Two-Week BikeFest Concept Meets Concerns From OC Elected, Public Safety Officials

Two-Week BikeFest Concept Meets Concerns From OC Elected, Public Safety Officials
File photo by Chris Parypa

OCEAN CITY — While no decision was made, public safety officials seemed less than keen on expanding OC BikeFest to a 10-day, two-weekend event with the second weekend overlapping with the unsanctioned and unwelcomed pop-up car rally.

OC BikeFest promoter Chase Michael on Tuesday pitched the idea of an expanded Bike Week event in Ocean City next fall and in future years. Michael first pitched the idea to the Tourism Commission in November. The concept is for OC BikeFest to be expanded over 10 days with bookend weekends on either end including major performing artists, vendors and other activities for the roughly 150,000 attendees each year.

OC BikeFest, with its headliner concerts, is already on the map nationally, but Michael explained an expanded 10-day event with major acts on the bookend weekends could elevate that status further, sort of a Sturgis meets Coachella festival of motorcycles, top music entertainment and vendors. The resort’s tourism commission has supported the concept.

However, choosing which weekend to add comes with its challenges. OC BikeFest is already scheduled for Wednesday, Sept. 15 to Sunday, Sept. 19. One option is adding the weekend earlier, which would take the event from Wednesday, Sept. 8 to Sunday, Sept. 19. The second option would run from the original Wednesday, Sept. 15 to Sunday, Sept. 26.

Each of the options comes with challenges. For that earlier weekend, the convention center, which hosts some of the major components of OC BikeFest including many of the vendors, already has a major event booked for that time period. In addition, adding a second biker weekend starting Sept. 8 would mean September has motorized special events on each weekend, a concept the Mayor and Council essentially put the kibosh on.

Adding that second weekend would put OC BikeFest smack dab on top of the unsanctioned and unwelcomed pop-up car rally the town has been battling in recent years. Michael said he was confident with the 150,000 attendee-mark expected to grow even larger with the expanded Bike Week event that his attendees would absorb the large majority of the resort’s hotel rooms and other accommodations, essentially pushing the pop-up car rally out.

Tourism commission members agreed that could happen. On Tuesday, the Mayor and Council agreed with that concept to a large degree, but voiced concern about the two events peacefully existing if the pop-up rally happens as expected anyway. Michael said OC BikeFest has a proven track record in terms of filling up the resort’s hotel rooms.

“We’re basically at a sell out,” he said. “There are roughly 11,000 hotel rooms on the island and we are at 98% capacity. We can’t understate the importance of this event in keeping those occupancy rates high.”

Michael said OC BikeFest was flexible in terms of what second weekend was ultimately chosen.

“We would like to expand to a prior weekend or the following weekend,” he said. “We are flexible. There is obviously an event the weekend after ours, so we are open to both.”

Before the official event was postponed because of COVID, OC BikeFest was able to lock in an impressive entertainment line-up, including Kid Rock, George Thorogood and the Destroyers, Foghat, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Kix, Great White and Billy Idol, and many of those acts are committed to 2021. With an expanded event over two weekends, along with an expanded budget, Michael said he was confident he could duplicate a similar line-up on the second weekend.

To that end, OC BikeFest is seeking a commitment of up to $250,000 annually from the town, which it will match dollar for dollar in order to secure top performing artists. The promoter is also seeking a four-year commitment from the town.

“We are asking for a $250,000 match,” he said. “It would go directly to the bands. It would not go to us or be used for any purpose other than booking the major acts. We are asking for a longer-term commitment. We understand the ask is quite large. It’s really just a fraction of what we spend.”

Michael said he understood the concerns with overlapping the pop-up event on that later weekend.

“If we look at the second weekend, we’re aware of the risk,” he said. “The security and safety of our attendees is our major concern. We work well with the police and that isn’t a concern. We are very aware of the concerns with both weekends.”

Michael explained another potential challenge with that later weekend is it would overlap with another major motorcycle event in Arkansas that same weekend, an event many of OC BikeFest’s vendors also attend. Councilman Mark Paddack said he was confident the attendees and vendors would prefer to remain in Ocean City rather than make the 1,500-mile trek to Arkansas.

“I’m a huge advocate for this event,” he said. “Always have been and always will be. If I were going to a biker event, I would much rather be on the east coast than the middle of Arkansas.”

However, Paddack voiced concern with overlapping with the pop-up event.

“On the flip side, when I look at the pop-up event, my biggest concern is our chief of police and his staff and the amount of resources for back-to-back weekends, knowing there is likely going to be pop-up event on that second weekend,” he said. “What I see is a mix of oil and water, the water being the mature responsible group and the oil being the immature and reckless other group.”

That oil and water analogy would come up throughout the discussion on Tuesday. However, Mayor Rick Meehan said his big concern with choosing that first weekend would practically make September a solid month of motorized event weekends.

“They are a great partner,” he said. “I do have some concerns about that first weekend. If you do that, almost every weekend in September would be a motor event weekend. That would be every single weekend in September with the exception of the first one and I don’t think I could support that.”

Meehan pointed out during the pop-up rally weekend, the town’s special event zone is in place with stronger enforcement, higher fines and stricter towing ordinances.

“That weekend after, we have a special event zone in Ocean City,” he said. “Have you considered the impact of that on your group?”

Michael said he was keenly aware of the special event zone and its potential ramifications, but voiced little concern about its impact on his attendees.

“We’ve been made very aware of what goes on that weekend,” he said. “We know our attendees. They tend to ride during the day, and when the dinner hour rolls around and the concerts begin, they tend to put the bikes away and ride the bus or other modes of transportation. If you go out on the streets during the concerts, there is very little traffic.”

Councilman John Gehrig pointed out the town has made significant investments in music festivals in the past and voiced little concern about the fiscal ramifications.

“We’ve committed to music festivals before with mixed results,” he said. “This is a proven event with a great line-up already.”

However, Gehrig agreed with Meehan about the possibility of choosing that earlier weekend.

“I’m one of the biggest supporters of Bike Week,” he said. “I’m just not into adding another motor event weekend in September. The following week we would have that mix of oil and water.”

Michael said it appears some of the problems with the pop-up rally are the attendees don’t have organized events to attend and rather just ride up and down the highway. He said although the two events could overlap, he expected some of the pop-up rally attendees would attend the concerts and other events associated with Bike Week.

“We are a sanctioned, well-organized event with concerts, vendors and a lot of activities,” he said. “When you have activities people can go to, you don’t have those idle hands situations. We believe some of their attendees will go to our concerts and other activities.”

Michael reiterated the OC BikeFest attendees would absorb much of the resort’s hotel room inventory and could eventually wear down the pop-up rally through attrition.

“About 80% of our attendees return year after year and the other 20% are newcomers to the event,” he said. “They will soak up those hotel rooms faster. We are confident our attendees will absorb much of the hotel room inventory and the other short-term accommodations.”

Gehrig said adding that later week for an expanded OC BikeFest was out-of-the-box thinking, but it could provide a solution to the pop-up rally issue.

“There are a million reasons not to do this, but there might be one good reason to do it,” he said. “We have to have a good plan. The number we need to recognize is 98%. Basically, we’re sold out. We need to plan for the worst from a public safety standpoint, but this provides a real opportunity to impact the ability to come to Ocean City.”

Gehrig said the alternative wasn’t working.

“Any solution to this can be painful,” he said. “We know the risk of doing nothing. We’re going to have to workshop the public safety issues. We have to go on offense. We can’t ask our law enforcement to keep playing defense.”

Council President Matt James said the only way it would be successful is if the BikeFest attendees absorb the hotel rooms as promised and went back to the oil and water analogy.

“We need the water to fill the room inventory so the oil doesn’t come,” he said. “That second weekend would have to be really strong for this to work.”

Councilman Peter Buas agreed.

“We can’t enforce our way out of this issue,” he said. “This is going in a different direction, but it can only work if they absorb the room inventory.”

When it came time for the law enforcement officials to weigh in, they appeared to be less than keen on the idea. Worcester County State’s Attorney Kris Heiser voiced concern about having enough law enforcement resources available to handle the overlapping events.

“We have the already-challenging pop-up vehicle event, and ultimately last year, the council voted to move Sunfest for the very same reasons,” she said. “I have serious concerns law enforcement would have the resources they would need if these events are layered. We learned a lot from some of our successes and we’re building on that. I’d just hate to see that derailed.”

Ocean City Police Chief Ross Buzzuro voiced similar concerns.

“We have concerns,” he said. “First and foremost, I’m not sure about the idea of comingling motorcycles with the pop-up event. A biker’s worst fear is being around an erratic driver, and as we all know, we just don’t have one erratic driver.”

Buzzuro pointed out the largest law enforcement collection ever assembled in Ocean City was needed during September’s pop-up rally.

“The last pop-up event, we had the most law enforcement we have ever had in this town in its history,” he said. “Layering this event on top of that unsanctioned event would take a lot of resources and preparation. We can’t assume one event will wash out the other.”

Ocean City Fire Chief Richie Bowers also weighed in.

“I think the chief hit the nail on the head,” he said. “This would be very challenging and a lot of resources are going to be needed. It’s the unplanned event that really challenges us.”

For his part, James said the concept needed to be carefully vetted by the department heads and staff before any decision could be made about an expanded OC BikeFest.

“For this to be successful, we really need to believe the Bike Week folks soak up our room inventory,” he said. “I don’t think anybody wants these two events over top of each other.”

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.