Mayor, Council Hopefuls Discuss Tourism Direction

Mayor, Council Hopefuls Discuss Tourism Direction
Pictured, top row from left, are The Dispatch Managing Editor Shawn Soper and Editor Steve Green and incumbent Ocean City Councilman John Gehrig; middle row, from left, incumbent Councilman Tony DeLuca and council candidates Frank Knight and Peter Buas; and bottom row from left, incumbent Mayor Rick Meehan and council candidates Daniel Hagan and Nico Eastman. File Photo

OCEAN CITY – One of the topics discussed during this week’s forum with candidates for next month’s election was diversifying the town’s tourism base and hiring an economic development direction.

The Dispatch this week hosted a virtual town hall-style forum for the six candidates for four open City Council seats along with Mayor Rick Meehan, who is running unopposed.

During the town hall forum, The Dispatch posed its own questions to the candidates on a wide variety of issues and asked some queries from citizens.

Competing for the four at-large City Council seats in the Nov. 3 election are incumbent Councilmen Tony DeLuca and John Gehrig along with newcomers Peter Buas, Nicholas Eastman, Daniel Hagan and Frank Knight.

The entirety of the two-hour-plus forum can be viewed on the newspaper’s website. Featured here is the conversation regarding the effort to rebrand Ocean City as a youth sports destination and the hiring of an economic development director to facilitate the effort. The candidates were asked whether they support the current direction.

Buas: Obviously, we’re still waiting for a job description and contemplating a role, but I absolutely do support hiring an economic director. I do think economic director is a bit of a misnomer because really, and I know other candidates have harped on this at length in the past, we want a salesperson, some that hits the trade shows and really goes out and sells Ocean City and brings in the type of customer we want. We’ve got a convention center event coordinator and a group and travel coordinator, but no one that really works on the ground, traveling to places to sell the amenities of the town. If we’re going to turn around these June issues, this sort of marketing salesperson is the right step.

As far as economic development goes, in my mind those issues involve zoning, taxes and the like. We have the OCDC that works on that and the county has an economic development director that partners with the HMRA and the Chamber of Commerce so we could expand our relationships there. To be clear, I absolutely support hiring a new salesperson position, but that’s just a first step. Eventually, I would advocate for a second hire and consolidate the sales role, the tourism director role and the current communications role into a tourism department the second person would sort of head up. The idea with that is a person who would set goals for the department, set up a marketing plan and really bring it full circle.

As far as sports tourism goes, I think it’s been identified as a growth area for the town and it absolutely fits the sort of clientele we’re looking for and the people we want to bring here — families with kids that are active and we’re already working on the infrastructure to sort of fill that active role. Ocean City already has sports facilities that are utilized and, sure, we’d like to get another one, but we can sell the ones we have. The types of people sports tourism brings in bring in money and they’re the kind of people we want to spend money in our hotels and in our restaurants.

Meehan: You know, I can remember years ago when I served on a parks and recreation committee and introduced the idea of beach soccer to the council and they thought we were crazy. Well, if you look at it now and you look at how many people beach soccer brings to town, they have a tournament with 400 teams and when you put the multiplier in effect, you see how many people come through those time periods. Not only do they come during those time periods, they come back and many of them become new visitors to Ocean City, so it’s progressive as well as something that solves an immediate problem.

I had a conversation last year with the director of the Maryland Stadium Authority and what I told him at the time was I believe Ocean City should become the amateur sports capital of the state and I truly believe that with our opportunities for sporting events on the beach and the fields that we currently have and with what we’re hopefully going to have in the near future, along with the infrastructure we have with all of hotels, with all of the restaurants and with all of the amenities. When you look at where people travel, this is the place to come and it’s the place to come all year-round, so I really believe in tourism and sports tourism in particular. I do believe we need to hire an economic development director or a sales rep or however you want to call the position. We’ve been talking about it for a year. I asked that it be placed on the agenda so we can stop talking about and do it. Hopefully, we’re going to have that job description sooner rather than later.

Knight: I firmly believe an economic development director is needed for this town and I have agreed with this for the last year or so since it has been brought up. You have to hire a salesperson and that person has to be out on the road selling Ocean City constantly. You have to give that person a goal and if they don’t meet that goal, you move on to the next person. An obvious part of this is sports tourism. They have to know the total product that they are selling and they’ve got to be able to compartmentalize each tournament, recognize the needs of each tournament accordingly and make the pitch. These guys are going to bring in events. They’ll bring in revenue, they’ll bring in tax dollars in room and food and we’ll pass this on to our taxpayers.

As far as sports tourism goes, this is definitely part of this person’s job. We could become the hub of a multitude of tournaments. I talked to a dad the other day and he told me his family spends 38 days a year on the road, staying in hotels, eating in restaurants and going to tournaments. We need to be part of that market. When I say hub, remember we can make use of fields within 45 minutes of Ocean City. We’re not limited to just Northside Park. We have fields in Worcester County and Wicomico County. We have school fields, college fields, private fields and public fields. Remember, wherever these people play, Ocean City will be the hub for where they stay. We have the rooms, we have the restaurants and we have the beach. These other areas don’t have any of that, so aside from 50 or 60 rooms in Salisbury, we will be the epicenter of anything we do down here on the shore.

Gehrig: Well, I’m happy to hear people on board. I think people are tired of hearing me talk about this. I’ve been on this for a long, long time. This really goes back 10 years or more when H2Oi was just annoying and they didn’t hate us and it didn’t require additional police officers. I thought sports tourism was a way to really go out and sell the fall and put the squeeze on the inventory. I believe in my heart we’re made for it. I think, respectfully to the mayor, it’s not about the amateur sports capital of Maryland. To me, it’s the amateur sports capital of the country, or even the world. We’re made for this and it’s made for us. It’s like everything we’ve done to this point has been made for this moment. It’s not really a new idea. It’s a $20 billion a year industry.

We’re clearly late, and we’re just kind of on the fringes of it, so we don’t have to think big. We have to think gigantic. You know, people have speculated that our growth is capped by not having an airport. This is one travel market segment that does not fly or require airplanes. People load their families and throw their gear in the back of the SUV and they will drive 10, 12, 13 hours to go to these tournaments. We are in the middle of 60 million people within a four- or five-hour drive. We have a variety of accommodations and we have restaurants and attractions that were made for this. We are made for this. Promoters want to come here and we just need to be out in front of this. And it’s not just sports. It could be music, it could be technology, it could be e-sports.

We should really just call it participation events. The trends are against us. Because of these tournaments, the traditional beach family vacations aren’t happening. We’re losing customers because we’re not in it. If we can turn that around and get tournaments here, then people will see how great Ocean City is and they’ll spend their family vacations here and start new traditions. We’re made for this, but we have to sell it. I wanted to hire a sales person two years ago, but the group decided to wait until the sports study was done. We didn’t need a sports study to hire a salesperson. We have enough to sell now. It’s absolutely the right call. It cures everything we’ve talked about today. It’s the cure, we just have to do it.

DeLuca: I support this position. With my background, what this position would be called is the Ocean City Marketing VP. You know, if we combine two positions to one, if we combine the communications manager and the director of tourism, then this person does not add another body. I think this person leads all activities for us. I mean it really establishes our brand, develops our goals and goes after our tourism, of course sports. We need to add this position and we need to add it now. Everyone agrees with sports tourism. There’s nothing controversial about it. To me, it’s not really a vacation, it’s every weekend. Like everyone has said, we have the hotels, we have the restaurants. I don’t care where or how we develop this thing. There are a lot of ideas out there. I don’t care if it’s a complex near Route 50, or Route 90 or Route 113. I don’t care if we develop 94th Street into a complex and I don’t care is we improve Northside Park. I don’t care if we do things on the beach with beach soccer. We need to do it now.

Eastman: I want new tourism in Ocean City and this is an idea I can get behind. This is something that can benefit everybody. Sports tourism is something that is going to bring families to Ocean City and it brings the type of atmosphere that we want. This is something we can start immediately. One of the biggest events we have already is the cheerleaders and they just bring so much cheer to our town. Little league games, soccer games, softball games- they are all great. I know there’s been talk about building a complex, but this is something we can start now. I’d like to talk about building it and how we might fund that. When you look at the room occupancy tax, you can see there was a big difference between 2012 and 2019. We’re only talking about going from 2% to 5%, but it’s still a big increase. Advertising dollars could be spent elsewhere to bring in sports tourism and fund this position that I know we all want.

Hagan: I support the decision. I think having a salesperson to bring people into town through sports is great. I’m a longtime 10-pin bowler and I’ve been doing it for 28 years. I was a youth travel bowler and we’d go to small towns like Cumberland and these tournaments would have like 150, 250 or 350 kids in them and it was a big thing. They would go on for three or four days. I think having things like that here is very important. I also believe if we’re going to hire someone for that position, they’re going to have to have a product to sell. We need to clean up our act and our character. This person has to go on national news, local news and convince the people we’re trying to bring here that their lives are not in danger. There was an officer in New York City when the ball dropped and he said he never expected to see so many people when he joined the force in 1970 because of how New York was in the 1970s. It took many years and many different avenues to clean up New York and make it to what it was. We need to take what they did there and do it here.

How do we convince people, the tourists, that our product is safe? We need to have a salesperson that can answer questions like this. They have to convince the promoters and sponsors, because if one incident happens when these sports tournaments, these families are in town, it’s going to leave Ocean City in a bad way. We have to make sure we hit this right. Families are number one, but their safety is always number one as well. We have to promote and we have to prove ourselves, and the only way we’re going to do that is by cleaning up what happened this year. It might take a couple of years, but I definitely support the idea of bringing this in. The first pitch has to be a home run, because if it’s not, it’s going to be a strike out. We all need to figure out how this can be a great thing for Ocean City. This salesperson needs to know what he or she is up against. I don’t think throwing taxes at it is a good idea. If we keep having new taxes or raising taxes, the families aren’t going to come here because it’s going to be too much.

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.