OCEAN CITY — Resort officials this week took an important first step in establishing a new economic development director position to help rebrand Ocean City and its target audience as well as navigate through a post-COVID-19 landscape.
Throughout much of the last year or so, the Mayor and Council have discussed creating a new economic development and tourism director to shepherd the resort through a transition and rebranding effort. The discussion began with an aggressive plan to tap into the rapidly growing youth sports market.
The brainstorming sessions led to a feasibility study to consider developing a potential sports complex to attract more youth sports leagues and tournaments, the results of which are not yet known. The thinking heretofore is the new economic and tourism development position would go out and sell all Ocean City has to offer to potential in the youth sports market and coordinate with the existing tourism-related department heads including communications, special events and the convention center, for example.
All agreed the position was needed, but it has been unclear just what its responsibilities would be. Complicating the issue further was the passing last spring of long-time Tourism Director Donna Abbott. In the interim, Communications Manager Jessica Waters has been serving as interim tourism director and Special Events Director Frank Miller and Convention Center Director Larry Noccolino have also stepped into the void.
Now, however, the town is ready to move forward with filling the new economic and tourism development director position to serve as a quarterback of sorts for those talented department heads. City Manager Doug Miller this week outlined his recommendations for the Mayor and Council.
“As part of the 2019 strategic plan update, the council set as an action item for the city manager to develop an approach on how to create a position to work on targeting and attracting groups, events and activities that were compatible with Ocean City’s family-friendly reputation,” he said. “The initial emphasis at the time was on sports tourism. In speaking with the individual councilmembers, it was clear each member had a different perception of what sort of person was needed, but after melding all of that input together, the recommendation was going to be that we hire a business development coordinator.”
The Mayor and Council discussed hiring a business development coordinator, or a similar position with any number of different titles, but same essential responsibilities, throughout the last year. While the title, or the exact responsibilities, had not yet been defined, the Mayor and Council put a placeholder in the fiscal year 2021 budget for the position. However, recruiting, interviewing and hiring an economic development director or business development coordinator was put on the back-burner because of unforeseen circumstances.
“Two major events have altered the approach that was going to be recommended by the city manager to the council,” said Miller. “First was the passing of the highly effective and tenured tourism director. Second was the COVID outbreak and its potential negative impacts on Ocean City tourism and the overall Ocean City economy. After these two events, the future needs of the town had to be reassessed as it pertained to tourism and economic development.”
Miller said the new position would not replace any of the existing tourism-related department heads, but rather complement them.
“It must be noted that the town is fortunate to have great talent in many of its departments,” he said. “Two in particular, as it relates to the tourism and economic development needs of the town, are communications and special events. Serious consideration was given to combining the tourism needs into either of these departments due to the talent that exists within them. However, after completing a COVID and post-COVID needs assessment, it was recommended that we proceed with a new position.”
From the beginning, the concept has been the new position would be strictly selling Ocean City to family-friendly markets such as the growing youth sports market, for example. However, Miller said the ongoing COVID-19 crisis has caused him to consider the new economic development director wearing different hats.
“I have a real fear that COVID will have a drastic long-term impact on Ocean City’s economy,” he said. “COVID has the potential to add immediate needs for the town that were not prevalent before the virus. First and foremost, we don’t know how many businesses will close because of how COVID has hurt them. We don’t know how many vacant or underutilized properties will be left that will need to be repurposed. We also have an oversaturation of hotel rooms that, combined with COVID, could impact even more properties.”
Mayor Rick Meehan said Ocean City has gone through tough economic times before and has always chosen to be aggressive rather than complacent.
“As we move forward with 2021, we need to have a plan in place and we need to be competitive,” he said. “When the recession hit in 2008, we raised the room tax and continued to advertise and market aggressively. We moved forward when everybody else was stepping back. When times are tough, you don’t cut back on marketing and advertising, you invest. That’s what we did and that’s what Ocean City has always done. I look at this as the same situation.”
Councilman John Gehrig has been at the forefront of the youth sports marketing effort and has advocated from the beginning the hiring of a professional salesperson to go out and pitch Ocean City as a destination.
“You know how I feel,” he said. “This needs to be a top shelf person that knows and loves Ocean City. This director position needs to be a salesperson. That’s our number one need. We need to go out and sell and get the people and the groups we want to come here. If we don’t target what we want, we’ll continue to have the same problems we’ve been having. There should be no sitting behind a desk for this position. We need to go out and sell and close deals.”
Miller said the recommendation is to first recruit and hire an economic development director, or business development coordinator, or whatever title is ultimately decided upon, to oversee the town’s entire tourism sector. He even pitched the idea of creating a Bureau of Tourism with the new position at the top working in concert with Waters, Frank Miller and Noccolino. A second position dedicated solely to tapping the sports market could be added later. Council Secretary Mary Knight said whatever outcome was decided, two positions should be created eventually.
“I think it should be two people,” she said. “Economic development and tourism are different skill sets. We’ve been fortunate to have a talented tourism director and communications director, and combined it has been very effective.”
Councilman Dennis Dare agreed and used an analogy to further illustrate the situation.
“The positive thing is we have outstanding leaders in position,” he said. “This gives us the opportunity to look comprehensively at coordinating all of these departments. Look at this like an orchestra. We have a lot of talented musicians, but we need a conductor.”
Councilman Matt James said whatever the new position is and whomever is chosen to fill it, he or she should be dedicated to the singular purpose of going out in the field and pitching all Ocean City has to offer to potential clients.
“We need a director of economic development to be so busy they don’t have time to be involved in marketing and advertising,” he said. “They need to be out there selling and getting people to come here.”
Gehrig said the new position could develop strategies to attract desirable groups, sports tournaments and conventions, and the existing department heads and staff can make it happen.
“This person needs to be in charge,” he said. “This is mostly strategy. If this person can go out there and sell Ocean City, we have the people in place that can execute it. Our people can get it done.”
After considerable debate, Meehan said it appeared the elected officials were all on the same page regarding the creation of the new position. The council voted unanimously to have Doug Miller develop a job description for the new position and begin the process of recruiting to fill it.
“We’ve all come to the same conclusion,” said Meehan. “We should be very aggressive and recruit and hire someone who can take us to the next level.”