Ocean City Today
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Pursel celebrates 10 years with Chamber of Commerce

Executive director reflects on growing Ocean City’s credibility, market changes
By Katie Tabeling | Oct 12, 2017
Photo by: Katie Tabeling

(Oct. 13, 2017) Greater Ocean City Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Melanie Pursel is celebrating 10 years at the helm of the resort area business organization and the roughly 900 businesses it represents.

Pursel, who describes herself as the “consummate consensus builder,” said the secret to her success is building partnerships within the business community.

“We established a strong voice by establishing and nurturing these partnerships, and certainly, I don’t want make decisions without input from the businesses,” she said. “We also got great support with city and county officials. My colleagues over the bridge don’t have strong ties with their elected officials, but I feel like we all have the same goal, because tourism is our driving force.”

Pursel grew up visiting Ocean City, as her parents owned property here. When she became older, she worked at various resort mainstays such as Dumser’s Dairyland and Fenwick Inn before she went for a graduate degree in industrial/organizational psychology at University of Baltimore.

Pursel and her husband decided to move back to Ocean City, and she commuted to Baltimore for her job with the State Highway Administration. Later, she worked with the Tri-County Council in workforce development and taught adjunct at the Salisbury University Perdue Business School.

Then, Pursel saw a newspaper ad for the Greater Ocean City Chamber of Commerce and decided to go for it.

“I felt that professional opportunities like this don’t come up very often,” she said. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

In those early days, Ocean City was just starting to collect the room tax to use for marketing and the recession hit. Pursel said using that 2 percent for marketing kept the resort afloat in the next years.

“We felt our guests’ pain, so that’s when the free events started and businesses started to adapt with $4.99 lunch specials. Some of the businesses that historically stayed open all year closed that winter,” she said. “It was either adapt or they didn’t make it. We didn’t cut our marketing, while other jurisdictions did and they’re still feeling the pain of not advertising for a year.”

Pursel spent her first years assembling her team and assessing operations. She met with the board for three-year strategic planning that would allow the chamber to become a leading force in business advocacy.

When the staff had autonomy, Pursel started establishing the organization’s reputation by serving on several boards. Among those commissions were the Maryland Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives, the Maryland Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, the Salisbury University Perdue School of Business Executive Advisory Board and Tri County Tourism Committee.

“My goal was to elevate our credibility and our voice by joining regional and statewide boards,” she said. “Now, the Maryland Chamber of Commerce calls me first if there’s an issue. We’re a strong, incredible business organization.”

Pursel said that one of the challenges over the decade has been keeping on top of legislative matters, since she had little experience.

“There was a big learning curve, but it’s very rewarding when you’re able to defeat a bill or pass one,” she said. “It’s very hard keeping the job-killing bills at bay, because we have one senator and three delegates against the full force of a metropolitan area.”

Lately, her primary focus is ensuring the paid sick leave veto stays intact and fighting potential rollbacks of the J-1 student visa program. A few businesses have yet to return surveys on the J-1 visa program, but Pursel is confident that Ocean City would be hit hard if it was cut.

“We’ve had economic growth since I’ve been here, but Ocean City’s population has stayed the same,” she said. “The bottom line is that J-1s are not taking American jobs.”

Pursel said she plans to undertake a similar fact-finding mission before weighing in on H2O International car rally. Last week, Mayor Rick Meehan said that it was time the business community, the residents and the council unite to displace the event.

“We’re always talking to our businesses, and I am hearing that some businesses do get revenue, but we need to look at the greater good,” she said. “I truly believe not every customer is a good customer. If it’s hurting our image, I think those businesses would be willing to compromise. We may want to replace it with a town-wide festival.”

Pursel said she’s also been part of great things, such as bringing the Seasonal Workforce Housing committee under the chamber’s purview, since it also oversees sponsoring businesses. Now other municipalities copy the idea.

Pursel has received several awards for her work, including the Maryland Chamber Executive of the Year and Maryland Tourism Advocacy Award for school after Labor Day in 2016, but is especially proud that she works among “tremendous talent in Ocean City.

“People don’t realize how much talent we have, from [Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Executive Director] Susan Jones, [OCDC Executive Director] Glenn Irwin and other strong and motivated business leaders,” she said. “To work with them is an absolute honor.”

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