Ocean City hopes to turn tide for ailing downtown

July 03, 1994|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,Sun Staff Writer

OCEAN CITY — An article in The Sun Sunday incorrectly identified the county where Ocean City is located. The resort town is in Worcester County.

The Sun regrets the error.

OCEAN CITY -- For decades, the building boom pushed its way inexorably northward on this narrow, 10-mile strip of sand on the Atlantic Ocean.

Old-timers like Granville Trimper, 65, who ran boardwalk rides at 10 and who now owns a downtown amusement park, watched a sleepy town of dirt roads and summer cottages transformed.


High-rise condos and sprawling shopping malls, bayside bars and docks for speedboats, miniature golf courses ruled by gorillas and dinosaurs replaced the barren sand dunes at a ferocious pace.

Just as inevitably, an endless parade of sun-worshipers filled tens of thousands of new hotel rooms and condo units. Gawkers and strollers, June Bugs -- the name locals give graduating students who flock here -- and grandparents kept the registers ringing along the boardwalk at arcades and politically incorrect T-shirt shops and food stalls that fry most anything.

Then the last of the undeveloped land ran out. The numbers of vacationers crossing the two bridges into town peaked and leveled off.

The recession hit hard, and merchants watched as more and more tourists forewent fancy dinners and shopping bags full of souvenirs.

Today, Maryland's favorite seaside resort finds itself looking inward -- to its very identity -- instead of northward, as it seeks to reinvent itself once more.

And the first third of the season, while not bad, has shown business and political leaders why they can't be complacent:

* The influx of families -- the heart of the more than 4 million visitors who go to Ocean City each summer -- was slower in developing this year after Senior Week, when high school graduates pour into the resort. Memorial Day, the second biggest weekend, brought 260,432 visitors this year, down from 278,468 last year. And there were 652,386 visitors during the first three weeks of June this year, compared with 660,100 last season.

* Merchants report that tourists are not spending as freely -- especially for discretionary items -- as they have in the past.

* With the increase in retail stores, the tourist dollar is divided among more people, reducing profits.

* Competition from other resorts and tourist attractions is becoming more intense, threatening to erode some of Ocean City's traditional base.

Everybody, it seems, has a vision for revitalizing the place. Make it a year-round resort, a magnet for golfers and conventioneers by continuing to add golf courses -- four have been built in the last three years -- and expanding the Convention Center. Build an aquarium or science center. Create a new waterfront destination by extending the boardwalk to the bayside, where tourists could eat, drink, stroll and take in the sunset.

Others harbor notions of small commercial areas for pedestrians complete with bistros, boutiques and street entertainers, a hotel village featuring Victorian or New Orleans-style architecture.

Bring in more families

It's all about bringing more families back to where it all started for Ocean City, the aging downtown hub that has grown shabbier as commercial development followed the condominiums and hotels north.

A block from the boardwalk's bustle, Jim Mathias, owner of Gentleman Jim's Billiards and a nearby T-shirt shop, strolls amid ramshackle rooming houses, some for sale, a mostly empty diner, a former T-shirt shop now for rent and speaks wistfully of the halcyon days just a few years back.

"There was a time," he says, "when all a businessman had to do was show up and open his door, and he walked away with a better year."

Now, says Mr. Mathias, a 42-year-old member of the Ocean City Council, the fate not only of merchants, but of the town itself, hinges on radical change that goes beyond recent improvements such as concealing utility lines and bringing in new trees and street lamps.

The town should court private investors and developers to raze seven blocks of downtown and erect a resort hotel, he says, a village unto itself built around a Victorian or New Orleans theme similar to those in Disney World.

The last horizon

"This is truly the last horizon for this town," Mr. Mathias said. Thinking the town will thrive simply by preserving the status quo can only lead to dire consequences. "This town will erode. It would become another Atlantic City."

To be sure, some longtime residents view that assessment as more than a little bit alarmist and take offense at the suggestion ++ that quaint wood-frame cottages and bungalows should ever be replaced.

But merchants, lawmakers and civic leaders agree that the resort -- which balloons to the state's second-largest city between Memorial Day and Labor Day when the population swells from 7,500 to more than 300,000 -- has reached a crossroads.

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