Private Sector Steps Up To Fund Great Inflatable Race; Funding Likely To Keep Event In West OC

Private Sector Steps Up To Fund Great Inflatable Race; Funding Likely To Keep Event In West OC
A participant is pictured trying to conquer a portion of the Great Inflatable Race at a previous destination. Photo by Great Inflatable Race's YouTube site

OCEAN CITY — Some resort officials relaxed their opposition this week to providing funds to a proposed special event planned in West Ocean City, but the private-sector business community has already stepped into the breach.

Last week, the Ocean City Council had before it 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 Great Inflatable Race to West Ocean City on the last Saturday in June. After considerable debate, the council voted unanimously to support the event, but only if it could be moved into Ocean City.

The council’s collective logic for the decision was, among other things, skepticism about the proposed event moving the needle in terms of room-nights in Ocean City, especially with the recent hotel and lodging building boom in West Ocean City. Although not publicly stated, also part of the decision was the simmering feud between Ocean City and Worcester County over issues such as tax differential and the resort providing emergency services to the at-large area of West Ocean City without adequate compensation.

Worcester County Recreation and Parks Director Tom Perlozzo, as a result of the council’s vote, was to go back to the promoter to determine if there was a way to move the event to Ocean City proper.0

The Great Inflatable Race is a roughly two-mile fun run over large, inflatable obstacles. It is tentatively scheduled for Saturday, June 27, at the Seaside Christian Academy, 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 other amenities the resort area has to offer.

However, in the week since the council’s conditional approval, the resort area’s private-sector business community has promised to find the $25,000 share to bring the event to the area in June, whether it was held in Ocean City or in West Ocean City at the Seaside Christian Academy. Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association (OCHMRA) Executive Director Susan Jones on Wednesday confirmed the organization’s board this week agreed to find the funding share for the Great Inflatable Race regardless of which side of the bridge it was held.

“This event is produced all over the country and in locations that are highly desirable, including neighboring Virginia Beach,” she said. “And, it is truly a family event, not one with any motors. Given all of the above, we voted to support the event in whatever fashion is needed, including utilizing rainy day funds. There is potential that if the popularity draws more numbers than the conservative number proposed, the total amount may be less.”

Councilman John Gehrig alluded to the private-sector stepping up to the plate during Tuesday’s meeting. Gehrig prefaced his remarks by referring to the ongoing situation in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where failing infrastructure has led to over 200 million gallons of sewage spilling into waterways and streets in that resort community, killing fish and fouling the environment.

“It’s a disaster of their own doing,” he said. “We talk about spending a lot of money up here, but we’ve proactive with upgrading our infrastructure. This is a reminder of what can happen. If that happens here, we’re out of business.”

Gehrig said Ocean City has been able to avoid situations such as Fort Lauderdale by consistently investing in infrastructure upgrades and public works projects.

“We also have to find a way to fund that and we do that with economic development,” he said. “Last week, we talked about the Great Inflatable Race and supporting it only if it is moved to the island, but they can’t just easily move these events around. We have to do it with partnerships.”

Gehrig’s comments on Fort Lauderdale were a roundabout way to circle back to last week’s discussion of partnering with the county on the Great Inflatable Race. He suggested it was perhaps short-sighted to turn the resort’s back on the partnership over concerns about room-nights being lost to hotels in West Ocean City, or even the larger provincial issues.

He referenced the town’s partnership with Wicomico and Worcester counties on the Mid-Atlantic Amateur Sports Alliance, which among other events brings the highly successful USSSA Eastern World Series softball tournament to the region each year. That event attracts 400 teams and thousands of players from all over the country.

“All we have to do is look at our partnership with Wicomico County on that major softball tournament every summer,” he said. “Around 40% of those room-nights are in Ocean City proper. They drive through Berlin and they drive through West Ocean City to get to Ocean City because this is where they want to be. That’s because our brand is so strong.”

In terms of the Great Inflatable Race, Gehrig said that special event with national appeal has the potential to be equally successful for all partners, but Ocean City is hung up on the location.

“Tom Perlozzo comes to us with an event that solves our problem and we hold his feet to the fire because it’s not in Ocean City,” he said. “This will bring 4,000 people to the area. How much of the pie do we need? Do we really need the whole damn event? He came to us with a great event and we basically sent him packing. Does he even want to do business with us in the future?”

Councilman Mark Paddack said the council last week voted to support the project and the $25,000 share only if the event was moved to Ocean City. He said that point could be moot if the private sector had stepped up.

“We voted to support the event with the caveat it is moved to Ocean City,” he said. “Now, we’re hearing the private sector is going to come up with the $25,000. If they found the funding for it from the private sector to hold it in West Ocean City, that’s great.”

Mayor Rick Meehan was not present during the debate on the Great Inflatable Race last week, but said he understood both sides of the issue.

“I think the council made the right decision to try to get it to come to Ocean City if we’re able to do so,” he said. “I don’t think that should have stopped us from supporting the event if it couldn’t take place in Ocean City.”

Meehan said the town’s requested $25,000 share would result in a substantial return on investment regardless of where the event is held.

“When you talk about the $25,000, the advertising alone that we would get out of that for the Town of Ocean City is considerable,” he said. “People don’t know when they’re watching these events the distinction between Ocean City and West Ocean City. The video alone that will appear in all of our markets in the mid-Atlantic will be worth well more than $25,000 and it will be showcasing a family-oriented event that we’re trying to continue to have here.”

If Ocean City desires to rebrand as a major sports and special events marketing destination, Meehan said partnerships with Worcester and other jurisdictions will be needed.

“If we’re going to have these large events, whether it’s this type of event or athletic tournaments whether it be soccer or softball or whatever, we don’t have the room to have them always right in Ocean City,” he said. “We’re going to have to partner with the county or anybody else in the general area where that makes sense.

Meehan acknowledged the issues with the county on duplicated services and tax differential, for example, but said those issues could be set aside when it came to the greater good.

“I know we talk often about the issues with the county,” he said. “They are big issues that need to be resolved, but we shouldn’t let those things stop us from doing other things that are mutually beneficial. This is one of the first times I can remember when somebody from the county actually came to us to work with the Town of Ocean City and I hope we remain open to taking advantage of that.”

OCHMRA’s Jones said on Wednesday the board’s decision to support the event was based on the belief all members would benefit from having the event.

“Given the national exposure this event offers, our board felt that we should support this event regardless of the proposed location,” she said. “Additionally, our members are in the 21842 zip code, so we do have hotels and restaurant members in West Ocean City.”

Jones said the event will provide plenty of business for everybody.

“In reflecting on potential room-night generation, in years past, the trend was that downtown hotels would fill first, and then trickle up to the north end,” she said. “Now, it seems to go West Ocean City, downtown and then uptown. Additionally, with West Ocean City hotel rates similar to those on the strip, there would potential that visitors would want to be on the beach anyway.”

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.