OCEAN CITY — While the future of Ocean City’s eventual model block remains uncertain, Mayor Rick Meehan has been working behind the scenes on a potential project that could separate the downtown area from other resort areas.
For several years, the town has been working closely with the Ocean City Development Corporation (OCDC) to acquire property in a downtown city block between Dorchester and Somerset streets and Baltimore and Philadelphia avenues as part of an eventual model block development. In most cases, the town, through the OCDC, has acquired properties, many of which host aging and dilapidated buildings, with the intent of packaging them together for future redevelopment on a larger, block-wide scale.
The OCDC has envisioned assembling properties on the block to eventually attract an anchor project in the downtown area. The belief is an attractive downtown redevelopment project will provide a link from the Boardwalk to the restaurants, bars and other attractions on the bayside, creating a flow of pedestrians throughout the downtown area.
While future plans for the model block thus far have largely been conceptual, Meehan said at the close of last Wednesday’s strategic planning work session he has had cursory discussions with National Aquarium officials on an exciting potential project for the model block. Meehan said the discussion with National Aquarium Chief Executive Officer John Racanelli began during a debate last year about designating the Baltimore Canyon off the coast of the resort as a national marine sanctuary.
That proposal was ultimately taken off the table after an uproar, but Meehan’s discussions with Racanelli about a future partnership with the National Aquarium on the downtown model block continued. Meehan said the first concept was to create a National Aquarium satellite facility on the model block in downtown Ocean City, but that idea was dismissed for a variety of reasons, including the lack of year-round traffic to support a major aquarium project.
Meehan said from that discussion was borne another idea for an exciting potential partnership with the National Aquarium on a marine rescue facility. Throughout the offseason, seals, sea turtles and other marine creatures are often stranded on the beaches in Ocean City, Assateague, neighboring Delaware and throughout the mid-Atlantic region and many end up at the National Aquarium in Baltimore for rehabilitation. The rescued seals and sea turtles are then released back into the wild on area beaches, or sometimes as far away as North Carolina or Florida, for example, depending on the situation.
Meehan said his discussions with Racanelli have included the development of a sort of one-stop marine rescue facility on the eventual model block in downtown Ocean City. Rescued marine mammals and sea turtles could be brought to the Ocean City facility for rehabilitation and eventually released from the resort’s beaches, solving the dual purpose of creating a marine rescue facility in close proximity to where the sea creatures are rescued while creating a unique tourist destination in downtown Ocean City.
Meehan said he could envision a fictional “Scotty the Seal” being rescued from the beach in Ocean City or another neighboring beach, brought to the marine rescue facility downtown, carefully rehabilitated over several months or as long as it takes and eventually being released from the same local beach from where it was rescued.
He said the facility could include observation areas for the rehabilitation process, interactive areas for children to meet the rehabbing sea creatures and even educational areas and a gift shop.
“They need a facility like this in close proximity to the coast and we’re the ideal location,” Meehan said last week. “It would be a unique facility and a tremendous tourist attraction. It’s environmentally-friendly and green, which people are looking for in their tourism destinations, and it could be something that really sets our downtown area apart from other tourist destinations.”
Public Works Director Hal Adkins said he has been invited to the National Aquarium’s marine rescue and rehabilitation facilities in Baltimore and agreed it could be a good fit for Ocean City.
“I have been in the guts of their facility and it is really something to see,” he said. “I think it would be quite an attraction for our downtown model block area.”
Meehan said the proposed marine rescue facility could attract school trips, families with children and other visitors to Ocean City at a time of the year when they are needed the most. Council Secretary Mary Knight said it could also appeal to the many youth sports tournament participants and their families in Ocean City during the offseason.
“This would be something perfect for the winter,” she said. “It would tie nicely into our sports marketing efforts. We hear all the time there is not much to do in Ocean City during the winter.”
With the National Aquarium Marine Animal Rescue Program (MARP) already responding to seal and sea turtle strandings in Ocean City and similar agencies in surrounding areas including the Maryland Coastal Bays Program locally and the Marine Education, Research and Rehabilitation (MERR) Institute in Delaware, Meehan said there would no shortage of qualified volunteers to work at the proposed facility in Ocean City.
“You’d be amazed how many volunteers we’d have,” he said. “The facility would be almost entirely run by volunteers. It’s such a feel-good type of campaign and it’s very popular right now. This could be something really different for Ocean City.”
The elected officials and department heads gave Meehan their blessing to continue conversations with the National Aquarium about potentially bring the marine rescue facility to Ocean City.