Ocean City's crown jewel Lure: With an expanded convention center, the resort town aims to draw people and money in the off-season.


December 08, 1997|By Shanon D. Murray | Shanon D. Murray,SUN STAFF

OCEAN CITY -- The newly expanded and renamed Roland E. Powell Convention Center formally opened over the weekend to high expectations -- the crown jewel of an effort to transform Ocean City into a year-round destination.

Political and tourism officials, who believe the beach and Boardwalk have done all they can for Ocean City, are pinning their hopes for the resort's growth on the success of the $30 million project that more than doubled the size of the 27-year-old Coastal Highway landmark to 182,000 square feet.

The aim is to fill the town's 9,500 hotel rooms, 160 restaurants and hundreds of stores in the off-season -- when the temperatures are cooler and the beach and Boardwalk less inviting -- with conventioneers and pump more dollars into the local economy.

"The expanded convention center has brought a new confidence for Ocean City's future," said Ocean City Mayor James N. Mathias Jr.

"While William Donald Schaefer was still governor, he told Ocean City that we were resting on our laurels. He told us to take this town, dust it off and get it back in play. That's what we're trying to do," Mathias said.

"We all have high expectations," said Susan L. Jones, executive director of the Ocean City Hotel Motel Restaurant Association. "We all hope this will work in our favor. I think we're on the right track."

Ocean City has increasingly been attracting visitors beyond the peak season. About 8 million people come each year -- about half in the Memorial Day-Labor Day period and half during the other months. But tourism in this town of just 7,500 residents drops off sharply after Thanksgiving, and many hotels and restaurants go into hibernation.

With the capacity to handle a population of 300,000, it makes sense to go after the convention business, supporters say.

"The rooms are there. The services are there. Let's use them," said Christy Freeman, an Ocean City resident and clerk at the T-shirt Explosion on the Boardwalk.

New bookings

So far, the convention center's sales staff has booked 42 new groups, many with multiyear contracts, with an overall estimated economic impact of $69.3 million. Bookings for next year will bring in an expected 161,000 conventioneers, according to Michael C. Noah, the city's tourism director since last year.

Down the road, a successful convention center is expected to add about 1,800 jobs and generate about $72 million a year in visitor spending by 2000.

But Ocean City, say industry officials, faces stiff competition in the fight for convention bookings and dollars.

"Meeting planners have so many options. There's an over-abundance of facilities," said Don Jewell, president of facility consultants for the International Convention Center Conference in Texas.

"The competition among beach resorts is even more intense," he said. "Resorts primarily attract the corporate market, whose members have discriminating tastes and look for perks."

Ripple effect

Optimism stemming from the convention center expansion has prompted business owners to undertake millions of dollars of renovations to their properties in anticipation of more visitors.

Five hotels are planning upscale renovations that will add 500 rooms. Construction is also planned on a 200-room Holiday Inn conference hotel.

"The meeting space has outstripped the number of hotel rooms," said Leonard P. Berger, who is building the Holiday Inn and renovating his 60-room Ocean Club Gateway Hotel. Berger also owns the Sheraton Fontainebleau Hotel.

Dominant force

The two-story convention center, renamed in honor of Ocean City former's mayor, is the largest between Virginia Beach, Va., and Philadelphia, excluding Baltimore and Washington, and can be expanded by another 30,000 square feet.

Its original space -- 69,000 square feet -- was remodeled. A new wing on the center's south side houses a visitors center, while the bulk of the expansion, on the north side, contains the new main entrance and a 50,000-square-foot main exhibit hall.

Wall dividers can be added to make meeting rooms larger or smaller. The ballroom has a removable dance floor, the main exhibition hall has removable carpet and the restrooms can be shifted to accommodate a majority male or female event.

The result, said the city's new media services manager, Donna Abbott, is a state-of-the-art facility that is "extremely functional."

Along with the expanded convention center are other efforts aimed at expanding tourism.

The city is heavily promoting its golf courses to attract year-round visitors, and it has started a $3.5 million, two-year Boardwalk redevelopment project that includes putting utility lines underground.

The city is pursuing an IMAX theater and a branch of the National Aquarium. There are plans to attract theme restaurants and upscale retail shops.

And the city's marketing area also has expanded to target New Jersey, New York and New England, whose residents often pass up Ocean City to vacation in Myrtle Beach, S.C., Virginia Beach and Atlantic City, N.J. -- Ocean City's primary competitors.

About 19 percent of Ocean City's current visitors come from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. The tourism office wants to increase that dramatically. Fifty percent come from Maryland and Pennsylvania.

L "We're positioning Ocean City to be competitive," Noah said.

Pub Date: 12/08/97

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