that weren’t part of the sanctioned event.

“I will agree when you have beautiful weather coming after a long winter there is something special about being in Ocean City,” he said. “I don’t know if there was something in the water, or something they ate, but there were a lot of problems with the event this year.”

Goodwin said he attends similar events all over the country and they don’t seem to have the same problems. He pointed out an event in Michigan attracts 40,000 hot rods and draws over a million people, but there aren’t the same kind or problems experienced with the Ocean City event.

“The thing I noticed is a lack of law enforcement,” he said. “At some of these events, there are police on every corner. Talk to other areas and find out what they do so we don’t have the same problems we have.”

Resort business owner Patty Hopkins, who runs a rental apartment complex, said the area between 12th Street and 14th Street has essentially become a drag strip during the event. Hopkins said she observed law enforcement turn a deaf ear on some of the issues.

“The cruisers are not the issue,” she said. “We’ve seen state troopers and county officers sanding by watching while they pour liquid on the streets and encourage burnouts.”

Hopkins said the spring Cruisin’ event is one of the biggest weekends of the year for her business and moving it earlier in the calendar to March or April would be devastating.

“There is no reason for us to be open in May without the cruisers,” she said. “Cruisin’ weekend is better than Memorial Day weekend. We might as well shut down in early June when all the kids are here. When does it end? I’d like to see who pays the most taxes because I think it’s the business community.”

Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association (OCHMRA) Executive Director Susan Jones also urged the Mayor and Council to not consider moving the spring cruiser event to March or April.

“We share the concerns about the unruly behavior and the recklessness of the unregistered participants and that is first and foremost,” she said. “We feel there does need to be something done, however, we also feel a date change is not warranted.”

Jones suggested forming a task force or work-study group with all of the stakeholders to figure out how best to manage the Cruisin’ event and similar motorized special events.

“I think it’s really important that we take a step back and we all work together to look for a solution,” she said. “Let’s have the residents concerned about the noise, let’s have the business community that’s truly affected, let’s have the Mayor and Council and the police, and let’s brainstorm on what we can do together rather than jump straight to a date change.”

Jones said perhaps bringing in more law enforcement agencies from other areas could help ease some of the problems associated with the event. She said many OCHMRA members host out-of-town law enforcement officers during the special event weekend and that program could be expanded.

“In the last couple of years, we’ve worked with the police department on bringing in allied agencies and put up additional police officers complimentary in our lodging members,” she said. “We can continue to do that and maybe even do more of that.”

Jones warned simply moving the date would not ease the problems with the event hangers-on including the hundreds of Mustangs and diesel trucks that appeared to take over the spring event somewhat this year.

“Moving the date is just going to cause an unsanctioned event,” she said. “We’ve seen on Facebook already there is an OCMD Cruisin’ Takeover page and they’ve stated they are going to come no matter what you do with the date.”

Jones said moving the event earlier in the spring could seriously impact dozens of seasonal businesses that don’t open that early.

“A date change will affect 73 of our hospitality and lodging members, not to mention the seasonal restaurants, if you move the date,” she said. “These people can’t open up earlier because they don’t have heat. That’s going to cause the small ‘Mom and Pops’ to lose money and it’s going to cause you to lose room tax, so a date move is not something we feel is in the best interest of the entire community.”

Jones suggested expanding the police presence and urged the Mayor and Council to consider bringing back a tried and true former policy.

“I can remember the days when we saw the OCPD at the foot of the Route 50 Bridge and at the foot of the Route 90 Bridge with their lights on, so that’s a nice little deterrent for people coming in,” she said. “That says ‘we’re here and we’re going to be watching,’ so maybe they can do that again.”

Jones agreed with an earlier commenter on the need to put more teeth in the ordinances and increase the penalties.

“Maybe the fines need to be exorbitant and maybe there needs to be points,” she said. “Maybe the points can be transferable to other states. Surely, we’re not the first community that has had these issues and we’re not going to be the last.”

On the other hand, there was an in-kind number of speakers on Monday who favored moving the event earlier in the spring or eliminating it altogether.

“I’m a teacher and my students live in Ocean City and West Ocean City,” said local resident Sarah Tilghman. “Do they see what I saw? These weren’t isolated incidents. Did they see the lewd signs? Did they see girls flashing to get people to do burnouts? Did they breathe the same thick, black smoke?”

Tilghman said she saw first-hand the endless amount of bad behavior during the Cruisin’ weekend and said the police did their best to keep up. She said the economic benefit of the event did not outweigh the quality of life costs and advocated for moving the event.

“The behavior was appalling,” she said. “I saw police everywhere, but they could not keep up with everything. Their priorities were to handle the big stuff. I think it’s a good idea to move the event. I understand it means heads in beds, but it’s not a great weekend for all businesses. The city really needs to take a close look at this.”

Local resident and business owner Wyatt Harrison said finding a balance between the economic value of the event and the quality of life cost had to be a priority for the town.

“I think we as a town need to figure out where the common ground is,” he said. “I’m not sure moving the event is good idea. It does bring a good number of people to town, but it also actively keeps some people from visiting Ocean City. They might go somewhere else and have a better experience and decide not to return.”

Unlike many of the speakers who came before him, Harrison praised the police department’s handling of the weekend despite being overwhelmed.

“I think the police did a fantastic job,” he said. “They did a great job when they could get to the problem areas, but they were stuck in the same traffic we all were.”

Harrison also advocated for forming some sort of task force to let all of the stakeholders in on the decision-making process.

“I agree there should be some kind of work-study group and invite everybody with a stake in this,” he said. “There is a common ground in this somewhere, but we have to evaluate how we’re portraying Ocean City as brand.”

Councilman Wayne Hartman said he understood all of the concerns and finding a solution would be challenging.

“I just want to thank everyone for coming out and speaking either in favor of or against the Cruisin’ weekend,” he said. “Sitting up here, you hear both sides of it. I understand the business side of it, and I understand the residents who live here and protect the community. There is no right or wrong answer.”

Hartman said the problems and concerns would be fully vetted and debated and some viable solutions would be determined, but the process would take time.

“I think we have a lot of work to do in front of us,” he said. “I don’t think any decision is going to be made any time soon, but I do think it’s our job to keep public safety in mind. There has to be a balance between business and the residents.”

Hartman also pointed out there was some snickering and under-the-breath commenting going on while some were speaking on the issue on Monday.

“I think we all need to respect other people’s opinions,” he said. “When somebody was commenting, we could hear the undertones and people saying ‘move to Ocean Pines’ and things like that and that lack of respect shouldn’t be out there.”

Mayor Rick Meehan spoke last and tried to bring the discussion full circle.

“All of us feel it was important to hear from people in regards to Cruisin’ weekend,” he said. “It’s been a couple of weeks now and sometimes it’s a little out of sight, out of mind, and we can’t keep this out of sight and out of mind because it’s a serious problem. It’s a big problem and it’s also a big picture problem. It’s not just that one weekend.”

Meehan said the issues and concerns were heard loud and clear and would be addressed.

“I think you’re going to see we’re going to take a look at all of these motorized events and what we can do to make them better and address some of the problems we’re having with them so we can get better control and allow these events to continue,” he said. “It’s truly a balance between our business community and our residents, but also public safety has been our number-one priority and that will continue. People come to Ocean City because it’s clean and safe and we’re not going to do anything to jeopardize that. I think that’s the most important thing.”

It was Meehan who first publicly suggested moving the event to an earlier weekend in the spring, which has created some backlash from the business community, but said out of that angst came some beneficial discussion.

“We’ve taken some heat for suggesting possibly changing dates, but you know what, it stirred some conversation,” he said. “Maybe it’s something we look at in the future or maybe it’s a transition. We have a lot to talk about and we want to work with the community to come up with some answers.”

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.