Ocean City, Pier Operator Reach Franchise Agreement Extension

Ocean City, Pier Operator Reach Franchise Agreement Extension
Pier franchise holder Charles "Buddy" Jenkins and Mayor Rick Meehan are pictured dropping lines in the ocean during the reopening of the pier in May of 2014 after Hurricane Sandy badly damaged it. File Photo

OCEAN CITY — An agreement has been reached to extend the existing franchise agreement for the Ocean City Fishing Pier, ensuring the iconic and historic amusement park will remain in place for the next three decades-plus.

For decades, Charles “Buddy” Jenkins and his Synepuxent Pier and Improvement Company has held the franchise for the historic pier that juts eastward from the Boardwalk at Wicomico Street. The iconic structure has been a fixture on the downtown landscape for over a century and a source of memories for families for just as long. With Jenkins’ current franchise set to expire in 10 years, he has reached an agreement with the town of Ocean City to extend the new and improved deal for another 25 years.

With 10 years remaining on the existing franchise, extending the franchise agreement for another 25 years ensures the iconic pier, amusement park and associated pier building with its iconic businesses such as Thrasher’s and Kohr Brothers, for example, will remain in place for another 35 years. Mayor Rick Meehan announced the franchise extension on Monday and it will start to be formalized by resolution at the next council meeting on Monday.

“This is very exciting,” he said. “This will make a difference for Ocean City for years to come. Back in May 2018, Mr. Jenkins met with the Mayor and Council expressing a desire to extend the pier franchise. He has 10 years left on the current franchise agreement and with that relatively short timeframe, it is difficult to validate significant investments and expenditures on the pier.”

For his part, Jenkins called the new agreement a “win-win-win for the tourism industry, the taxpayers of Ocean City and the families who have and will continue to make fond memories in Ocean City.”

Jenkins said the new agreement has been the result of about a dozen meetings over the last year between his company representatives and city elected and appointed officials.

The benefits of extending the agreement are significant for both parties. For Jenkins, a 25-year extension means he can confidently continue to make investments and improvements to the pier and his Jolly Roger amusement park and other amenities.

“The revised ordinance will allow for the continual, ongoing and increasingly substantial repairs and maintenance of the property due to climate conditions,” Jenkins said. “It allows for the long-term planning and capital investment necessary to constantly improve the rides, shows and attractions that are so important for the preservation of fond memories and nostalgia, which are essential to Ocean City’s tourism future.”

For the town of Ocean City, the extension ensures continuity for what is arguably the most iconic image of Ocean City. It also comes with a significant financial component. Currently, the franchisee pays around $37,000 per year in municipal taxes along with roughly another $43,000 for reserved parking at the Inlet adjacent to the franchised area. The company also pays state amusement taxes that don’t necessarily trickle back to Ocean City.

Meehan said the franchise agreement reached with Jenkins and the company includes a one-time, up front payment of $1 million. In addition, when the new agreement starts in 2030, it will include an annual payment of $250,000 to the town in that first year. In each year after, interest will be compounded annually at 3%, meaning the annual payment to the town will grow exponentially to over $500,000 by the end of the 25-year deal.

The franchise extension also provides a dedicated funding source for maintaining Ocean City’s iconic wooden Boardwalk for years to come. Ocean City is currently planning a complete re-decking of the wooden Boardwalk at an estimated cost of around $1.2 million. Over the next 35 years, it is estimated the Boardwalk would have to be re-decked four more times at a total cost of around $9 million.

Meehan said the revenue generated by the pier franchise extension would be dedicated to preserving and maintaining the Boardwalk, eliminating the need to pay for improvements from the town’s general fund or from the bond market.

“The benefit to the town is two-fold,” he said. “First, extending the franchise ensures the continued operation of that pier as an amusement park. Secondly, all revenue generated from the franchise agreement will be dedicated to preserving, repairing and re-decking our nostalgic wooden Boardwalk for years to come. We talked about re-decking the Boardwalk during strategic planning and the challenge has always been funding. From this point forward, funding is in place to preserve that wooden Boardwalk at no expense to the taxpayers.”

Perhaps most importantly, the franchise extension continues a partnership with Jenkins and the Synepuxent Pier and Improvement Company that has worked seamlessly for decades and preserves and maintains Ocean City’s most iconic amenity.

“We’ve been very fortunate,” Meehan said. “The pier has been kept in excellent condition all of these years. There have been times in recent years when the pier has been damaged during storms and on every occasion, he has rebuilt it and had it up and running again by the next summer season. It’s an amenity millions of people and generations of families have enjoyed for years and it’s extremely important that the iconic pier remains an amusement pier.”

Meehan explained after Jenkins approached the town about extending the pier franchise agreement, a sub-committee of sorts including Council Secretary Mary Knight and Councilmen Dennis Dare and John Gehrig worked tirelessly with the company to hammer out a new agreement.

“They met 11 different times over the last year or so,” he said. “They talked about a lot of issues from the damage to the pier to the operating costs and expenses. He has invested $1 million in refurbishing the iconic Ferris wheel alone with his own money. His investment in that pier and amusement park is significant.”

Meehan said Jenkins and his Jolly Roger amusement parks both on the pier and in the midtown area have come to symbolize Ocean City for generations of visitors.

“We’ve spent a lot of time and energy on this,” he said. “This franchisee has run a first-class operation. Jolly Roger’s has their own brand within Ocean City and is a fixture here. We want to maintain that iconic operation and this agreement allows that to happen.”

Pier History Revisited

The pier was first completed in 1907 and was considered a big achievement for the developing resort. It had been three years in the making and was developed by a group of local investors who organized the Ocean City Pier and Improvement Company. The company’s president was William Taylor, so the structure was often referred to as Taylor’s Ocean Pier in its early days.

In December 1925, a huge fire destroyed the pier and three blocks of the downtown area. and from the beginning, everything went wrong. After several days of bitter cold weather, the fire hydrants in the downtown area were frozen. To get water to fight the blaze, firefighters cut holes in the ice and pumped water from the Sinepuxent Bay. When the fire was finally extinguished, the heavy losses included the pier, two of the resort’s earliest hotels, the Atlantic and the Seaside, along with two blocks of the Boardwalk, Dolle’s Candyland and the Casino Theater.

In June 1929, the new Sinepuxent Pier and Improvement Company was organized with Salisbury lawyer Clarence Whealton as its president and the company obtained a new franchise from the town of Ocean City to complete a new 700-foot ocean fishing pier on the site of the old one destroyed by the 1925 fire. At the base of the pier, the famous Pier Ballroom was constructed. It’s the same building that exists today although it has undergone changes over the decades.

During the height of its popularity, the Pier Ballroom was one of the most popular destinations in the resort as revelers danced the night away to Big Band music by Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman.

In 1959, a new pier company took over the franchise and attempted to build amusement concessions across the beach. However, the plan was voted down in a special referendum by city residents. The pier then slipped into years of decline after the controversial referendum vote.

In 1975, Jenkins opened a renovated pier complete with souvenir shops and amusements with the blessing of the Ocean City Council with a project that cost an estimated $1.5 million at that time. Jenkins, whose company obtained a franchise agreement with the town in 1978, an agreement about to be renewed for 25 years, has long since added amusement rides with his Jolly Roger’s park including the iconic giant Ferris wheel.

In February 1979, a prolonged cold winter resulted in huge chunks of ice crushing around 140 feet of the historic pier. Jenkins and the Ocean City Mayor and Council agreed to let it be repaired with its shortened length.

In recent years, the seaward end of the pier has been significantly damaged by storms and hurricanes in 2013, 2014 and 2016, and each time it has been quickly restored by the franchise holder.

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.