OCEAN CITY – How different the White Marlin Open will look next month became clear on Tuesday as organizers said the proposed “satellite” viewing spot downtown at 3rd Street is planned to be the primary venue.
Earlier this summer, in an effort to avoid the typical crowds at the host Harbour Island marina grounds, White Marlin Open (WMO) officials pitched the municipal park area on the bayside between 3rd and 4th streets as a satellite viewing area with large viewing screens for the daily weigh-ins and family-friendly concessions and vendors.
Madelyne Rowan, who organizes the annual event with her family, told the Mayor and Council this week the WMO is really pushing the 3rd Street waterfront park area as the primary venue for this year’s event.
“Third Street is our goal,” she said. “People will still go to 14th Street, but we want to direct them to the venue downtown. Being able to move people from 14th Street to 3rd Street would be helpful.”
There were two issues related to the WMO on Tuesday’s work session agenda. In the past, the town has provided a shuttle service during the WMO from the parking lot at the convention center to Harbour Island, where parking is at a premium in the bayside residential areas. Last week, the Transportation Committee voted to send a recommendation to the full Mayor and Council to suspend the shuttle this year considering the COVID-19 impacts on the tournament and the anticipated shrinkage in crowd sizes.
However, Rowan on Tuesday asked the Mayor and Council to consider continuing the shuttle service from the convention center parking areas, not to 14th Street, but rather to the 3rd Street venue.
“We have requested that shuttle service to 3rd Street,” she said. “That will be critical for getting people down to that venue. We’re drastically reducing the number of people at Harbour Island.”
Mayor Rick Meehan, a Harbour Island resident, although he does not serve on the community’s board, asked Rowan just how much the crowd size 14th Street would be diminished this year. Rowan said the intent was to reduce the crowd at Harbour Island to a quarter of what it typically is.
“We’re looking at 25%,” she said. “We know we have a large number of residents and boat owners in the community that will take up a lot of the capacity. We’re very sensitive to the fact it’s private property.”
The plan from the beginning has been to issue a limited number of wristbands each day at Harbour Island to control crowd sizes. The wristbands would be color-coded and would change each day. When pressed, Rowan said it was uncertain just how many wristbands would be issued, but said the number would be determined each day by the number of people who show up and how closely they are observing the social distancing and masking requirements.
“Every day we’ll see how the grounds look,” she said. “We’ll allow some people to come in, but if they aren’t social distancing and aren’t wearing masks, we’ll cut it off. It will be monitored very closely.”
Rowan said the 25% capacity figure for Harbour Island was even lower than what was first anticipated.
“We were hoping for 50%, then we thought 50% was too many,” she said. “Now, we’re looking at 25% max. We have a great venue at 3rd Street that will allow people to spread out.”
Meehan explained the reasoning behind the transportation committee’s vote to discontinue to shuttle service from the convention center to 14th Street this year.
“We’re down in our overall level of deployment,” he said. “We’re trying to be proactive with social distancing and we’re trying to not encourage too many people to congregate at that venue. The White Marlin Open has already said the numbers at Harbour Island will be dramatically reduced.”
Council President Lloyd Martin said the regular bus service could still pick people up at the convention center and deliver them to 3rd Street without a dedicated shuttle.
“The concern at 3rd Street is the parking,” he said. “People can still park at the convention center and hop on our regular bus service to 3rd Street without a dedicated shuttle. We might need to add deployment on those days, but that could be a good compromise.”
Meehan said there could be confusion about just where fans should go to watch the WMO and pushed for continuing the shuttle, but to 3rd Street instead of 14th Street.
“If we’re having the event, we need to do something, whether that’s more deployment for our regular service, or providing a dedicated shuttle,” he said. “A lot of people are going to go to 14th Street like they have always done and that’s going to cause a lot of pain for the event and pain for the visitors. They are going to get off at 14th Street, find out they can’t get into the event, then have to go back and find another bus to take them to 3rd Street. I think we should have a shuttle from the convention center to 3rd Street.”
Councilman Dennis Dare pointed out a couple of concerns that were raised during the transportation committee meeting last week, not the least of which is federal CARES Act funding in support of municipal transit systems suffering losses because of COVID-19. Under Gov. Larry Hogan’s current executive order, mass transit is intended to provide essential service only, and Dare questioned if providing a shuttle to an event could run afoul of that directive.
“The first thing is, the municipal lot at 4th Street is available right across the street,” he said. “Public Works has already reported it has not been full this summer. The second thing is the governor’s executive order still directs mass transit for essential use only. If we do a shuttle, that seems to violate the executive order. That might jeopardize our eligibility for federal CARES Act funding.”
The Mayor and Council ultimately tabled the discussion about the WMO shuttle proposal until Monday’s regular meeting to allow transportation department officials to determine just what impact it might have on the federal CARES funding.
The second issue on Tuesday’s work session agenda related to the WMO was the organizer’s request for the exclusive use of eight on-street parking spaces along 3rd Street during the event for vendors, technicians and other tournament officials. Council Secretary Mary Knight made a motion to approve the request for the eight on-street, non-metered parking spaces, pointing out the town should accommodate the WMO’s attempt to make 3rd Street the primary venue.
“I think we need to do everything we can to make this a success at 3rd Street,” she said.
Dare pointed out the intent of the 3rd Street venue was to allow fans and enthusiasts access to the waterfront to watch the participating boats returning to Harbour Island and questioned if closing Chicago Avenue had been considered. Chicago Avenue runs along the bayfront between 3rd and 4th streets and has 12 metered parking spaces in that area.
“There is no mention in here about closing Chicago Avenue between 3rd and 4th Streets,” he said. “If we’re going to use those ballfields as a venue, people are going to want to go to the waterfront and watch the boats pass by.”
Special Events Director Frank Miller explained he had already had conversations with WMO officials about that possibility but had not planned to discuss it on Tuesday.
“It would be valuable to have Chicago Avenue closed,” he said. “It is the desire of the White Marlin Open to do that. There are 12 parking spaces along there that could be used and it might eliminate the need for the eight spaces they have requested on 3rd Street.”
Rowan said if Chicago Avenue was closed off and those 12 parking spaces became available, it would eliminate the need for the eight spaces on 3rd Street with one exception.
“We do have one box truck and we wouldn’t want that on Chicago Avenue because it would block the view,” she said. “We could reduce the number we have requested if we could get one on 3rd Street for the box truck.”
The council endorsed the idea of closing off Chicago Avenue in that area to accommodate the WMO, but will need to bring it back on Monday in the form of an amended