Thoughts From The Publisher’s Desk – September 15, 2017

As is the case in Ocean City, every now and again talk of a town-funded parking garage in Berlin surfaces.

With Berlin hosting a record number of visitors this summer and its popularity only growing, it’s obvious parking is and will continue to be a major concern for the town and its’ businesses. As a result, Berlin is trying to get creative and make the best out of the current spaces and options available. The newest idea involves a potential lease agreement with a Main Street church, which is located a short walk from the downtown core. This coupled with shuttle service from Stephen Decatur Park and local elementary schools in town during events should help ease the parking crunch, assuming motorists will rely on shuttle transportation to get to and from their vehicles.

What Berlin is not interested in pursuing at this time is any type of parking structure. In this case, I think that’s prudent. Parking is a problem in Berlin some months of the year, but I don’t think a multi-million dollar facility that will sit vacant more often than half full is a reasonable solution.

Berlin Town Administrator Laura Allen was on the money when she discussed the concept of a garage in town this week.

“I don’t think the town could bear the expense,” she said. “That would be taking a sledgehammer to a problem that could use a scalpel.”

Approximately 10,000 people reportedly paid to tour the tall ship El Galeon during its three-week stay in Ocean City last month. That amounts to about 516 paid guests per day.

With this being the third time the ship has been to Ocean City, it was logical to expect less people would tour it than before. That was the reality evidently as about 14,000 visitors paid to tour the ship during its first stop in Ocean City in 2013.

The decline in visitors was not a concern to the town or the El Galeon folks evidently. Ocean City Special Events Director Frnak Miller told the Tourism Committee this week, “They were genuinely happy with the turnout. They will definitely be back.”

Miller said on Monday with roughly 10,000 paid visitors, the town’s share in the revenue-sharing agreement came in at around $17,000. However, per a contract, the town agreed to help fund El Galeon’s refueling for its departure from Ocean City from any funds above and beyond what it cost the resort to host the vessel. As a result, of the town’s $17,000 share of the revenue, $8,000 was returned to the NAO Victoria Foundation to offset the cost of fuel.

I’m not sure there’s going to be a positive outcome for Ocean City when it comes to the impact short-term online rental booking sites like Airbnb will have here.

The fact is it’s an easy option for would-be renters who prefer to not stay in hotels and use established rental companies. For example, I had a group of five friends from out of the area coming to Ocean City the week of the White Marlin Open, which is typically the busiest week of the summer. They didn’t want to stay in a hotel and they waited too long to book a rental. They were told by the brick-and-mortar rental companies they contacted there was no availability on the island. A few clicks later on Airbnb they were able to book a house on 10th Street one week before they were planning to arrive. Scenarios like this play out all the time during the summer months.

Was the place properly licensed? Was room tax paid on the more than $1,300 they paid for five nights? I doubt it. The fact is Ocean City simply doesn’t have the resources to track all these properties because property owners have gotten strategic. They place their property on the site at certain times and then remove it quickly once they get enough bookings. Word is out that Ocean City, like so many other resort destinations and big cities, are trying to create “a level playing field” in the rental market, like Mayor Rick Meehan said.

The issue is the Internet and the ease in which places can be advertised and booked. It’s crushing rental companies nationwide and government is left doing only what it can legally do — ensure its coffers are getting what they should in the form of rental licenses and room taxes. Unfortunately, it’s an unwinnable battle because property owners are increasingly savvy and understand the concerns.

Ocean City Councilman John Gehrig painted a realistic picture this week when he worked under the assumption that at some time every Airbnb listing in Ocean City will be playing by the rules. The issue is the impact on the rental market remains and at what point do property owners opt for handling their own rentals without having to pay the commission. The good news is at this point many property owners still prefer established rental companies because they handle all of the affairs associated with renting out a property. Nonetheless, Gehrig’s point on the impact is germane.

“They outmaneuvered the traditional rental companies,” he said. “If all of the owners paid their taxes and got their licenses, we still have the same problem. The challenges are still going to be there. Even if we’re successful and every rental has a license and pays taxes, that inventory is still in the market. That’s the challenge.”

About The Author: Steven Green

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The writer has been with The Dispatch in various capacities since 1995, including serving as editor and publisher since 2004. His previous titles were managing editor, staff writer, sports editor, sales account manager and copy editor. Growing up in Salisbury before moving to Berlin, Green graduated from Worcester Preparatory School in 1993 and graduated from Loyola University Baltimore in 1997 with degrees in Communications (journalism concentration) and Political Science.