OCEAN CITY — Satisfied their safety concerns were allayed, resort officials this week approved a conditional use for a new axe-throwing competition venue after a broad discussion about government overreach on private-sector businesses.
Last year, the owners of the Embers restaurant, which has stood at 23rd Street for decades, and Blu, a more upscale outdoor dining facility and bar, began a major redevelopment of the parcel. The new addition closest to Philadelphia Avenue is three stories with restaurant and bar space throughout, some retail, office space and other amenities.
Last month, the city’s planning commission heard a presentation for a conditional use request to allow for an interior tenant space to be outfitted as an axe-throwing venue. The applicant for years has owned and operated escape rooms in the resort and the axe-throwing venue as part of the redevelopment project would be an added amenity.
According to the business plan for Ocean City, the venue would include eight self-enclosed lanes with one group designated for each lane. There would only be one axe for each lane and the axes themselves would be just sharp enough to stick in the wooden targets, but not sharp enough to inflict pain or damage on a participant.
After hearing testimony and conducting a public hearing, the planning commission forwarded a favorable recommendation for the conditional use to the Mayor and Council. The planning commission’s recommendation came with some conditions attached. For example, the axes must be locked up and carefully monitored when not in use, there must be video monitors on each of the eight lanes in the venue and there must be at least one employee monitoring every two lanes or a total of eight.
Other conditions added by the applicants themselves include each employee monitoring the axe-throwing lanes must be at least 18 years of age and the manager on site must be at least 25 years of age. Council Secretary Tony DeLuca made a motion to approve the conditional use as presented but questioned if it was overreach for the town’s government to include the age requirements for the employees.
“I thought we agreed we weren’t going to dictate the age of a manager for a business,” he said. “It seems to me if you are 25, you’re responsible enough to be a manager of an axe-throwing business, but if you’re 24, you’re not. It just seems subjective to me.”
Applicant and business owner Shaun Bauer said the age restrictions for employees and the manager were conditions the business put on itself and not a condition required by the planning commission or staff.
“We were erring on the side of caution,” he said. “It’s a new business in town. That wasn’t a condition dictated by the planning commission. We’re fine with it. It came from us initially.”
Councilman John Gehrig said the business owner should be free to make his own rules and the age restrictions did not necessarily belong in the conditional use approval.
“It seems logical to me for a business to have its own rules and a handbook,” he said. “It’s your business and it’s your insurance. I don’t’ think we need to be in the business of dictating ages and numbers of employees. Let him enforce his own rules. If he has bad rules, there are consequences for that.”
However, Councilman Mark Paddack countered the age restrictions for the employees were conditions the business owners applied to themselves in the application.
“We are not dictating the rules,” he said. “These are the rules he and his partners came up with. He brought that condition to us.”
That touched off a larger debate about government overreach in the private sector from Gehrig.
“It’s not our place to make his rules,” he said. “If he wants to change his rules, he should be able to do that. We shouldn’t be dictating every little detail of his business.”
As far as the potential safety issues and the condition requiring the axes to be locked up, Gehrig said it was a condition that didn’t likely need to be in the motion.
“This pen is sharper than those axes,” he said. “What can happen at a bowling alley or a mini-golf course if there was a fight or something? What about a steak knife in a restaurant? It just seems like overreach to have all of these specific rules attached to this.”
Paddack said he was willing to budge on the age restrictions if that would pave the way for approval of the conditional use request.
“I’m willing to compromise,” he said. “I want this to go through. They have a good business plan and they have families to feed too. I think we all agree the axes should be locked up when the business is closed.”
Councilman Frank Knight said he believed the motion could be amended to relax some of the conditions, but pointed out some of the rules were self-inflicted by the business owner.
“The rules should be part of the motion because they are the rules they came up with themselves,” he said. “I do think they should be able to change their rules as they see fit as needed as the business grows.”
After considerable debate, the council voted unanimously to approve the conditional use request.