OCEAN CITY — As expected, resort officials this week cancelled Sunfest in the traditional sense for this fall, but the jury is still out on a proposed scaled-down alternative event.
Last week, the Mayor and Council had an in-depth discussion about the fate of Sunfest in this far from usual 2020 and tabled the decision for another week to see how the crowds complied with social distancing and other directives during last weekend’s air show. The Mayor and Council last week were also introduced to a proposed alternative event for that same first weekend in October called SunLITE.
The brainchild of Special Events Director Frank Miller, SunLITE would include arts and crafts vendors in a different format spread out at various outdoor venues throughout the town. Gone would be the big tents at the Inlet lot with the live performance stage and the food tent. There would still be some activity at the Inlet lot, but many of the arts and crafts vendors would set up shop at different areas around downtown including Sunset Park and the 3rd Street park complex, for example. There was even some discussion of allowing some vendors on the concrete tram-lane portion of the Boardwalk.
The conversation renewed during Monday’s regular session. Right off the bat, Councilman Tony DeLuca made a motion to cancel the traditional Sunfest this year as expected and move forward with Miller’s creative SunLITE concept.
“I’d like to commend Frank for this out-of-the box idea,” he said. “It meets all of the public safety measures in terms of COVID and it’s a great solution.”
While there was a consensus among the elected officials to cancel Sunfest in its traditional format this year, the Mayor and Council still had many questions about the SunLITE concept. There were concerns raised about the town’s investment in the potential event. There were also questions about the town and its private sector partners being able to pull off the event in the six weeks remaining before the scheduled dates. While he couldn’t provide specifics this far out, City Manager Doug Miller said the town’s investment in SunLITE could be in the range of $50,000 to $100,000.
“It will not be inexpensive,” he said. “There will be internal expenses and some expenses related to marketing. We have some hard costs related to our staff in terms of public works and the police department and some of the other departments involved. The vendors will cover the cost of their own space.”
Councilman John Gehrig boiled down the decision to a simple question. Is the juice worth the squeeze? Doug Miller said there are many variables, but with the time constraints and the uncertainties surrounding vendor interest and the private sector’s commitment, the decision was a tough one.
“I think you’re right on the cusp,” he said. “Pulling this off will not come without a lot of effort and expense.”
Gehrig said there is a desire in the private sector to have some sort of event in that first weekend of October, but the business community would have to be a partner to help make it happen and be successful.
“Business owners have called me and asked that we do something and not do away with it altogether,” he said. “We’re going to need business support to make it happen because this is an extreme unknown. It’s a good idea, but we’re going to need some help. We need some help or this will flop. We have limited resources to pull this off in just 35 days.”
“We still need more details,” he said. “We need business support, we need commitments from the vendors, we need a lot of things. It’s going to take a team to pull this off.”
For his part, Councilman Dennis Dare pointed out most of the town’s major special events are planned for a year and despite Frank Miller’s forward thinking and best efforts, hosting the proposed SunLITE event in less than six weeks might not be a good idea.
“I don’t think six weeks is enough time to pull this off and assure success,” he said. “A lot of senior citizens still won’t be traveling in October and we’re not going to see a lot of families because the parents are going to be both working and teaching.”
Dare also addressed the town’s potential financial contribution to the hastily put together SunLITE concept during what have certainly become fiscally trying times.
“As far as the cost, it doesn’t really matter if it’s one dollar or $100,000 or more,” he said. “We have to tighten our belts. Room tax is down, the food tax is down, admissions and amusement taxes are going to be down. We’re coming up on a time when we’re going to have to talk about defunding capital improvements, reducing infrastructure maintenance costs, a hiring freeze or perhaps furloughing employees. These are going to be hard decisions, a lot harder than whether to do a SunLITE event to salvage a weekend.”
For his part, Frank Miller said he was only seeking marching orders from the Mayor and Council and he would do everything he could to pull off a successful SunLITE event if that was their desire. Frank Miller also acknowledged the challenges of pulling an event together in a matter of weeks.
“There is a lot of high risk with this,” he said. “We don’t know what to expect. I’m out of my comfort zone going from concept to the street in 45 days. I wish I had all of the answers, but I don’t at this point.”
Gehrig reiterated it was going to require a total team effort including the support of the private sector business community.
“My gut is telling me it’s going to be a struggle to make this successful,” he said. “I appreciate great ideas and the power of teamwork. If they believe in it, give them two weeks and see how it looks then. Let’s see if our partners are really invested in this.”
Councilman Matt James said the time was now to make a decision on at least moving forward with the concept without making a firm decision and committing funding to the event. He suggested Frank Miller take until the next Mayor and Council meeting to do his due diligence and come back with some answers in terms of vendor response and private sector interest in the concept along with some tighter financial information, tall tasks indeed in just two weeks.
“I think we need to give Frank some direction,” he said. “The next two weeks are very important. If he comes back and says there is not much support or not much buy-in from the business community, we can pull the plug on it before we make any real financial commitment. If he comes back and says its not a go, we can scrap it for this year.”
After considerable debate, the council voted unanimously to cancel Sunfest in the traditional sense this year. In a separate motion, the council voted 6-1 with Dare opposed to have Frank Miller drill down on some more details, gage vendor interest and business community support and return with a recommendation.