Ocean City primed for a banner year

Blue-sky town: Ocean City is all dressed up and ready for the party, if only the weather will cooperate.

May 14, 2000|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

Marty Moran, captain of the 42-foot charter fishing boat "Memory Maker," would love to see a repeat of last summer - except with calmer winds.

"My book is getting filled up," said Moran, whose Ocean City charter trips cost $1,000 a day. "Right now, it looks like it should be as good or better then last year."

That's provided the winds stay light. Last year, he booked 94 all-day trips but ran only 70 charters, losing the rest to strong gusts.

"If you have a wind of 15 or 20 knots, it can be a great day at the beach, but if you're 40 or 50 miles offshore, the seas build up and it's a rough ride back home," he said.

"If it's too windy to fish, that puts more people on the golf courses and in the amusements. What might be bad for us is good for someone else."

Moran, like the rest of Ocean City, is focused on Memorial Day weekend - the official start of the summer season, when vacationers will descend on the seaside resort transforming it from a town of about 7,500 to one that will number 325,000 people at season's peak.

The tourist season is the lifeline of businesses in Ocean City, of course, providing an economic impact of between $1 billion and $1.5 billion, said Martha Bennett, the city's finance administrator.

Last year has been described by merchants and town officials as the best ever for Ocean City. By most accounts, the resort, which plays host to 8 million visitors a year, is on the cusp of another banner year.

Officials report an increase in the number of phone calls and Internet requests to the visitors' center for information. And hotels and real estate agents say bookings are well ahead of last year.

The 10-mile-long barrier island has more than 10,000 rooms and 25,000 condominium units.

Already, Long & Foster Real Estate Inc. report summer rentals up 20 percent over the corresponding period last year. O'Conor, Piper & Flynn ERA reports a 25 percent increase on its 2,020 units.

Moore, Warfield & Glick Inc. Realtors is reaping the benefits of the strong economy and favorable interest rates. It is selling 3 1/2 condominiums seven days a week, compared with two a day in the past, said company President Bob Warfield.

Visitors will see a resort more shiny and polished than ever. Several new hotels open this season: The Park Place Hotel, with 90 rooms; the Hotel Monte Carlo, with 70; and the Holiday Inn Express, with 122 rooms and suites. In addition, a $7.7 million renovation is being completed at the Hotel Carousel & Resort, one of the seaside resort's best known landmarks, which features 264 rooms and 190 condominiums.

The second phase of the boardwalk renovation, a $3.5 million project, has been completed. The boardwalk train has been moved and elevated so that it travels out over the amusement pier before returning to run parallel with the boardwalk.

And metered parking in the inlet parking lot has been replaced with a gated system on a lot that will hold 1,201 cars. The new system will eliminate the irritation of having to feed the meters or of finding a parking ticket because of an expired meter.

"Ocean City will have the best season ever if we continue to be blessed by God with good weather," said Ocean City Mayor Jim Mathias. "Our attractions are cleaner, fresher, brighter. Our roads are wider; the accommodations are newer. "

As always, the wrinkle is the weather. Just three years ago, the resort got off to a terrible start because of usually cool weather and rain that continued through June.

The mayor was reminded of that recently while attending the National Hurricane Conference in New Orleans. This year forecasters are predicting 11 storms - three of which could be major ones, said Mathias."We say our prayers," the mayor added. "We live right here on the fault line of Mother Nature. We're at the edge of the Earth."

Captain Moran knows what it's like being at the mercy of the weather. Hot or rainy. Extremely hot weather, for instance, can create a network of warm eddies devoid of fish.

"When people are in town and they see boats coming back with no fish, they're not going to rent a boat," he said. "People look at the flags that tell which kinds of fish have been caught. If they don't see the flags flying, they may decide to play a round of golf instead."

If the weather cooperates, the season should be a good one. Even higher gasoline prices are not expected to cut down on the number of tourists.

"When gas prices go up, we've never been hurt," said Donna Abbott, a spokesman for the town's Department of Tourism. "Largely, that's because of our proximity to Washington, Philadelphia and Baltimore. We're less than a tankful of gas away. People who may have gone to Florida or Myrtle Beach or Hilton Head may come here instead."

The only cloud over the season is some unrest in the business community over the town's decision to raise the fee for riding the boardwalk train - from $2 one way and $3 round trip to $2.50 each way - and proposed increases in hotel, amusement and property taxes and parking.

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