Council, WMO Reach Marlin Fest Event Agreement

Council, WMO Reach Marlin Fest Event Agreement
The Harbour Island Marina, site for the weigh-ins for the White Marlin Open, is pictured. With pandemic restrictions on crowds unknown for this summer, WMO officials will offer a revamped Marlin Fest at the bayside park on 3rd Street during the event. File Photo

OCEAN CITY — After tweaking some of the details regarding vendor fees and in-kind services, resort officials this week approved a memorandum of understanding with the White Marlin Open to host a Marlin Fest event at the 3rd Street Park in conjunction with the tournament.

It wasn’t easy, but the Mayor and Council on Tuesday ultimately approved the memorandum of understanding (MOU) for the first official Marlin Fest at the bayside park between 3rd and 4th streets first week of August during the White Marlin Open (WMO). The event will include a free, festival-like atmosphere at the park with live-streaming of the weigh-ins from tournament host Harbour Island at 14th Street, expansive views for the participating boats returning, numerous vendors, entertainment and food and beverage sales including alcohol this year.

Marlin Fest is proposed to complement the annual tournament headquarters at Harbour Island, not replace it. The event will offer an alternative to spread out and enjoy the tournament in a wide open, safe, family friendly atmosphere.

Last year, nothing changed in terms of the tournament itself and the daily weigh-ins were held at Harbour Island just as they have been for decades. However, because of COVID restrictions, the thousands of spectators that typically cram into Harbour Island each day during the tournament were not allowed. Instead, WMO organizers came up with a modified plan to open a venue for spectators at the downtown recreation complex between 3rd and 4th streets.

The downtown venue included a large LED screen for viewing the WMO weigh-ins at the scale, open dock areas along the waterfront from which spectators could view the sportfishing boats returning to the scale. There were some light refreshments offered, but last year’s event was decidedly low-key.

This year, however, the WMO is bringing back a bigger and better version of the same concept. With COVID still impacting gathering sizes, it’s uncertain what restrictions will still be in place by August, and the downtown Marlin Fest offers an open, safe alternative to the traditional tournament venue at 14th Street.

“It’s a weekday event and it’s going to be family-friendly,” WMO Tournament Director Madelyn Rowan said. “Lots of people don’t consider the weigh-ins at Harbour Island to be family-friendly. This will offer things for families the Harbour Island can’t offer.”

While all agreed the concept was a good one, there were details to work out in terms of fees and in-kind services provided by the town before the MOU could be approved on Tuesday. Because the planned Marlin Fest event will be held at a recreation and parks department facility, there is facility rental fee in place. In addition, the vendor fees for events at recreation and parks facilities differ greatly from those at other special events on city property, such as the Inlet lot for example.

Rowan explained the recreation and parks facility fee for using the 3rd Street park for the event was just over $2,800, which she said was reasonable. However, because the event is being held on recreation and parks property, the individual vendor fee would be $625 per vendor for the week-long event.

The vendor fee for a special event on other town properties is a flat $75 for the entire event. In addition, the MOU listed the town’s contribution for in-kind services, such as providing trash cans, road barriers, fencing, police and other support services at around $50,000. Rowan said that was determined by the special events staff as an estimate, but explained that number was likely too high.

For example, she said according to the town’s reckoning, 65 trash cans are typically provided at the WMO headquarters in and around Harbour Island, but the actual number is just a fraction of that. Rowan said the WMO went to the Tourism Advisory Board (TAB) for some support and relief from the exorbitant fees, but were denied.

For the record, TAB reviews proposed new special events and recommends financial support, typically for start-up events that bring people into the resort, to the Mayor and Council. Rowan said while TAB liked the concept, members withheld support because the WMO is an established event that happens during one of the busiest weeks of the summer.

“We’re asking for support from the council,” she said. “We applied through TAB, but they denied supporting the event. Their reasoning is it is already a busy week. We get that all the time. We believe it is a busy week in part because of the White Marlin Open.”

Because the planned event will be held at a recreation and parks facility, but it is also considered a special event, it doesn’t fit easily into the town’s existing fee structure for other special events. For that reason, the WMO was seeking some relief, especially from the exorbitant $625 per vendor fee. Rowan said the WMO is expecting as many as 30 vendors at the 3rd Street venue.

“It’s a recreation and parks facility,” she said. “That’s why the vendor fees are so high. We can’t make any money with those fees. We want to have this event year after year, but it has to make financial sense. We’re looking at $25,000 in fees. That’s a big expense right off the top for the first-year event.”

Councilman Mark Paddack said he supported the Marlin Fest concept and hoped some common ground could be reached on the fees and in-kind services.

“It moves a lot of people out of Harbour Island,” he said. “The sticking part for me is waiving the vendor fees at $625. I’m a little surprised TAB turned this down. It is a busy week, but I think it’s busy because of the White Marlin Open.”

Rowan said the recreation and parks facility fee at around $2,800 for the week was fair, but sought relief from the vendor fees compared to other special events.

“There are different vendor fees for special events,” she said. “Because we’re under the recreation and parks umbrella, all of these other fees are added. We’re just asking to be treated like other special events. We feel like we’re in a gray area.”

Paddack suggested maybe some compromise on the fees could be reached for this year, and the recreation and parks committee could go back and review a new fee structure for the event going forward.

“Is it possible to get through this first year and maybe cut the vendor fees in half to $300?” he said. “Then we can go back to the recreation and parks committee and maybe come up with some fee schedule because this is a unique event that doesn’t fit into our other formulas.”

Rowan said cutting the vendor fees in half for this year did not seem like a fair compromise in light of the fees charged to other special events.

“I don’t know why we would pay $300 per vendor when these other events pay a flat $75 vendor fee total no matter how many vendors they have,” she said.

Paddack made a motion to keep the recreation and parks facility fee the same at around $2,800, but set the vendor fees at the same $75 rate enjoyed by other special events. That motion ultimately died for lack of a second.

“It’s a great event,” he said. “It’s great for the town and our visitors. This is a next step in making it even bigger.”

While all agreed with the essence of Paddack’s motion, there was still the issue of the in-kind services to resolve. Councilman John Gehrig said the town’s level of in-kind services, from trash removal to barricades to police and public works support and even electric service, was not necessarily changing, but rather was being redistributed between the two venues. Gehrig made a motion to keep the recreation and parks facility fee at $2,800, set the vendor fees at the $75 rate used for other special events and cap the town’s in-kind services at $25,000.

“I think we provide the same level of in-kind services we always have,” he said. “We just shift the resources to the different venues as necessary.”

Councilman Tony DeLuca said it might be premature to approve the MOU when the level of the town’s in-kind services contribution was such a moving target.

“We’re making motions when we don’t even know what the numbers are,” he said. “Are we talking about $50,000 in in-kind services or $25,000? I think we need to pin those numbers down and maybe bring this back on Monday.”

Special Events Director Frank Miller said Marlin Fest was unique because it didn’t fit easily into the town’s other special events structure.

“We’re stuck between two processes,” he said. “It’s a recreation and parks facility, but this is treated like a special event.”

Councilman Peter Buas came up with language that could make approving the MOU palatable in terms of the in-kind services number such as “in-kind services will be consistent with what we have provided in the past.” In that way, the special event team can work with the WMO to determine what exactly will be needed in terms of trash removal, barricades and fencing and even the Sunfest arch, which will be used as an entry point to Marlin Fest.

With that language added to Gehrig’s motion, the council voted 6-0 to approve the MOU with Councilman Lloyd Martin absent.

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.