Watching Emily and the economy

August 31, 1993

In Ocean City, they were keeping tabs on the approach of Hurricane Emily this final week of summer, but in some ways, the danger to the beach had already passed.

A year ago, some people were questioning the strength of O.C.'s tourism economy after a couple of lackluster summers and the creation of a gubernatorial task force to examine ways to boost business. Gov. William Donald Schaefer admonished the seashore's business community that it was taking its clientele for granted.

But after a summer of dry, hot weather with nary a weekend rain cloud in sight since June, town leaders say they had a smashing summer. Income from the room tax on overnight visitors was up from last year; some hoteliers reported 15 percent increases in business and tourism officials say the resort was as crowded as they've seen it in years. Visitors also got to see Maryland's coastal resort at its best with the messy beach replenishment project of the last few summers completed.

Even in the wake of a fine summer, Ocean City's leaders aren't apt to -- and shouldn't -- get complacent again. The rhythms of going "downy ocean" seem to be changing. Alex FauntLeRoy, director of the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce, indicated that an increasing share of beach visitors are day trippers. That may account for the fact that the city's legendary method of measuring vacation traffic -- how often the toilets are flushed -- took a dip even as other statistical and anecdotal indexes rose: People who don't take a room might not use the bathroom until they're halfway home.

Merchants note other behavior changes in the vacationer species: They do more comparison shopping. They're more apt to stay a half-week at the beach than a full week. The taste in food runs increasingly to "fast" rather than formal. Even groceries that once stayed open 24 hours in the beach city that never sleeps now close at 1 a.m. "I thought I'd never be doing an early bird dinner (special), but I'm doing it," says Jo Ann Thompson, who heads the city's hotel-motel association.

The surf roared fiercely Monday, but the sun shone bright and the town didn't seem too fearful of the pending storm, which was slated to pass out to sea by the time it reached Delmarva. As for the economic winds of change, Ocean City too feels it has dodged the worst of it and sees a long-term forecast that's improved.

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