The best way to truly get a sense of how the summer is going is to get out and explore first hand. Here are some personal observations from several beach days in Ocean City and Assateague, numerous restaurant visits and trips to the Boardwalk over the last two weeks.
•As a reporter, negative things often make the lead. The only negative aspects I observed were tremendous traffic throughout most of the day – a sign of success to be certain – and trash.
First, the only way to avoid traffic to the beach this summer is to go early. On Assateague last Sunday at 8:30 a.m., the backup to get into the federal park was about 40 vehicles. An hour later, it was at least double. Heading into Ocean City last Friday (not Saturday) at 11 a.m., Route 90 was backed up to the Ocean Pines exit. On Route 50, it was a stop-and-go traffic beginning at the Grand Prix amusement park. A planned lunch in Ocean City became a detour to West Ocean City. The same scenario played out Wednesday of this week. Everyone expects traffic backups entering Ocean City and Assateague on the weekends, but this summer it seems to be a daily occurrence. A sign of crowds and success to be certain, but an adjustment nonetheless for locals.
Secondly, and this is no surprise, but people generally do not pick up after themselves. Add this reality to the fact people on vacation are especially oblivious of what they leave behind, and the situation is disturbing. It’s unfortunate but a reality. Before I went to Jolly Roger Amusement Park to cover the Christmas in July ceremony last Sunday morning, I hit the Boardwalk around 7th to 3rd streets for about 45 minutes. The litter was significant. Debris was strewn about the Boardwalk, but it was the side streets where it was most pronounced. Trash gathered in the corners in the street ends were the worst. In one street corner were a few Dunkin cups, three Natural Lite cans, a 7-Eleven cup, a cigarette packet wrapper and a bundle of unused napkins. Mix in with that some sand and unrecognizable debris and it was at least trash bag full of garbage on most street ends.
I know the town’s well-intentioned public works crews do their best. They just can’t keep up. They were out and about as I observed the trash blowing around. They start working before the crack of dawn literally cleaning the beach and boards from the mess the night before, but they can’t account for everything.
The only takeaway is the need for the litter-free campaign and the importance of spreading awareness. I don’t know what the town can do really aside from hammering home the messaging of being responsible and appealing to people’s morals and humanity. It’s an impossible situation with the only true hope to model the correct behavior in the hopes guilt and responsibility will eventually click. City Engineer Gail Blazer touched on this earlier this month when talking about the litter-free campaign, saying, “It’s just hard to deal with the clientele we are dealing with, not to be disrespectful. It’s hard.”
•In a typical summer, success varies by every individual business. A reporter could interview 10 different operators and hear a range of extreme reactions based on location, weather patterns and industry. One retail business downtown could be having a record summer, while a similar type of operator mid-town reports a 10% drop from last year. Not this year – everyone is rolling and having an exceptional summer season. If they are not busy, it’s cause for concern. Quick Internet searches throughout this summer confirm hotel rates, set largely on demand vs. supply, have never been higher (in some cases $600-plus or more a night). Restaurants are full for dinner before 5 p.m. in many cases.
Nearly all owners and managers are saying the same thing – business is super, (for example, at 12:30 p.m. a sunny Sunday Fish Tales was on a 20-minute wait for lunch), but the common concern seems to be the employees. One restaurant manager I spoke with this week said he has six college-age employees working 15-hour shifts and banking at least $600 a day in tips. He said they have been super stars and deserve every penny. He said they have been amazing, saying, “I don’t know what we are going to do when they all go back to school Aug. 15.”
This is the primary concern right now for many businesses. They are understaffed but it’s only going to get worse as college kids starting return to their campuses in August. The crowds will still be here.
•The volume of bike traffic and pedestrians on the Boardwalk Sunday morning was amazing. I briefly talked to one father I knew. He said they walked their bikes for blocks because it was too crowded for his kids, lamenting the fact they arrived too late. He wanted to be on boards by 9 a.m. When he and his family arrived at 10, it was too late to enjoy because of the crowds, according to him. Arrive early applies to the biking on the boards, too.
•I had a casual conversation with Mayor Rick Meehan last Sunday. The last two weeks of July and first two weeks of August are the busiest times of year in Ocean City traditionally. The window is likely larger this summer. The mayor said he was on the Boardwalk Saturday night for a while. He reported never seeing more people in all his years of living in Ocean City. It’s one thing everyone can agree on this year – the area is in the midst of a banner season.