Proposed Gun Show’s Conflict With Pop-Up Rally Weekend Raises Concerns; Promoter Likely To Meet With Council

OCEAN CITY — A multi-faceted special event proposed for this September to potentially help offset the unsanctioned pop-up event continues to move forward, but there are issues to resolve with the proposed gun show element.

The Tourism Commission this week got an update on the proposed Ocean City Adventure Fest proposed for the week of Sept. 19-25 this fall, which would overlap with the often-troublesome unsanctioned pop-up event. In October, promoter Cliff Sutherland, who has produced motorcycle events in Ocean City and his native West Virginia in the past, pitched to the Mayor and Council the conceptual plans for the series of special events during that week in conjunction with the Hogs and Heroes Foundation, which supports public safety and military organizations.

Sutherland, who owns a Harley Davidson dealership and a Greene Turtle franchise in his hometown of Morgantown, W.Va., has produced successful motorcycle rallies in Ocean City in the past and hopes to build on that success with the series of events in the resort in September. He told the Mayor and Council in October the concept came to him when he received notice from the town to avoid coming to Ocean City during the unsanctioned pop-up event last September.

Tourism and Business Development Director Tom Perlozzo and Convention Center Director Larry Noccolino have been working with the promoter to iron out some of the details with the proposed Ocean City Adventure Fest, which would take place largely in and around the convention center. It would include police K-9 competitions and training, a police motorcycle rodeo in the parking lot, concerts at the Performing Arts Center and a hunting and fishing expo, including a gun show.

The latter has caused some heartburn for some city officials. It’s important to note the gun show would be part of a larger hunting and fishing fall expo, although no one would be able to walk into the show and purchase a gun.

The vendors would be vetted, and the producer would provide security. Buyers could make purchases with the appropriate waiting times applied and would later complete the transaction at an authorized dealer after considerable vetting. However, permitting the gun show at the larger series of events would require some ordinance changes approved by the Mayor and Council. Noccolino said the time was quickly approaching for the Mayor and Council to pull the trigger on the gun show and the larger series of events.

“We need a yes or no at some point soon, or bring Cliff back before the Mayor and Council,” he said. “His position is, if there is no gun show, there is no show. I know there are some ordinance issues to work through and I know there are some issues to resolve with the police department.”

City Manager Terry McGean said he has had discussions with the Ocean City Police Department (OCPD) on some of the issues regarding the larger event series in general and the gun show specifically.

“The police department has some concerns,” he said. “They’re worried about two things. They are going to have to have personnel on hand to inventory all of the stuff. They want to make sure the promoter is providing security from the second the first gun shows up to the second the last one leaves.”

McGean said a larger concern for the OCPD is the potential loss of the convention center parking lot during the unsanctioned pop-up event. The OCPD and its allied partners utilize the parking lot as a staging area during the unsanctioned event, but the lot would largely be used by the Ocean City Adventure Fest events. Last year, the town and its law enforcement partners made good strides in curtailing some of the illicit activities associated with the pop-up event, and McGean said there was some concern about back-sliding this year.

“We feel like we’re getting a handle on H2O,” he said. “We are maybe over the hump, but we’re not at the end of the road yet. They have concerns about losing this facility. It might be better to do it on a different weekend to be honest. If the direction comes from the Mayor and Council, we can make it work.”

Noccolino said moving the Adventure Fest events to a different weekend could be challenging.

“Are there other weekends? There’s really not a lot available,” he said. “He wants the entire property. It’s not just a weekend. It’s an entire week.”

Councilman and commission member John Gehrig also voiced some concern about back-sliding with the pop-up event.

“We went to Annapolis and showed the video,” he said. “It should come back to the Mayor and Council. All of this looks great. The gun show piece is the emotional piece. … We need to keep putting the pressure on. We haven’t knocked them out. It’s only one punch and you don’t let your guard down after landing one punch.”

For his part, Noccolino said he has reached out to other convention center directors in the region about the proposed gun show element and has heard nothing but good things.

“I’ve talked to my colleagues and they can’t put high enough praise on the promoter that runs it,” he said. “The FBI and ATF are all involved. I’ve questioned my colleagues at other convention centers and they all support it. We just need some direction.”

Noccolino explained the OCPD and allied law enforcement agencies would have the area around the north loading dock to stage during the pop-up event after Thursday of Adventure Fest week. He also said the south loading dock area at the convention center would be available all week for law enforcement.

Perlozzo said City Solicitor Heather Stansbury would work out the details in terms of what needed to do on its end to permit the gun show as part of the larger event. There are strict federal regulations in place regarding the sale and transfer of weapons.

“Heather should be able to tell us what we have to do in terms of ordinance changes,” he said. “Heather is not concerned about the federal regulations.”

McGean said the OCPD’s main concern is about losing some or all of the space it uses as a staging area at the convention center during the pop-up event. He pointed to Gehrig’s reference about not letting up when some ground was made up with the pop-up event last year.

“It’s not the gun show that bothers the police department,” he said. “Their concern is about the space they need to operate. Like you said, it’s like spiking the ball before you cross the goal line.”

Gehrig said the intent of scheduling the Ocean City Adventure Fest and its series of events during that week was to absorb much of the town’s hotel and motel inventory, thus making it more difficult for the pop-up event attendees.

“All of these points are legitimate,” he said. “If we fill the town that weekend and we’re booked, we make it more inconvenient for them. The more inconvenient and expensive we make it, the better it is for us.”

Noccolino said he was certain the larger Ocean City Adventure Fest would fill hotel rooms, but that he wasn’t sure about the demographic for the proposed hunting and fishing expo and gun show elements.

“The larger event will fill rooms,” he said. “I’m not sure we get a lot of room-nights from the gun show. It’s a lot of day-trippers because it’s a regional thing. I think it will draw a lot of people.”

Gehrig said the town for years has tried to find special events with different demographics to fill rooms and offset the pop-up event each September.

“This saturation idea is not a new idea,” he said. “We’ve been talking about this for 10 years. This is why we went from a couple of hundred cars to thousands of cars. We have never tried it. This is the first time.”

After considerable debate, Perlozzo said it was likely time to bring Sutherland back to the council, which will ultimately hold sway over the decision.

“We need to get him on an agenda,” he said. “Let the Mayor and Council figure it out. They need to figure out the gun show part. We just need some direction.”

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.