Ocean City finale ends on wet note Beachgoers off 27% in holiday washout

September 08, 1992|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Staff Writer

OCEAN CITY -- A wet Labor Day weekend capped a rainy, cool summer -- one that beachgoers, resort merchants and hoteliers may well remember as a season of discontent.

"I don't say it's been a bad season," said Mayor Roland E. "Fish" Powell. "But I think it's been off from other years."

About 215,000 people -- down 79,000 from last year -- visited the resort over the three-day holiday weekend, said Martha O. Clements, a tourism spokeswoman.

She attributed the smaller number to more than just the weather. A later-than-usual Labor Day and school starting early kept many people away, she said.

The resort's first offshore powerboat race, the National Offshore Grand Prix, attracted about 75,000 people, she said. Inclement weather Sunday delayed the event by one hour.

Those who came hoping for one last hurrah under the sun this weekend endured overcast skies and nearly three days of rain. The beaches were largely deserted.

"The weekend was a washout," said Buddy Jenkins Jr., vice president of Bayshore Development, which operates Jolly Roger Amusement Park, Speedworld and Pier Rides.

"The biggest problem we've had all summer is the weather," he said. "It never got hot. And the three biggest weekends of the summer we had rain. It just doesn't get any worse."

Even so, about 3 million tourists visited the resort from May through July, up about 200,000 from the same period last year, tourism officials said. Numbers for August were not available.

But more tourists did not mean more dollars for Boardwalk and mall retailers, many of whom reported sales down 2 percent to 10 percent from 1991.

"In June we were saying it was the weather," said Perry Pillas, owner of Perry's T-shirts on the Boardwalk at First Street. "But in hindsight, it was the weather and the economy. People weren't as impulsive."

Mr. Pillas estimated his sales were down about 11 percent. He slashed prices on T-shirts last week, hoping for a Labor Day spending splurge.

William Jones, manager of the Kite Loft, Fifth Street and the Boardwalk, also said sales were off this summer.

"I think we've had something like 16 or 17 weekends of rain," he said. "It's the strangest weather I've seen in 10 years in Ocean City."

If tourists spent less money in Boardwalk shops and mall boutiques, they also doled out less money to eat out.

"People were cautious," said Ms. Clements, the tourism spokeswoman. "They stayed in their condos and efficiencies and cooked meals inside. The trend has been heading that way. They saved money for activities."

Alex FauntLeRoy, executive director of the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce, said tourists didn't have as much disposable income "jingling in their pockets."

"They didn't go out and eat as much," he said. "They focused on the ocean or activities on the Boardwalk. They didn't buy as many T-shirts."

Mary Tawney, an administrator for the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association, predicted that July and August would be comparable with last year for many association members.

Revenues collected from a 3 percent room tax were down 10 percent in June but up about 3 percent in July, said Martha Bennett, city finance director. Figures for August were not available.

Beachgoers faced problems of their own. They had to contend with sand-pumping in a summer-long project aimed at restoring beaches damaged by a winter storm.

Pumping in the $12.5 million project had been expected to be completed by mid-July, but inclement weather and other problems caused delays.

Most deemed the sand-pumping a nuisance or an inconvenience. Others, like Carol Higham of Pittsburgh, found the sand-pumping, pipes and heavy equipment on the beach to be a vacation nightmare.

"My family and I really like Ocean City, but after this disastrous vacation I doubt that we will return," she wrote in a letter to state and city officials and The Sun.

While it was a lackluster summer for resort businesses, it was relatively free of tragedies. There were no drownings and few traffic-related fatalities. "We've had a better summer that way," Mayor Powell said.

The most startling deaths occurred just last week when a 26-year-old Virginia man was killed in an apparent robbery outside his motel room. His apparent assailant, a 38-year-old Salisbury man, was killed moments later by an Ocean City police officer. The shootings remain under investigation.

Over the July Fourth weekend, the Ku Klux Klan's first visit to the resort -- for a recruitment rally -- was cut short by a crowd chanting, "Go home, go home."

Despite a rainy Labor Day weekend that attracted smaller crowds than usual, many here were looking forward to a successful, quieter "second season."

"Reservations are on course, and it looks to be a good September," Ms. Tawney said. "There's something going on every weekend."

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