OCEAN CITY – The Ocean City Mayor and Council took a pass on a proposed scaled-down alternative to Sunfest in the first weekend of October, but a combination of private businesses and organizations are picking up the ball.
Last month, the Mayor and Council cancelled Sunfest for 2020 because of ongoing COVID-19 restrictions including the elimination of live entertainment and the food tent, for example. Instead, town officials considered an alternative SunLITE event proposed by Special Events Director Frank Miller.
SunLITE would include many of the familiar arts and crafts vendors on the same weekend, but the event would be spread out in a different format at various outdoor venues throughout the town, including possibly the concrete tram portion of the Boardwalk and limited use of the Inlet lot.
City Manager Doug Miller two weeks ago estimated the town’s investment in pulling off the SunLite concept could be in the $50,000 to $100,000 range, and before committing the Mayor and Council wanted to gage the interest in the event from the vendors and other participants, and the resort’s business community. To that end, the Mayor and Council directed Frank Miller to reach out to vendors who had committed to Sunfest this year find out if the majority would still come for the watered-down SunLITE concept.
Frank Miller told the Mayor and Council during Tuesday’s work session the vendors who he contacted were roughly split down the middle on their commitment to SunLITE.
“More than 50% of the vendors surveyed responded they were interested in the SunLITE concept,” he said. “There are some discrepancies in how interested they are based on if they are provided with tents and so forth.”
Frank Miller was also instructed to attempt to gage the interest in SunLITE from the business community, whose participation would be essential to the success of the event. Frank Miller told the Mayor and Council he utilized email lists of organizations such as the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association and the Greater Ocean City Chamber of Commerce, among others, to reach out to the business community with a survey, the results of which were tepid to say the least.
“In a survey to gage local business support for the concept, 2,223 emails went out, and of those we recovered 50 completed surveys. “Needless to say, that number was disappointing. That’s nothing against the local business community. 2020 has been a difficult year. With that said, this concept requires the proactive participation of the business community.”
With a roughly 50-50 split for the vendors and a less-than-stellar response from the business community, Frank Miller recommended putting SunLITE, as it was originally proposed, on the shelf for 2020. Instead, he said some businesses and organizations, including the Downtown Association, the Ocean City Development Corporation (OCDC) and the private sector Trimper’s Rides, have expressed interest in producing some kind of special events on the proposed weekend.
“The recommendation is for the town not to produce this event,” he said. “There are some businesses and organizations that wanted to see this event happen and are stepping up with ideas of their own. The Downtown Association wants to move forward and do something special for that weekend. The same goes for OCDC and Trimper’s.”
Among the ideas floated for the private-sector version of SunLITE were some vendors at different locations, a possible scavenger hunt around the downtown area, and a possible drive-in movie, for example. For its part, Trimper’s Rides would like to utilize the same footprint for the farmer’s market it ran for much of the summer for various special events over the course of a couple of weekends. The recommendation was to facilitate the private sector special events, including the downtown association, the OCDC and Trimper’s, for example, while not hosting an official SunLITE event produced and sanctioned by the town.
“There is plenty of opportunity still for 2020,” said Frank Miller. “We can help clear the way for the downtown association and Trimper’s, for example, to produce their own events. Normally, those would have to go through the private event process, but there isn’t time, so we can streamline that process and issue permits as long as the directives are met.”
Councilman Mark Paddack expressed frustration in the lack of response from the business community.
“What irritates me about this entire thing is 2,223 emails went out and we only got 50 responses, and five of those were duplicates,” he said. “That’s deplorable. So, my question to the HMRA and chamber members is, do you want people in town or don’t you?”
Council President Lloyd Martin said the timing of the email survey in mid- to late-August in what has already been a challenging summer for resort businesses likely contributed to the weak response.
“Our business partners are so busy right now,” he said. “Many of them might have not seen the email, much less had time to respond. I know they are short-staffed and are just trying to keep it going right now.”
Mayor Rick Meehan agreed with both Paddack and Martin to some degree.
“The response was disappointing,” he said. “In their defense, the businesses have no help and they are stretched pretty thin right now.”
Councilman John Gehrig said he supported the private sector’s efforts to fill the void on what would have been Sunfest, or SunLITE, weekend, and said the town should provide the support to make it happen, but he did not want any significant financial contribution for the city.
“I’m fine with the whole thing,” he said. “I just don’t want to invest any funds in it, especially not a drive-in movie. We have someone in the private sector doing that and I don’t think we should compete with them. We can invest time and resources with public works and public safety, I just don’t want to use the funds because they are there.”
Frank Miller explained the proposed private sector events under the umbrella of the SunLITE banner were just now coming together.
“SunLITE is a work in progress,” he said. “The drive-in movie is just one concept along with a bunch of other elements. We want to look at all of the options and that seemed like a fairly easy opportunity.”
The council voted unanimously to support the private sector efforts to fill what would have been Sunfest weekend with privately-funded and produced events.