Ocean City's day in the sun

Plan: The forecast is cloudless, as the beach resort basks in a prime opportunity to revive its historic downtown.

May 30, 1999|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

OCEAN CITY -- For the merchants and politicians -- and in Maryland's favorite resort town, they're often the same -- the forecast this Memorial Day Weekend couldn't be much better. The weather's great, too.

Beach business is booming along the 10-mile Atlantic strand, and everyone from City Hall wags to boardwalk arcade operators is practically delirious at the prospects for back-to-back-to-back record seasons, a hat trick of prosperity that has prompted the first serious effort to rehabilitate the historic downtown district.

Thanks to a successful sand-replenishment program in spring 1998 and one of the mildest and most tranquil winters on record, the resort's beaches are as wide as old-timers can remember. Warm weather has brought as many as 170,000 visitors on recent weekends, which bodes well for the summer ahead.

As shopkeepers prepared this week for the arrival of 200,000-plus beach goers marking the traditional beginning-of-summer holiday, they have been studying a $40,000 consultant's report that many say is a blueprint for salvaging old Ocean City, the 12-block area from Third Street south to the inlet where the resort got its start.

"We just came off a huge couple of years, and we're looking for even better things this year," says restaurant owner Joe Hall, a leader in the Downtown Association. "All the business groups seemed focused on making that core area whole again. It'll bring us full circle."

Mix of housing, retail

Delivered last week by Texas-based IWG International Waterfront Group, the consulting firm that designed parts of River Walk in San Antonio, the report calls for a mixture of housing and retail uses -- all designed to lure tourists from the boardwalk and glitzy bay-front restaurants to less-traveled parts of downtown.

City officials say construction of a parking garage in the area is key to alleviating a chronic parking shortage.

Another proposal calls for creating a specialty retail area that could be anchored by one or two new hotels designed to fit in with the local architecture.

The next frontier

"The boardwalk is the real Ocean City experience, and it's always been that way," says Mayor Jim Mathias. "More recently, we've seen the bayside develop a lot of attractions. What we've had trouble with is getting people off the boardwalk and away from the water. I really think downtown is our next frontier."

A key element, say Mathias and other city leaders, is the proposed creation of a nonprofit downtown village association run by a full-time director who would steer the redevelopment program, both of which could be in place by October.

A potential sticking point is a plan to eliminate 400 parking spaces at the city's inlet parking lot to make way for a park that would take advantage of the waterfront view.

An early proposal for a large hotel-restaurant complex that would replace most of the existing parking area was shot down this spring by boardwalk business owners.

City officials are leery of further tinkering.

`Have to build consensus'

"Everyone has to realize that this is a working document that is going to change as we move along," says Town Council President Rick Meehan. "Not every element is going to be practical, and you have to build consensus as you go along. We've already accomplished a lot that was almost inconceivable just a few years ago."

Among recent projects city officials note are a $6.3 million effort to bury utility cables and other cosmetic improvements along Baltimore Avenue between 15th and 33rd streets.

Gateway arch

Last winter, the city replaced eight blocks of concrete boardwalk, restoring boards between Fourth and Somerset streets. A signature gateway arch reminiscent of the town's Victorian past is being built at Division Street.

The city missed its Memorial Day deadline, but the arch, which will be visible from the U.S. 50 bridge, should be finished next month.

Granville Trimper, whose family has a fifth generation working in a wide-ranging amusement, arcade, restaurant and carnival-ride business at the boardwalk's southern end, says he has seen at least eight studies completed during the last quarter-century. All of them proposed improving the downtown area.

This time, he says, things are different.

"I think that the mayor and council realize that we have a lot of momentum right now," Trimper says. "There's real enthusiasm, and we can start from there."

`Things are good'

The town's mayor, a self-described "arcade guy" from Baltimore who owns a billiard parlor and T-shirt store on the boardwalk, says this might be the best time in the nearly three decades he has lived at the beach for improving the downtown area. The happy convergence of a booming economy, renewed focus and the general outline provided by the consultant's report are all positive signs, he says.

"Historically, we've had the downtown discussion every two years when there's an election," Mathias says. "We're at a point now where, if we are seriously committed to the future of the town, a comprehensive renewal needs to be accomplished. Things are good in Ocean City, and it's critical we seize on that."

Pub Date: 5/30/99

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