Special Event Funding Requests Sparks Policy Debate; New Obstacle Course Run Planned

Special Event Funding Requests Sparks Policy Debate; New Obstacle Course Run Planned
File photo by Chris Parypa

OCEAN CITY — Resort officials this week approved funding for two special events this fall and next winter, but not before a larger debate about providing subsidies to pre-existing or recurring events.

The Mayor and Council had before them Tuesday a request from the Tourism Advisory Board (TAB) to provide funding for a Spartan obstacle course run planned for October Boardwalk and Shore Craft Beer’s “Love on Tap” event planned for late February. Each year, Ocean City grants approximately $300,000 to TAB to provide seed money after careful review to special events that provide mutual benefit to the town and a positive return on investment.

At Tuesday’s meeting, TAB recommended to the council the city provide $12,000 in funding to Shore Craft Beer’s Love on Tap event at the convention center on Feb. 29, 2020. Shore Craft Beer is moving the event to the convention center this year and the expectation is the larger venue will allow the event to grow from 850 attendees this year to as many as 2,000 next year.

TAB also recommended an $80,000 investment in the Spartan obstacle course run in downtown area scheduled for Oct. 5. Spartan, a national sports event company based in Boston, has selected Ocean City for one of its popular obstacle course races that is expected to attract 3,000 to 4,000 participants.

Both recommended events appeared to be headed toward approval until Councilman John Gehrig initiated a debate on the policy for providing TAB funds for pre-existing events, particularly Shore Craft Beer’s Love on Tap event in February. While he fully supported the event, Gehrig questioned if it was appropriate to provide additional funding for a pre-existing event.

“What’s the policy?” he said. “The TAB funding used to be for new events. The Shore Beer Fest events are successful and I’m glad about that, I just think we need to discuss what we’re funding. I just don’t want to open up a policy where every special event is coming back looking for funding.”

Shore Craft Beer’s Ann Hillyer pointed out while the February event is pre-existing, the move to the convention center allows it to grow exponentially and there is a cost associated with the move. With a $12,000 investment in TAB funding from the town, the move to the convention center could cause a spike on growth for the event.

“We’re trying to grow this from 850 to 2,000,” she said. “We’re targeting the beer bloggers and inviting them because that can really expand our target market. The only way to get them here is to offer them tickets at the convention center. We can continue to grow organically little by little, but this would allow us to really grow exponentially by promoting this out-of-market.”

Gehrig did not disagree, but questioned if approving the funding for the existing event could open the door to similar requests.

“If we fund every request, I think we might be starting a precedent,” he said. “Look, I think this is a great event, but I think we can provide assistance with the extra space needed to allow the event to grow.”

Mayor Rick Meehan agreed the policy was worth reviewing, but said with the potential growth of an event in late February, the craft beer event could be considered separately.

“It looks like you have a total budget of around $60,000 and you’re looking for $12,000 from the town,” he said. “Because this is taking such a giant leap in growth, we need to look at this on a case-by-case basis. In this case, it sounds like a good investment.”

Gehrig asked for a breakdown on how the town’s contribution would be spent. He pointed out it included such things as decorations at the venue and radio ads and hotel rack cards, for example.

“We used to ask for a budget so we can see what we’re investing in,” he said. “I just don’t want every event coming in and saying I want $8,000 or I want $12,000 because my event is growing.”

Councilman Dennis Dare said the relatively modest investment in the craft beer event could represent a significant return for the town at a time of year when it is needed the most.

“I’m looking at a $12,000 investment in an event that will bring 2,000 people to town in February,” he said. “It’s an economic boon at a time when the businesses that are open really need it. We’re looking at 500 rooms in late February.”

Councilman Tony DeLuca agreed and pointed out the craft beer event could be looked at outside of the hard and fast policy.

“I agree with Dennis,” he said. “This is different. It should be looked at on its own. It’s February and it’s a leap year weekend.”

Gehrig did not disagree with the potential grown benefits for the craft beer event, but reiterated he wanted to better define the policy with TAB expenditures.

“Everything you said is accurate, and if that is the will of the council, I’m perfectly fine with it,” he said. “I just want to make sure we’re following our policies and guidelines and not just arbitrarily approving these things. The policy has been to provide seed money for new events,” he said. “I support this. It’s a great event and I’ll probably buy a ticket. I just think this may have consequences.”

Councilman Mark Paddack said he understood Gehrig’s concerns about the overall policy, but, like his colleagues, pointed out the potential benefits of investing in the pre-existing craft beer event.

“I agree at some point they need to operate on their own, but when I looked at this, I immediately thought it was a no-brainer,” he said. “This is a February event that has the potential to really grow.”

Council Secretary Mary Knight said potentially exposing as many as 2,000 new visitors to Ocean City in the winter was worth the modest investment.

“I know craft beer is extremely popular,” she said. “To have 2,000 people come here and experience Ocean City in February, to experience our restaurants and out nightlife and experience our beautiful hotel rooms is extremely beneficial and a great return on investment. I don’t think we need a blanket policy. I think we can look at this individually.”

Paddack said at some point the council needed to rely on the expertise and advice of TAB.

“The Mayor and Council provide $300,000 to TAB and I’m not going to micromanage it,” he said. “They’re looking to grow this from 850 people to 2,000, and I’m trusting their leadership and prudent review to take it to 2,000.”

Gehrig likened TAB to one of the many other subcommittees that makes recommendations, but does not direct policy, to the Mayor and Council.

“I tend to think of TAB as another subcommittee,” he said. “If the police commission makes a recommendation or the transportation committee makes a recommendation, we don’t just automatically accept it. That’s not how we operate, but that’s what I’m hearing with this.”

In the end, the council voted 6-1, with Gehrig opposed, to approve the TAB allocations for both the Spartan obstacle race in October and the Shore Craft Beer Love on Tap event in late February.

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.