OCEAN CITY -- The changing face of time has cost Ocean City another tradition.
For more than half a century, as many as six large clocks spaced along the boardwalk allowed sunbathers, tourists and shop owners the luxury of telling the time without the worry of wearing a watch. More than that, the clocks were easily recognizable navigational aids and landmarks -- a place for parents to collect their children, a place where couples on a blind date could be sure to find each other.
They had been there for so long that they were taken for granted -- until this summer.
"Everyone wanted to know what happened to the clocks," said Sgt. Jay Hancock of the Ocean City police.
"It was probably the most-asked question this year."
The answer to that question began with an effort by Ocean City's mayor and City Council to find new sources of municipal revenue. Last spring, they decided that businesses or other advertisers might be willing to pay handsomely for the right to put up clocks on the boardwalk that bore their company logos.
So, they put out the whole process for bid.
This prompted the Esskay Quality Meat Co., which had been putting up the clocks each spring and taking them down each autumn since the end of World War II, to decide it was not worthwhile to take the three remaining working clocks out of storage and put them up for the summer season that ended on Labor Day.
Ironically, the company had been on the verge of spending $29,000 for new digital clocks to replace the old, conventional clocks that had sat atop poles along the boardwalk. Originally, there had been six clocks, but over the years three broke down and were abandoned, their parts used to keep the others -- at Division Street, Ninth Street and 24th Street -- running.
"We were all ready to go," said Sue T. Heil, an administrative assistant at Esskay. "But they said they wanted to put it out for bid. They said it was too late to put out the bids this year and that we could put them up this year. But why pay $29,000 to put up the clocks for one year?
"In addition to the cost of the clocks, we paid $3,500 a year to service them as well as pay the electric bill. We were highly disappointed."
When Esskay first put up the clocks, Ocean City was still in its infancy as a resort city. The contract had been a handshake between company officials and the city fathers.
"There was never a contract, and they never paid the city anything," said Ocean City's mayor, Roland "Fish" Powell. "It was probably started years ago when someone here said, 'Oh, go ahead and put them up.' It was a way of life and no one paid any attention to it."
But that changed along with the city's growing need for revenue and the realization that seemingly minor concessions can mean big money for the municipal treasury.
Mayor Powell said, for example, that the city used to receive only a small amount of money from firms that handled umbrella and chair rentals on the beaches until those were put out for bid.
"It was unbelievable how much they were making," he said. "We were only getting a few thousand dollars at the time, and that jumped to a couple hundred thousand."
The mayor said the council did not think it was right for Esskay to have the privilege of putting up the clocks for advertising purposes year after year.
But that is not to say the old clocks haven't been missed.
"I've got more people coming up and asking me about that clock," said an employee of an arcade at Ninth Street who gave his name only as Bob. "It's a landmark. That's where people used to meet each other."
Bob Givarz, who operates the Alaska Stand at Ninth Street, also misses the clock, too. "I guess just because it's been there so long," he said. "People used it as a reference."
Mayor Powell acknowledged that he did have a lot of people asking him for the time on the boardwalk this year, and he said he got about a half-dozen letters asking about the clocks.
But he says he is confident that a new set of landmark clocks will soon be up to replace the old Esskay clocks.
"I feel certain we will have clocks up there next summer," he said, but frankly, "it doesn't matter to me. I always wear a %J watch."