It’s going to be interesting over the next few months to observe and report on how Ocean City is preparing for the summer of 2021. It’s almost as if the resort is hoping for a normal season with a huge asterisk attached to all facets of operations. All planning is just that at this point, and everything is contingent upon the status of the pandemic by late spring, specifically the extent of restrictions in place come June.
Though the hope is for a “normal-ish” summer season, it’s fool’s gold at this point to think society will be back in full swing in five months. A realistic hope would be for incremental steps toward normalcy in 2021 and an eye on 2022 to be when most aspects of society are back in swing. As far as Ocean City goes, one change being planned for the upcoming summer is the return of the Boardwalk tram. It’s a welcome development and a sign toward righting the times. The tram is a user choice. If individuals are not comfortable riding it, they don’t have to pay the fee. For those who suffer from mobility concerns, it’s going to be a welcome sight.
Another preparation underway involves bus transportation. As expected, bus ridership in Ocean City nosedived last year. Ridership dropped 80% for the calendar year amid capacity restrictions and safety concerns. It’s probably going to be a similar situation in 2021, but the city still needs to plan to hire drivers in the event more capacity is allowed. The city has been running buses at about 25% capacity since the pandemic. There are hopes more capacity will be allowed by the summer, but the question remains whether the public’s comfort level is high enough to board an enclosed bus for transportation. As Ocean City Public Works Director Hal Adkins put it, a realistic approach needs to be tempered with some wishful thinking. “I think we’d be lucky to see a 30% increase this summer over last summer,” Adkins said during a meeting this week. “I don’t see it jumping back by 50%. I’m just being realistic.” Transit Director Mark Rickards is probably right when he said, “It will be a challenge to get our ridership back … It might take three years to come all the way back.”
Phillips Foods is continuing its slow migration away from Ocean City, which was its home base for many years in the early days of the private company.
Back in 2018, Phillips Seafood House in north Ocean City underwent a rebranding as a Mexican cantina. The concept flopped, and the property was put up for sale. The property was sold in January of 2020 for $2.2 million to Ocean Two LLC, which has plans for a mixed-use project involving 44 luxury residential units with retail and dining on the ground floor.
It was announced this week the Beach Plaza Hotel was being closed for good. There is a contract on the property, but the sale has not been made official yet, according to state records. Though the deal is a complicated one, the Beach Plaza Hotel announced on its Facebook this week it will not reopen and the most recent restaurant to lease the inside space, Ocean 13, will be exploring new locales. The future of the property is unknown, but demolition of the landmark structure on 13th Street appears inevitable with redevelopment taking place over the next few years.
The Facebook message from the hotel read, “The time has come to say goodbye; the Beach Plaza Hotel has now permanently closed our doors.
“Through our time on the Ocean City Boardwalk, we’ve loved getting to know all our guests who stayed with us year after year. From long family vacations and fun-filled getaways to wedding celebrations and quick weekend escapes, the Beach Plaza Hotel was an inviting home for thousands of travelers across the years. Thank you for building your memories with us – we’ve absolutely loved being a part of it.
“… The Phillips family would also like to thank the hundreds of employees who have worked with us over the years. From housekeeping and maintenance to front-desk staff and management, you’ve all worked together seamlessly to deliver a wonderful experience for our guests. Thank you for your years of loyal service.”
A room tax increase in Worcester County for this year appears unlikely. The timing is not right and operators within the hospitality industry do not even support it. In advance of this week’s discussion about a potential room tax increase, the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association expressed its disapproval through a letter from Executive Director Susan Jones.
A portion of the letter read, “… we are completely against any increase in room tax. The hospitality industry is notably the hardest hit segment and we continue to face operational restrictions limiting revenue opportunities. Some may believe a small percentage increase on room rate will not affect a visitor’s choice of destination; however, we believe otherwise. In our opinion, any perception of an increase will change choices given this environment. To raise a room tax because we are lower than other destinations is not logical. We continue to lose ground to the Delaware, North Carolina and Virginia Beaches. Why not market that we are the lowest?
“Now is not the time to push an increase as this would crush our hopes for a recovery. … It would be short sighted and financially devastating to our members who have been mandated to spend significant funds to be able to operate under government mandated restrictions.”