OCEAN CITY — Sunfest as residents and visitors have grown to know and love over the years remains a long-shot for this year, but a modified SunLITE event with vendors spread out in venues all over the south end of the town could be a viable replacement this fall.
On Tuesday, Mayor and Council members resumed their conversation about the fate of Sunfest in October. Last week, the town’s elected officials debated the merits of keeping the fall signature event in the midst of a pandemic despite the recent stabilization in some of the key metrics.
The decision was tabled last week in order to see more guidance from state officials and the county health department and to see if the contract with the tent vendor could be reworked in order to save some money on what will be a revenue-challenged event this year for all stakeholders. During Tuesday’s work session, Special Events Director Frank Miller presented some new information that has arisen since the council met last week.
For example, the state’s Attorney General issued interpretative guidance late last week that would not allow for any music performances of any kind. Last week, Miller held out hope that even if the major headline acts during Sunfest were scrapped, there could be some local musician performances during the event spread out in open-air venues at the Inlet lot. In addition, the county health department has not yet issued any clear guidance on the food tent.
“Last Thursday, the Attorney General issued interpretative guidance for live performances,” he said. “We are not allowed to have headline performers or even the smaller, local acts. The food tent is still under review with no definitive guidance.”
With no live entertainment and the popular food tent still in question, Miller said even if Sunfest is held in a modified format with no large tents, but more smaller tents spread out over a larger area on the Inlet lot as he proposed last week, it would not resemble the same event locals and residents have grown accustomed to over four-plus decades. He also said the target demographics would be affected by the changes.
“We will lose much of our 50-plus crowd who are still not comfortable with large gatherings,” he said. “With no live music, there is little draw for our younger crowd. The final outcome would be a fragment of what it usually is.”
Ultimately, the decision to hold or postpone Sunfest during the challenging COVID-19 season falls on the Mayor and Council, but Miller said with no live music and potentially no food tent, it would be shell of its former self.
“Do we really want to force this event to exist on two of eight cylinders?” he said. “The cost to produce this event is high and the potential income is unstable.”
Miller recommended postponing Sunfest in its traditional format for 2020 and begin planning for a robust event next year. He also presented an alternative that could be put together in the month-and-a-half or so until the scheduled event in the first weekend in October.
“The recommendation is to look to the return of Sunfest as we know it in 2021,” he said. “One option is an outright cancellation. The second option is to postpone Sunfest as we know it and move forward with a test model for 2020. We should only push forward with this if it is in the town’s best interest.”
Instead, the SunLITE concept pitched on Tuesday by Miller would include the arts and crafts vendors who have already signed up for 2020 and have expressed an interest in still coming this fall in a different format spread out at outdoor venues throughout town. There would still be some activity at the Inlet lot, but many of the vendors would set up shop at different areas around downtown including Sunset Park and the 3rd Street park, for example, among others.
“The concept is a patch quilt-built event,” he said. “There is a new opportunity at a reduced cost for a pet-friendly event with spaced vendor encampments. The Inlet lot would not be the main event site, but only a hub for the other areas of the event spread out through town. The concept is to have smaller vendor encampments spread out through the south end of town. It would kind of have a treasure hunt feel.”
The writing appears to be on the wall for the traditional Sunfest event this October, although it wasn’t officially scrapped on Tuesday. The Mayor and Council appeared to embrace the SunLITE concept for this year as a test model, but were not ready to give Miller his marching orders just yet on Tuesday. Councilman Matt James pointed out the OC Air Show is set for this weekend, which could provide clearer guidance on the town’s ability to host a large event while maintaining the governor’s directives on social distancing and large crowd sizes.
“Can we push this off one more week?” he said. “Let’s see what the air show does in terms of crowds and the distancing. The air show is our first major event. If it goes well, it could make this decision easier.”
Councilman Dennis Dare said he supported the SunLITE concept presented by Miller on Tuesday and suggested some of the vendors could be staged along the south end of the Boardwalk.
“We’re not running the Boardwalk tram this year,” he said. “Maybe we can allow vendors to set up on the concrete tram lane portion of the Boardwalk from 4th Street down. They could be spread out and we can keep them socially-distanced. The Boardwalk businesses would benefit as well.”
Councilman Mark Paddack pointed out the importance of Sunfest as a major fall attraction for visitors and a celebration of the end of another summer season for locals.
“This concept of SunLITE provides with an opportunity to stay in the game,” he said. “The tourists come for this event and the local residents just love it. I want to see what happens with the air show as well.”
Paddack made a motion to postpone Sunfest until 2021 and release the vendors from their contracts and refund their deposits for this year. The vendors who had signed up would keep their assigned spaces in 2021 without fear of losing their positions or end up back on the waiting list.
The discussion of the SunLITE concept would be moved to Monday night in order to see who the air show works out this weekend. That motion failed with a 2-4 vote. Instead, the council reached a consensus to resume the conversation next Monday night with the same basic conditions in place, but with Sunfest still possibly on the table. However, Sunfest as it has been enjoyed for 45 years certainly appears to be a long shot but there appears to be strong support for the modified SunLITE concept.
Mayor Rick Meehan agreed with the motion and said he also supported the SunLITE concept.
“I support the motion,” he said. “As Frank said, without live music and potentially without a food tent, this event would be running on two of eight cylinders. We shouldn’t be promoting events that encourage large crowd to gather anyway. This isn’’t going to be the event we’re used to seeing, but we can present an event that is safe and spread out.”