Ocean City has faced several tough decisions since March, but an easy call to make soon is to shut down its fall marketing campaign and bank those dollars planned for next spring.
During last week’s Tourism Commission meeting, a frank conversation was had about continuing forward with the originally planned $480,000 marketing campaign of “Let’s Keep Summer Going.” Along with this campaign, two other options were discussed last week. One consideration pitched was to not allocate any money to marketing this fall and let the year play out without advertising visiting the resort. A hybrid approach reduced the campaign price tag to $280,000 and included only digital marketing efforts.
Acting Tourism Director and Communications Manager Jessica Waters summed up the choice saying, “We have the opportunity to advertise in the fall, but there’s a lot to consider. With the COVID restrictions still in place and the staffing issues for a lot of businesses, we can do nothing, we can advertise in all of our mediums or we can just go digital. Do we want to save the $480,000 for the spring? There are just a lot of uncertainties.”
Though it’s always sound policy to review all options, it would be foolish for Ocean City to market this fall. It’s counterproductive to the realities of the current climate and concerns about what’s looming in the fall to spend money encouraging people to make vacationing plans. Many business owners I have been speaking with lately have immediate plans to scale down their options after Labor Day. This summer has been a bear. Though there has been business, everything has been difficult, thanks to staffing issues, concerns over positive tests among personnel and cranky, entitled visitors who often become abusive. Some business are planning to be open only on weekends, while others, especially restaurants, might just shut down operations when the weather turns because 50% of inside dining is not going to cut it. Ocean City would be wise to save this money and craft a special marketing program revolving around a “welcome back to the beach” type of campaign in the early spring months.
Ocean City Councilman Matt James, whose family operates the Carousel Group Hotels, put it well. “My feeling is let’s lick our wounds for 2020 and get ready for 2021,” he said. “I think we should regroup and have a really robust program ready for 2021.”
In the end, the commission recommended not spending the money in the fall, but the full Mayor and Council has an opportunity to weigh in first.
While officials were not willing to go on the record to explain in detail the removal of the town’s former administrative director last September, it’s become clear in recent months Berlin’s elected officials were either deliberately kept in the dark on certain things or were not attuned enough to the business at hand. It’s likely a combination of both.
Former Town Administrator Laura Allen was fired last September for undisclosed reasons. Mayor Gee Williams at the time said, “what was necessary was due to multiple issues.” What was known was the relationship had soured quickly and town decision makers had lost faith in her. The termination, which came about 20 months before her contract expired, cost the town about $68,000, which amounted to about three months of pay and accumulated vacation time.
In the months since, it’s become evident the council was kept in the dark on far too many matters, including the town’s finances as well as certain aspects of the chemical spill at the beleaguered Heron Park. It was always known transparent handling of the park disaster was part of the problem, but over the last month it’s become clear town officials were not aware of how poorly the town’s finances had been handled until major tax increases were needed to get the town out of a clear financial pickle. The problem had been the transferring of money from the general fund to support the sewer fund. This week’s comments from Mayor Gee Williams confirm once again he and town council members were seemingly unaware of the practice of shifting funds from the operating budget to cover losses. He said this week if officials knew how poorly the funds were performing they would have raised the specific fees.
“If operating expenses are greater than what was budgeted then we can adjust the fees,” the mayor said. “This is something that property taxes has nothing to do with. The fees for each department are supposed to be self-supporting. It was the sewer fund that wasn’t self-supporting. We didn’t know about it for years and when we did we paid a big price, but I think if we have that, if we can see a trend, and that is part of that quarterly report, we can address this before. We can change fees.”
To avoid future blindsides requiring drastic tax and fee increases, the town’s elected officials will now receive quarterly reports detailing budget performance as well as create a reserve policy to ensure the town’s “rainy day” fund is in a healthy position, which the town believes is about 16% of operating expenses.