Weeks of hot, sun-drenched days that baked the Ocean City beaches this summer have produced what may be the best season the resort town has ever seen.
Although it's too early for final tallies, the signs of success are visible everywhere, from solidly booked hotels and brisk condominium rentals to increased bus ridership to businesses surpassing their annual projections.
"Ocean City is having a banner year," said Jay Knerr, president of the Chamber of Commerce and chief executive officer of the Kite Loft, a Boardwalk business that already has topped last year's $2 million in sales by 15 percent. "I'm hearing it from other retailers, restaurateurs and hoteliers. They're far exceeding last year."
Typically, hot, humid weather is a boon for restaurants, where patrons are likely to linger over drinks and food, while retailers flourish when skies are overcast or when it rains.
"The last few weeks have been ideal for both," Knerr said. "If the weather is good, people are in a good mood; they'll spend money."
While the hot, dry summer has been a disaster for farmers and resulted in statewide restrictions on water use, it has been the biggest factor in the season's success, most agree.
"I never saw the summer start in May like it did this year," said Martha Bennett, finance administrator for the town of Ocean City. "This summer seemed like summer in May and that mental attitude carried right through. It never stopped. Many years it doesn't get busy until July 4th."
But improvements to the resort, which plays host to more than 8 million visitors a year, also had a hand in luring and keeping business, many say.
The Boardwalk just received a $3.5 million face lift. A second $6.3 million cosmetic project moved a section of overhead utility lines underground, replaced sidewalks, installed new lamp posts and planted 500 trees.
"More than ever, I have seen group and corporate functions during the season," said Patti Miller, who with her husband owns two restaurants, a sports rental shop and a retail business. "Ocean City has a lot more to offer than it ever did before."
One of the couple's restaurants has exceeded sales projections by 10 percent for the year and the other by 20 percent to 25 percent, according to her husband, Peck Miller.
August numbers are not in, but 1.5 million visitors were estimated to be in town in July, compared with 1.2 million in July 1998, according to town officials.
The town's transit buses saw increased ridership this summer, too, up 5 percent in June, to 850,430 over June 1998. The increase was even more evident in July, up 12 percent, topping a million riders this year, compared with 971,648 in 1998.
"It has just been fantastic," said Nikki Rayne, executive assistant of the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association. "We've been sold out just about every weekend in July and August."
On several weekends the association had to refer people to Salisbury, 25 miles away, she said.
The resort island has about 10,000 hotel rooms and more than 20,000 condominium units to accommodate the summer population of 350,000 vs. 7,500 year-round residents.
Room tax sales -- 3 percent of actual sales at Ocean City hotels and seasonal condo rentals -- were $1.7 million for the first six months of 1999, up 6 percent from the previous year, according to town officials.
Long & Foster Real Estate Inc. reports a 38 percent increase in reservations at the 1,250 condos and single-family rental properties listed with the agency between Memorial Day and Labor Day, compared with the corresponding time last year.
"There's not a business on this beach that is not having a fantastic year," said Jim Waggoner, vice president of resort rentals in Maryland and Delaware for Long & Foster. "The only problem I hear about from them is having enough people to staff their businesses."
For a new attraction, OC Jamboree, the summer brought crowds that filled its 265-seat musical variety theater to 60 percent of capacity during July. August has been slightly slower.
But, like other resort businesses, the theater's operators are shifting their focus to fall, the town's millennium celebration and beyond. "For the year 2000, we already have 50 buses booked," said Dave Weatherholtz, OC Jamboree president.