OCEAN CITY — While it’s no secret Ocean City has an affordable seasonal workforce housing shortage, talks are underway between a developer and the city to address the issue.
During Monday’s Tourism Commission meeting, members reviewed a presentation from Holtz Builders of Wisconsin for potentially one or more dormitory-style seasonal workforce housing projects in or around the resort. Holtz Builders has had success in developing seasonal workforce housing in other resort areas. The company has expressed an interest in developing such a project in Ocean City to help with the resort’s critical seasonal employee shortage and affordable housing needs. Throughout the summer, there has been an acute seasonal labor shortage in the hospitality industry, forcing many businesses to close for a day or two or cut back hours of operation.
Greater Ocean City Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Lachelle Scarlato said she has been working with Holtz Builders President Dan Bullock to identify potential sites and begin the process of laying the groundwork for a project.
“There are ongoing initiatives and other efforts,” she said. “I’ve been engaged with our business owners and the common denominator I’m hearing is the need for more employees and more workforce housing. There is a need to tie the housing to the workforce.”
Tourism and Business Development Director Tom Perlozzo said building one or more seasonal workforce housing projects would come with a steep price tag, but said it was time to move to the next step in the process. He said Holtz Builders is not looking for an investment from the town in the proposed project or projects.
“It’s a $20 million project,” he said. “It needs some direction and vision. Holtz is ready to go, but we don’t have a location or locations identified. We need to decide where we’re going to start and how we’re going to start. He wants to own it and run it,” he said. “It wouldn’t really cost the city anything.”
Bullock provided a virtual presentation to the commission, outlining some of the seasonal workforce housing projects his company has developed. Most notably is a project in Wisconsin Dells, a resort community with water parks, festivals, attractions and other amenities that relies heavily on a seasonal workforce.
Bullock explained Wisconsin Dells attracts about four million seasonal visitors each year, requiring a significant seasonal workforce to meet the demand. By comparison, Ocean City attracts roughly eight million visitors each year, or about twice as many. Bullock said Ocean City is the number-one consumer of J-1 summer workers, while Wisconsin Dells is second.
“With our projects in Wisconsin, we provide workers with safe, affordable housing,” he said. “It really benefits the entire community. Our guiding principle is to treat guests how we would like our families treated. We build them like our kids are going to live there.”
Commission member and hotelier Michael James questioned Bullock on cost estimates and potential locations. It was pointed out two dormitory-style projects at roughly 1,500 beds each would accommodate 3,000 seasonal workers. Ocean City typically needs about 4,000 to 5,000 seasonal workers to meet its employment needs.
“I think we need two,” said Michael James. “We might need more than two. Where can we put them and how much would it cost?”
Bullock explained he toured Ocean City to identify potential sites for the project or projects, each with different challenges.
“I probably identified four or five different sites,” he said. “You want them close to their places of employment. I would look at the potential sites and prioritize them.”
Among the potential sites identified was an area at 94th Street, but not the old mall property, 100th Street, possibly Somerset Street downtown or even over in West Ocean City at the Park-and-Ride.
The Ocean City Development Corporation (OCDC) for years has been piecemeal acquiring property around Somerset Street for its model block program, and the site could be targeted as a potential area for workforce housing. However, commission member Kevin Gibbs, representing the OCDC, said there hasn’t been much movement between the organization and Holtz Builders.
“Our board isn’t really on board yet with Holtz Builders,” he said. “There are a lot of issues to work out. They haven’t presented us with any design plans.”
Mayor Rick Meehan said the time had come to discuss the future of the model block downtown with the OCDC. He pointed out many of the Holtz projects were not in urban settings.
“I think it’s time for the Mayor and Council to meet with OCDC on the future of that property,” he said. “We need to look at what is best for the town. Your projects are generally in rural areas, but this is a pretty urban location.”
Perlozzo said all potential locations for seasonal workforce housing would be explored, but the Somerset Street property should be included because of its location.
“When you look at the Somerset Street site, you would really have to increase the density,” he said. “We need to find a way to work with OCDC and put that property back on the table.”