OCEAN CITY — The fine line between marketing a town asset and government interference with private enterprise was the subject of a rather chippy debate this week over painting a water tower with a golf ball and tee design.
Earlier this winter, a divided Mayor and Council nixed the idea of a shared marketing opportunity with Coca-Cola that would have allowed the soft drink giant’s logo on a town water tower at 64th Street near Route 90 and the entrance to the resort with some councilmembers calling it a “sell out.”
The water tower at 64th Street just north of the Route 90 Bridge is scheduled to be repainted as part of the usual cycle for repainting the town’s water towers and there are a handful of options on the table including the traditional blue with the resort’s welcoming message, just plain blue with no message, a reproduction of the popular beach ball on the downtown water tower at 1st Street or a golf ball and tee design featuring the town-owned Eagle’s Landing golf course.
The latter was the subject of an intense debate on Tuesday between a seeming majority of councilmembers who favored the Eagle’s Landing design on the tower as a means to market an existing town asset and others who believed singling out the municipal golf course was an affront to the other 15 or so golf courses in the area that partner with the town on marketing and advertising efforts.
When the Coca-Cola option was discussed and ultimately nixed in March, the estimated cost of repainting the 64th Street water tower was around $200,000 regardless of the final design, although Deputy Public Works Director Jim Parsons said that figure was somewhat of a moving target because of the extent of the repairs needed on the aging tank once it was drained and inspected in the offseason.
Almost certainly, the rather generic traditional blue paint job with the town’s logo, which is currently on the 64th Street tower, would be cheaper than a more ornate design, such as the beach ball or the Eagle’s Landing golf ball and tee design. However, it was pointed out on Tuesday, with a modest investment, the town could get real marketing value for one of its best assets.
Councilman Tony DeLuca, who has made no secret of his desire to promote Eagle’s Landing on the tower, pushed for the golf ball and tee design.
“We own the golf course,” he said. “Ocean City owns Eagle’s Landing. The golf course operates at break even. I think this is more tourism, more packages, more hotel stays and more condo rentals. This can improve the profitability of an asset we own.”
DeLuca said proposed paint job would promote the town-owned Eagle’s Landing, but also the resort as a golf destination in general.
“I think this will indirectly benefit all of the courses,” he said. “This is an opportunity to showcase Ocean City as a premiere golf destination.”
Council Secretary Mary Knight, who was strongly opposed to the Coke idea this winter, said on Tuesday she had come around to DeLuca’s Eagle’s Landing idea for the tower with an exception.
“We started talking about this in February and I was very much against the golf ball design,” she said. “I was against this at first, but I started to agree with him. I would like to see the Ocean City logo on there as part of the design though.”
Councilman Matt James said he, too, could support the Eagle’s Landing concept for the tower, but wanted to see true renderings and cost estimates for all of the alternatives before making a decision.
“I’d like to see alternative options,” he said. “I would like to see the cost for this option and the costs of the other options.”
Councilman John Gehrig was most fiercely against the Eagle’s Landing design and grilled DeLuca on his motivation for pushing it forward.
“What is the purpose of this?” he said. “Why Eagle’s Landing? You want to market a town business on a town asset, but Eagle’s Landing has competitors and they are also our partners.”
Gehrig pointed to the town’s long-standing relationship with Golf Getaway, which markets package plans for each of the area’s 16 courses and not just Eagle’s Landing. He said it would be an affront to the other courses who wouldn’t have the same opportunity to get their logos on a water tower.
“Maybe it’s a question of responsibility,” he said. “We compete with our partners by putting our asset on a water tower, but this is not an opportunity those partners have. We’re saying it’s okay to market a town business on a town asset.”
Gehrig also said most golfers had already made their plans and booked their packages before arriving in the resort, lessening the impact of the Eagle’s Landing design on the water tower.
“When people come over the Route 90 Bridge for golf, they have already booked their packages,” he said. “For everybody else, it wouldn’t be a call to action. People are unlikely to say I feel like golfing because I saw that water tower. They might not even have their clubs or shoes with them.”
DeLuca, however, explained putting the Eagle’s Landing logo on the water tower might not be an immediate call to action, but rather a subliminal message repeated every time someone comes across the bridge into Ocean City that would plant the Eagle’s Landing seed in their head. He also called out Gehrig somewhat for his comment about not having clubs or shoes.
“It’s not just a first impression,” he said. “People will see this every time they come across the bridge and the message will be ingrained, not only for Eagle’s Landing, but for all of the courses in the area. You’re obviously not a golfer because you would always have your clubs with you.”
Gehrig, however, continued to push the government interference with private business angle.
“It’s an unfair competition,” he said. “There’s no other way around it. This is an unfair business practice and it’s borderline unethical. I think it is overreach by the government and I strongly suggest we don’t go this route.”
Gehrig also pointed to predicted struggles in future town budgets as a means to at least consider the value of putting a commercial logo and design on the water tower.
“We’re worried about next year’s budget and we’re not even going to consider what this is worth?” he said. “I just think this is a huge, gigantic mistake.”
Councilman Wayne Hartman agreed with Gehrig on the government overreach concept, but also said he couldn’t support the Eagle’s Landing idea for a different reason.
“I don’t like government competing with private enterprise,” he said. “The concern for me is the water fund paying for the paint job. It’s an enterprise fund. I would hate to see my water bill go up to pay for a water tower paint job.”
Hartman also said he wished the town had given more than just lip service to the Coca-Cola idea. While those discussions were very preliminary, it was believed at the time Coke could have contributed as much as $160,000 to the overall $200,000 price to repaint the tower.
“I’m still a little disappointed we didn’t even consider the Coca-Cola offer,” he said. “For us to totally disregard what could have been a six-figure opportunity, what’s the difference between a family-friendly beverage and a golf course?”
Councilman Dennis Dare pointed out the town made concerted efforts decades ago to expand the season in the resort, expanding the convention center and creating offseason special events, and golf was a big part of that, especially the creation of the world-class Eagle’s Landing course.
“We have created a golf destination here,” he said. “Our goal was to create a resort quality golf course and we’ve done that. Talk about competition? We created this golf destination with Eagle’s Landing and now there are 16 courses in the area thriving.”
Dare pointed out the town’s initial marketing efforts in publications such as Golf Magazine targeted the New York and New Jersey markets. The familiar slogan was “close to home, close to perfect” and was successful in bringing golfers from those areas for offseason packages initially, but has now resulted in those same golfers returning for summer vacations with their families.
“We used to see those license plates in the spring and fall only, and now we’re seeing them all over town throughout the summer,” he said. “They came here to golf and saw this was a clean, safe and inexpensive resort and now they bring their families for vacation. I look at this as not just advertising Eagle’s Landing, but golf in general.”
However, Gehrig said the notion that painting the Eagle’s Landing design on the water tower would somehow benefit all of the other courses in the area was a failed one.
“That is just a huge reach,” he said. “To say putting Eagle’s Landing on that tower will benefit Rum Pointe, for example, is just outrageous. That’s a wild reach.”
Mayor Rick Meehan stayed decidedly at arms-length during the debate which will ultimately be decided by the council, but gave a brief history lesson on Eagle’s Landing’s contribution to the growth of golf in the area.
“When Eagle’s Landing was first built, golf began to grow and Golf Getaway was established,” he said. “We didn’t pay dues to Golf Getaway because they knew the advertising that Eagle’s Landing did benefitted golf to such a degree that we fulfilled our role in promoting golf in this area, which benefitted all of the course in the area. I think they would tell you they still feel that way.”
After considerable debate, the council voted unanimously to have staff prepare true renderings and cost estimates for each of the options on the table including the traditional blue designs, a replication of the downtown beach ball design and the Eagle’s Landing golf ball and tee design. Based on the discussion, it appeared DeLuca likely would have had the votes for the Eagle’s Landing design if he had pushed that motion, but the discussion will continue another day.