Ocean City Today

Three-day session identifies council priorities for resort

Thirteen items highlighted including privatizing B’walk, worker housing, room tax
By Katie Tabeling | Oct 05, 2017
Photo by: Katie Tabeling Catherine Tuck of Parrish Novak Consulting works with the City Council on prioritizing concepts.

(Oct. 6, 2017) The Ocean City Council and various department heads were sequestered in the convention center for three days last week to discuss their vision for Ocean City’s future and how to make it happen.

Led by Catherine Tuck of Parrish Novak Consulting, city officials updated the strategic plan through broad strokes. Wednesday and Thursday involved planning exercises, and Friday focused on the council’s priorities, while the staff concentrated on finding solutions.

To some council members’ disappointment, the discussion of how to pay to implement those proposed solutions was delayed again. Tuck stressed that the city needed to think big before drafting a financial strategic plan.

“All of this will come back together, but not in the exact timeline or the exact way that you have hoped, but I believe that this is the first step,” Tuck said Friday. “The long term financial plan will come next, after you reach good conclusions on these ideas and operational projects.”

The final day of strategic planning began with councilmembers literally marking their priorities on a board. Earlier that week, each councilmember had written concepts that they felt were important to the resort’s success on a Post-It note.

The thirteen items that had the most dots were considered council priorities.

Among these are: privatizing the Boardwalk, a potential room tax increase, moving the motor vehicle events, the sports complex and workforce housing.

Resort staff worked with councilmembers to develop possible next steps for each of these items.

As for privatizing the Boardwalk, Councilman Wayne Hartman said that this would solve the council’s issues in regulating it. He said that City Solicitor Guy Ayres and City Engineer Terry McGean could explore that idea, in terms of forming a private agreement, similar to the fishing pier.

“We all know that we spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees [on the busker lawsuit],” he said. “The benefits of [privatizing] is to maintain a historic element of Ocean City, and it could accomplish more regulation and there could be monetary aspects associated with the Boardwalk performers.”

Councilman John Gehrig spoke about possibly making a bold choice in increasing the room tax from 4.5 percent to 5.5 percent to benefit both the general fund and the hotel industry.

“The problem is that we need more revenue for the general fund. As the cost of living rises, we need to pay for it. If we’re really going to do this, then we need to think about a full percent increase to buy more bait [to bring in tourists],” he said. “It’s something bitter today but good for us tomorrow. I’m against arbitrarily raising room tax, so we need to have a plan and involve the Tourism Commission and talk about this.”

Gehrig also suggested that the city could spend some of the revenue on the potential outdoor sports complex that the Worcester County Commissioners have been considering. The council fully endorsed the idea of a sports complex.

“Northside Park and the convention center both have limited capacity for these events, and it’d give us a great opportunity to rebrand the town,” said Councilman Matt James. “It’d probably put all the conflicts off-island, and would bring in additional revenue, working with our Rec Department, the chamber and the [Maryland] Stadium Authority.”

Mayor Rick Meehan, who was the point on the motor events brainstorming session, pointed out that Ocean City’s sports marketing would do little to replace the lost revenue if the car shows were rescheduled.

“Some of the car events will need to be moved or eliminated, like H2Oi, since they’re no longer compatible with our brand,” Meehan said. “We’re going to have to find a replacement to quantify the room nights — a volleyball tournament can’t replace that.”

The mayor added that this could be the time for tough decisions, and the first could be moving Cruisin’ Ocean City back to April.

“We’ll work with our partners on future events, branding and where we see this event in the future,” he said. “We need to create something like that first event 27 years ago when there weren’t many visitors.”

Tax differential was one council priority item that had more questions than answers, according to Gehrig’s brainstorming session.

“I think we need to explore other lines of thinking, like a rebate from the county or a favorable agreement of shared services,” Gehrig said. “We need to answer this question: are ­we willing to not pay for the services that are duplicated? Are we willing to handle it ourselves?”

As for workforce housing, councilmembers proposed that Planning Director Bill Neville consider finding housing standards and creating incentives for business owners. The idea is that happy J-1 visa students or other employees would be happier working and living in Ocean City and later return or serve as advocates for future workers.

Resort officials also discusses the wind farms, the bike path, potentially expanding OCDC, installing midtown ocean block parking meters, possibly creating a parking permit for property owners and increasing the year-round resident base.

Afterwards, the mayor and the City Council sat down with Finance Administrator Martha Bennett to look over a financial strategic plan that would account for several projects that were deferred for later discussion.

The council will review what various department heads have earmarked as priority projects that need to be financed with Bennett on Oct. 11.

Tuck stressed that the City Council themselves must make the next steps in the upcoming weeks.

“Your next steps are to talk with [City Manager Doug Miller] about taking this work plan in more detail and asking more questions of your staff,” she said. “This isn’t a document that ends. It may change with the legislature or a number of things. You can change your strategies and continue these conversations.”

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