Harry Kelley, bullish on the beach

Ocean City mayor: One of state's most colorful politicians, he led resort into a vibrant era.

Marylanders Of The Century

August 14, 1999

CROSSING the Mason-Dixon Line from Delaware into Maryland, the shimmering blue water to your left is the Atlantic Ocean.

Harry Kelley did not create that.

But continue south into Ocean City and you pass landmarks that Kelley, mayor from 1970 from 1985, influenced immensely. It probably took 20 minutes to travel this barrier island when Kelley entered politics in the 1960s. With all the congestion, traffic signals, shops and restaurants, it can take four times that long now.

Ocean City has had only five mayors. Harry William Kelley Jr. was the third, and the most prolific. His tenure belongs on the short list of events -- the storms of '33 and '62, the boom of sportfishing and the Bay Bridge -- that transformed this corner of the Eastern Shore.

Kelley's paneled office was adorned with a photograph of his political hero, Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago. But the unpolished manner of "Ol' Kell," his media theatrics and fierce hometown loyalty were reminiscent of another big-city mayor closer to home: William Donald Schaefer.

Kelley led by gut instinct. During the oil embargo, he posed before a convoy of gasoline tankers, promising vacationers he'd fill their cars to get them home. Another time, he mounted a bulldozer, defying authorities who'd nixed his plan to rebuild the jetties.

Today, the Ocean City beachfront is free and open to the public. Kelley insisted it remain so. Let other resorts carve niche markets for the rich, college students or retirees. Ocean City covets a family-oriented middle market. Because of this, it has staying power.

When Kelley took over as mayor, the resort was host to fewer than 200,000 visitors on summer weekends and 11,000 in the winter. Today, weekend visits are up to 300,000 in summer, 75,000 in winter. Last summer, the city recorded 4.3 million visits.

As you continue south, near 120th Street stands a fortress of condominiums 30 and 40 stories tall. Kelley lobbied for these behemoths, which distinguish Ocean City from the mostly low-rise coastal development from Delaware to the Carolinas. No condo units were built in Ocean City in 1966; almost 7,000 rose in 1972-1973.

This "Gold Coast" smacks of excess to some, but the towers' vast worth made possible the town's conservative, pay-as-you-go financing. The assessable tax base vaulted from $100 million when Kelley was first elected to $600 million when he died in office at age 66. It's $1.3 billion now.

"When Harry took over, he literally had a city with no infrastructure whatsoever. The police were untrained and wore ragged uni- forms," recalled Warren Frame, a hotelier who served with Kelley on the town council. "He led us to being a first-class city."

Continue to 40th Street. On your right is the Ocean City Convention Center, fresh from a $30 million expansion. Kelley promoted the original $4 million project. Raised in his family's seaside hotel, Kelley recognized that Ocean City needed to extend its season.

Another dozen blocks south the boardwalk begins, with the smell of sea salt, french fries and warm caramel corn. It has been a major draw since the turn of the century, when town fathers laid out the planks each morning and retrieved them each night.

About the only entity not vying for your money is a slot machine. Every mayor before and since Kelley has fought legalized gambling. But his highly vocal opposition was crucial, coming as Atlantic City, N.J., plunged into casinos.

On to Third Street and City Hall, site of many Kelley wins -- and a stiff repudiation. In 1981, the council, fed up with his headstrong style, hired a full-time manager to run the city. Yet even in defeat, including his ill-fated campaign for governor in 1982, Kelley gained publicity for his town.

"I've learned just how much Elvis and Harry Kelley have in common," current Mayor James N. Mathias said. "They both live forever."

To leave the town, take U.S. 50 over Sinepuxent Bay, busy with charter boats and jet skiers. You can't avoid a final reminder of the man who helped make Ocean City when you cross the Harry Kelley Memorial Bridge.

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