OCEAN CITY — The desire to rebrand the area as a sports marketing destination collided this week with the provincial divide between Ocean City and Worcester County over a conditional approval for a special event in West Ocean City.
The Ocean City Council had before it on Tuesday a request for a one-time, seed-money contribution of $25,000 to partner with the Worcester County Recreation and Parks Department to bring the popular Great Inflatable Race to West Ocean City on the last Saturday in June. The town’s Tourism Advisory Board, after carefully vetting the event, dubbed the “bounciest fun run on earth,” recommended a $25,000 contribution from the town in support of a larger investment of $40,000 from the county.
The Great Inflatable Race is a roughly two-mile fun run over large, inflatable obstacles. It was tentatively scheduled for Saturday, June 27, on the grounds of the Seaside Christian Academy in West Ocean City, which was chosen because it has the land needed to accommodate the race and because of its proximity to Ocean City, lodging, the beach and Boardwalk and all other amenities the resort area offers.
According to the application, the inaugural event is expected to attract around 2,000 participants along with their families, friends and other spectators, although Worcester County Recreation and Parks Director Tom Perlozzo said that estimate could be conservative. The Great Inflatable Race is already scheduled for 38 other destinations in 2020, including several tourism destination heavyweights, and often draws as many as 4,000 competitors.
While the council embraced the concept, some questioned why Ocean City was being asked to help fund an event outside the resort. Perlozzo explained while the actual race would be held outside city limits, Ocean City would stand to gain substantially from room nights, heads in beds and backsides in restaurant seats.
“The objective is for them to stay in Ocean City on the weekend before July 4th,” he said. “This particular event is certainly the correct image and demographic for Ocean City. The last time I checked, Ocean City is in Worcester County. This is what we want to accomplish.”
TAB President Steve Pastusak said the Great Inflatable Race has a huge following and bringing it to the resort area could represent a coup of sorts.
“The Great Inflatable Race has 83,000 followers on Facebook,” he said. “It’s such a well-run organization. Think of it as the Spartan Race, but for those a little less fit. This is run really well just like that organization.”
The Spartan Race brought around 3,.500 competitors to Ocean City last fall along with an in-kind number of friends, family members and spectators. Perlozzo explained the requested $25,000 from Ocean City would be seed money to help ensure the Great Inflatable Race comes to the area and grows on the success of that first year.
“Our intention is not to come back before TAB after this first year for this event,” he said. “The vision is for this to be a self-sustaining event.”
While the council, which was short-handed on Tuesday with the absence of Council President Lloyd Martin and Councilman Tony DeLuca, embraced the concept, the majority had trouble getting past the philosophical idea of lending financial support to an event outside city limits.
“We’re elected by the people of Ocean City,” said Councilman Dennis Dare. “We’re not the Chamber of Commerce, the HMRA and we’re not TAB. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great event. But why not in Ocean City?”
Perlozzo said holding the race within Ocean City was explored at least cursorily perhaps on the beach or at Northside Park, but logistically, the Seaside Academy in West Ocean City made the most sense in the inaugural year.
“We looked at the space needed and the best option right now is the Seaside Christian Academy,” he said. “Northside Park will more than likely have softball and lacrosse going on that weekend. Northside Park is probably booked, which is a good thing.”
Perlozzo said he understood the council’s concern about spending taxpayer money on an event outside city limits, but emphasized the potential benefit outweighed the risk. He pointed out the county was on the hook for $40,000 to help bring the Great Inflatable Race to Ocean City.
“I certainly understand your concerns,” he said. “We can reach back out to the promoter about the beach if that’s what you want to do. The intent is to drive people into Ocean City the week before the Fourth of July. We’re trying to capture that revenue. The majority of the out-of-town visitors will stay in Ocean City. I think 2,000 is a conservative estimate, but I’d rather over-deliver. It could be more like 4,000.”
Council Secretary Mary Knight referenced the success of the Spartan Race, which was held on the Boardwalk and throughout the downtown area.
“I think you’d have a lot more people if they were running on the beach instead of racing at the school in West Ocean City,” she said. “I was at the Spartan race and people really loved being in Ocean City.”
Councilman Mark Paddack said hosting the event in West Ocean City was a deal-breaker for him.
“I really love this idea,” he said. “To get my vote, it’s going to need to be in Ocean City. I just see those hotel rooms in West Ocean City filling up. People are coming to Ocean City in the last weekend in June whether this event is here or not. I love it, it’s a great idea, but to get my vote it needs to be in Ocean City.”
Councilman Matt James said he has doubts about the financial return from the event scheduled for the front edge of the peak season.
“I don’t think we need a lot of help with hotel rooms on a Saturday in late June,” he said. “I like the event, I just don’t see any financial benefit for Ocean City.”
Meanwhile, Councilman John Gehrig, who has been a staunch advocate for rebranding the resort area as a sports marketing destination, said the Great Inflatable Race is precisely the type of event that will help Ocean City, and Worcester County, get there.
“We need to decide who we want to be,” he said. “Like Spartan, this is a national and even international brand and it would be nice to be associated with that. Look at some of the host sites. It would be nice to add Ocean City to that list.”
Gehrig said the debate was less about the event in particular, and more about the long-simmering feud between Ocean City and Worcester over political issues such as tax differential and the cost of providing services in unincorporated areas.
“At some point, this body needs to get over the city versus county mindset,” he said. “We need to partner with the county on things like this. You know who doesn’t care about that? Visitors. Visitors don’t care about some invisible line on a bridge. The expectation is to change our brand, to get rid of some of events and bring in others that match our brand, and we’re going to let that get away because of an invisible line on the bridge.”
James pointed out the rift was more than boundary lines and hotel rooms on opposite sides of the bridge.
“The mayor and the fire chief were just in Snow Hill talking about providing emergency services in West Ocean City,” he said. “It’s not just about room nights and people in restaurants. It boils down to West Ocean City versus Ocean City in my mind.”
Paddack reemphasized the race would need to be held in Ocean City to get his support.
“How long has this West Ocean City versus Ocean City thing been going on?” he said. “If the event was in town, they will stay in Ocean City, not West Ocean City. I think it’s a great event and I’m happy the county is working with partnering with Ocean City. It just needs to be in town to get my vote.”
For his part, Perlozzo said partnerships are needed to bring in large regional events, not just from a financial standpoint, but from a logistical standpoint as well.
“I understand and appreciate the philosophical discussion,” he said. “When I go out to recruit an event, there aren’t always the amenities needed in that host community, so we look for partnerships. We have an opportunity to bring USA Volleyball here. Do I want to put that in Snow Hill?”
Perlozzo said his only motivation was to bring an event of the caliber of the Great Inflatable Race to the region for the benefit of all of the partners.
“I want to capture this event,” he said. “I want to get them here and keep them here. I don’t want to let this one get away. I understand the political side of it, I’m just trying to do the job for all of us.”
While stopping short of calling the rift between Ocean City and the county just petty differences, Gehrig said those issues need to be set aside from time to time for the greater good.
“We’re not going to be a sports destination if everything has to be held within the borders of Ocean City,” he said. “This is one small piece of a much larger puzzle, but this is symbolic of a larger issue. I hope we’re not saying if this isn’t in Ocean City then we’re out. I’m hoping that’s not the case.”
Dare reiterated he was having trouble justifying spending tax money for an event outside the county.
“I’m not representing the members of the Chamber of Commerce up here,” he said. “I’m representing the taxpayers. The tourists might not know where that line is, but our residents and property owners know they get a tax bill from Ocean City every year. I love the event, just bring it into town.”
Gehrig said that thinking was short-sighted and his motivation was growing the entire area as a sports marketing destination, even at the cost of losing potential votes.
“You mention taxpayers who put us in office,” he said. “I’m not afraid of not getting re-elected in November. We can look back at Feb. 11 and say this is our mindset. This type of thinking has led to our problems. We’ve been fighting about tax differential for decades. Maybe its time to try different strategies. It’s okay to have partners.”
It’s important to note Gehrig’s private company has a small role in the proposed event in terms of providing technical support for marketing. For that reason, he briefly considered recusing himself from the pending vote. Instead, he vowed to donate any potential gain from the event to youth sports and other charities, which would allow him to vote.
James said his position was less about the simmering feud with the county and more about the simple economics of subsidizing an event in West Ocean City on one of the bigger weekends of the year in the resort.
“I’m all for new ideas, I just don’t think we’re going to see any benefit for our $25,000 on a Saturday in late June,” he said. “People are going to stay in hotels just a mile from the event. That’s just how I feel about it.”
Perlozza emphasized he merely did not want to let an event with the size and stature of the Great Inflatable Race to get away and vowed to work with the promoter on an alternative location within Ocean City.
“My intent is to bring a great event here,” he said. “These things don’t come up very often. I will go back to the promoter and work on finding a way to bring this into Ocean City.
The council voted 5-0 to approve the town’s $25,000 contribution contingent on the event being moved into Ocean City’s city limits.