More Action, Less Talk Needed In Ocean City
(The following is an open letter to Ocean City.)
You are angry. Why wouldn’t you be? You are skeptical. Why shouldn’t you be?
Here we are in another June, with the same problems we have every June — the same except worse, of course.
Every year, we have the same challenges. Every year, our police department works hard to control it. Every year, your elected officials say, “we need to fix it.”
Then next year comes, and we hit the alarm clock like it’s Groundhog Day.
I stumbled across an article from The Dispatch in 2013 — https://mdcoastdispatch.com/2013/08/12/mayor-promises-aggressive-plan-to-address-oc-concerns/
Read it and read this issue’s article regarding this year’s problem. Yes, you should be skeptical about anything your elected officials say (including me).
The purpose of this letter isn’t to provide reasons or excuses. The purpose isn’t to apologize, although I am sorry. All the elected officials love Ocean City. None of us want pain. That said, it is not our job to talk, it is our job to do.
The purpose of this letter is not to criticize any individual elected official. I am not holding myself up higher than anyone else. The purpose of this letter isn’t to just say that “we need a plan.” No, the purpose is to tell you that there is a plan.
The problem is two-pronged: 1. what is in front of us today and 2. the future. Each requires a different course of action.
Today: For the remainder of the current cycle, enforcement is our tool. We ramped up police visibility and enforcement on Saturday and, while there have been incidents, we have been safer. We have received support from the county and state police. We are grateful. We need to continue this full court press until the game is over. Some have called for a curfew and I was also in support of implementing it this past Saturday. That said, I am not a law enforcement expert. A curfew has its own set of challenges and our police chief says that it is not without potential major unintended consequences such as dispersion, spilling out into streets and neighborhoods, difficulty monitoring, decentralization and lack of visibility. It is unfortunate that the problem is on the Boardwalk but, with cameras and police, it is easier to keep our eyes on things. We needed a major change and it happened with a big increase in police visibility. A curfew remains in the back pocket. I have also asked for a daily report to the public so that we can communicate the prior night’s activity. We cannot include sensitive information but, after years of no action by leadership, you deserve to know the facts. It turns out that the facts are actually better than what is cycled through social media.
The Future: So, what do we do about the future? That is not a police enforcement issue. This is where our leadership needs to step up. Anytime I hear that “we need” this or that, I get concerned. Does that mean that we don’t have it? When we say that “we need a plan” or “we need bold action.” What does that mean? Certainly, bold action has been in short supply. The good news is that a plan exists. All we “need” to do is to choose to act on it. I have shared a plan with elected officials over the last 10 years, well before I was a councilman. I presented this plan in spreadsheet form 18 months ago to the current mayor and council to show in detail how the plan would be paid for, with no tax increases and no funds needed from the General Fund. All funds were to come from a revision to the tourism budget as well as the room tax increase. I pushed hard for the room tax increase and my entire goal was to use a portion of those funds to help pay for economic development and marketing initiatives to replace the unsanctioned motor events and our June problems.
You may have heard me shouting from the rooftops about hiring a business development person. This is a professional salesperson that would go out to our feeder markets and sell. I can’t reveal everything because I don’t want other markets to take our ideas, but the premise of the plan is that we identify opportunities and go sell them directly to the types of customers we want.
Our customer acquisition strategy has been to spend money and then “get what we get.” That has served us well in the past, but life is full of blessings and curses. Times are changing, but we are not changing with them. Good leaders identify the change, look around the next corner and make proactive decisions. We have refused to do this. We think that this road we have been on is comfortable and has served us well so we will just keep going straight. Well, we get to these intersections and continue to get hit by a bus. Yet, we refuse to change. We just get up and keep going straight.
We can’t just rely on the same plan. That leaves us open to the challenges we are experiencing. Like a business would do, we need to 1. identify the customers we want, 2. create products that these customers will want to buy, and 3. go sell it, old school, face to face, guerilla style.
The personal sales effort isn’t to individual households, of course. It is to affinity groups to whom those target markets belong. I have identified four of the groups as A-list prospects. You may have heard me pound the table about youth sports. This is just one example.
I am often labeled the “sports guy” but this market is really just a method to get kids back to Ocean City. Kids means parents. Kids plus parents equal families. Pretty simple formula. Ocean City is close by for many of these families. Kids now play sports and participate in activities year-round. This actually prevents families from taking Ocean City vacations. So, let’s go sell and use sports to bring them here. The more of these guests we have, the less availability we have for guests who do not respect our town.
Further, if city leadership has a cogent plan, then the community will support it and businesses will participate. If the businesses see that they have another market to rent to, one that is more profitable, then many will get on board and participate. We can then form a “Better Ocean City Hospitality Partnership” where these properties sign a pledge of support. I believe that most businesses will see that taking one step back is worth the investment in order to protect and grow Ocean City and the future of their businesses. We can then propel ourselves forward.
Just like the residents, the businesses just need clarity and direction from the city leadership. Business will be a key piece to any plan.
Remember those four A-list groups? One of them directly attacks the June problem. I cannot share it publicly because the idea will get stolen. Our competitors are not utilizing this strategy. It is a market sitting there, waiting to be tapped, if we would just create the product and sell it. We can dominate the market. I can’t promise that it will solve the problem in one year, but if we get a 50% change in the first year, and we have the full complement of officers (supplemented by the county and state police) with a highly visible presence, then our law enforcement will be in a better position to protect the community. If we cut into the problem by another 50% in year two, then 75% of the problem is gone in two years, replaced with families and respectful guests, the type of business we want.
It will work. The mayor and council just need to agree to shift funds and try bold, new ideas. We have not been willing to do it to this point.
In addition to solving June and pop-up event problems, this idea has a variety of other benefits, including providing an immediate return on investment on the expense of hiring the economic development person, new funds to pay for our infrastructure improvements, lower costs to operate as public safety and public works expenses will be reduced, new revenues generated will keep property taxes low, and more. Plus, we will re-build the Ocean City brand as one of world class. Other markets have fixed similar issues, we can, too and come out better in the end.
I have tried to be a good “team player” and work with the mayor and council to develop and nurture ideas internally. We move at the speed of standing still, so I am shifting tactics. I will be presenting the plan to the public soon. I need to get updated numbers so that they are accurate when I present. Further, COVID-19 has crushed our budget, so shifting funds may be harder. That said, there may be no more pressing need. Again, the funds come from the tourism budget, which is funded by room tax, paid for by our guests.
To be clear, my intent isn’t to claim that I am holier than the mayor or any other council member. None of us want this. We all love Ocean City. We all volunteer countless hours. That said, I will no longer sit back and wait for us to act. Waiting has led to the problems we are experiencing now. Waiting causes the problem to grow.
When I look back to what I could have done to be better the answer is always the same. I could have pushed harder. Pushing harder starts now. Since my voice hasn’t had impact, a new tactic must be used.
I will present the plan to the public and the public can put pressure on the mayor and council. This may be the only thing that motivates us to action.
(The writer is an Ocean City Councilman.)
Pier Deal Not Best For OC
Managing Editor Shawn Soper recent article detailing the City Council’s violation of the Open Meeting Law was very instructive. However, I must take exception to his comment that few would argue with the benefits Ocean City obtained in reaching the new agreement. Here is why.
In order to determine if the $9.1 million was the best deal that could be made by the city over the 35-year life of the agreement, the city should have obtained various bid proposals from different companies. Competitive bidding should have help Ocean City get the best price and contract terms for the pier and allows the town to get the best mix of the products and services. Unfortunately, over the 18 months that the city “secretly” negotiated the franchise agreement extension, the talks were limited to the company currently having the franchise.
The Open Meetings Compliance Board’s opinion stated that its review of the council’s agenda and materials for the Dec. 2, 2019 meeting found that was no competitive bidding was under discussion — no request for competitive proposals or bids was even contemplated.
While direct comparisons may be difficult, other cities have piers similar to the Ocean City pier and have developed alternative approaches. For example, according to a news article in the Daytona Beach News-Journal, the Daytona Beach Pier that is perched over the Atlantic Ocean generated $4 million in rental payments over nine years from Joe’s Crab Shack, a 10,900 square feet restaurant on the pier. Joe’s Crab Shack pays Daytona Beach both base rent and percentage rent that kicks in if a certain revenue threshold is reached each year. The popular seafood eatery has had total annual gross sales ranging from about $8 million to $9 million.
With this type of financial information and other cost and value measures, Ocean City would have been in a better position to compare and contrast the benefits of a range of proposal for using its pier to determine if the $9.1 million was the best available proposal.
Out Of Control Scenes
I am sitting at my home in Flourtown, Pa. on a Monday afternoon and have had time to consider what I witnessed in the past two weekends in Ocean City. It makes me sad to write this letter. I have been at the Ocean Hideaway on 18th Street since 1978. Seen five decades there. When I was a young man, I worked for the Allens at Funcade at 9th street. I have seen a lot on the Boardwalk, beach and ocean.
A few years ago, I was assaulted by a drunk person that I deigned to stop from urinating on the front of our building.
This year I called the police at around 12:30 early Sunday June 7 when there was essentially a riot taking place at 19th street. That activity pales in comparison to what I witnessed on the Internet this past week.
There is literally zero enforcement of any law that I see. Smoking (cigarettes, vapes and plenty of marijuana) takes place freely on the beach and Boardwalk. I watch the police ride up and down past people and they do not say a word. People walk openly on the Boardwalk with alcohol. I understand this has been a challenging season, but it is absolutely out of control.
Many of the people I see walking on the Boardwalk or on the beach appear closer to animals in their behavior than human. What have we become? It starts with actually enforcing the laws on the books. I realize the police have a tremendous amount on their plate.
Uptown or Delaware is starting to look more and more attractive. Ocean City government please do something about this disaster that is taking place in front of you. I have a 9-year-old daughter and we no longer walk on the Boardwalk after dark.
Missed Coverage Disappointing
As a loyal reader of your newspaper I was disappointed to see your lack of coverage of last weekend’s gatherings in our area related to the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota. That killing has led to mostly peaceful demonstrations in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. This has opened up a serious dialogue on race relations in our country and hopefully will result in positive changes in understanding the social dynamics of our nation and community.
I believe your newspaper should have covered the prayer vigil for George Floyd at our local Tyree A.M.E church on the evening of June 5. About 150 people in about 80 cars listened to local religious leaders, both Black and White, speak about the police killing of George Floyd and others and prayed for their families. My wife and I attended the event and were moved by the proceedings. The next day there was a peaceful march on the Boardwalk with, as reported by other reputable local news organizations, nearly 1,000 individuals attending in support of “Black Lives Matter.”
You did have a compelling cover photo of Saturday’s march but no interviews with the organizers of or any of the participants in either event. With all that’s happening nationally, it would be great to hear local viewpoints.
My wife and I appreciate all you do providing coverage of local politics and events. I encourage you to cover our local reactions to national events of this importance.