Ocean City gets ready

Another season: Two new hotels and the start of a downtown revitalization highlight the new Ocean City tourist season.

May 06, 2001|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

Mario Rinaldi is supervising the finishing touches to his $26 million Grand Hotel on the boardwalk in Ocean City - one of two large hotel projects new this season.

Not far away, the Holiday Inn Hotel & Suites will open 100 of its 132 luxury suites at 17th Street and the boardwalk May 17. The rest of the suites will open by July.

Several hotels, including the Clarion Resort Fontainebleau Hotel, the Carousel Beachfront Hotel & Suites and the Casablanca Oceanside Inn, have undergone major renovations.

And starting in July, the resort will kick off a plan to revitalize the resort's southern end, or downtown, where turn-of-the century buildings mingle with modern facades.

The slowing economy and fears of a repeat of last year's bad weather are causes for concern.

But others remain optimistic that the 10-mile-long barrier island will easily fill its more than 10,000 hotel rooms and 25,000 condominium units.

"I believe the [economic slump] is impacting the vacations this year for the first time," said Jim Waggoner, vice president and director of resort rentals for Long & Foster Real Estate Inc., who has worked in Ocean City for 15 years. "I think the economy is having an effect on discretionary spending. Weather wasn't great last year. People may be waiting."

Bookings started out strong in January, only to fall off, he said. A recent count showed more prime weeks available than usual by this time last year. Even so, the strong start at the first of the year made it possible to come out 5 percent above the number of bookings in the same January-mid-April period last year, Waggoner said.

But another Ocean City real estate broker has even better booking numbers. O'Conor, Piper & Flynn ERA reports a 10 percent increase in bookings for its 2,100 units over the corresponding January-April period last year.

"It looks like we'll have a very busy summer, weather permitting," said Susan Jones, executive director of Ocean City's Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association. New hotel construction will bring an additional 450 rooms on line this season, with the new properties adding to the 30 or so hotels that stay open year round.

Combined with other rentals, those rooms will help the seaside town expand from a population of about 7,200 to more than 325,000 at the peak of the season.

Like many in Ocean City, Rinaldi is praying for big crowds to fill his new 251-room hotel, which he says is already 50 percent booked for the summer. The hotel faces the Atlantic Ocean, but has a restaurant that overlooks the bay and the setting sun. The hotel took 4 1/2 years to build on the site of the former Stowaway Motel.

"It's like a dream in my life to have it finally done," said the businessman who also owns two other Ocean City properties, the Americana Motor Inn and the Americana Hotel. "I hope we have nice weather."

Weather is expected to have a major role in the resort attracting a projected 4 million visitors, who will pump an estimated $1 billion to $1.5 billion a year into the local economy .

"Our motto for the year is, `Think sun in 2001,' " said Ocean City Mayor Jim Mathias. "We think it's going to be a tremendous year."

In fact, last year's cool, sometimes rainy summer was a mixed blessing for Ocean City restaurants, hotels and merchants.

While many businesses were hurt by sunless days, other retailers benefited. When the beach became less appealing, people spent more time in retail establishments.

"Cloudy days are good for us because people aren't on the beach," said Tim Hill, a games manager for Ocean Amusements.

That cool weather, though, kept down spontaneous visitors, the people who wake up, see a beautiful day and head for the beach - visitors with the buying power to turn a good summer into a banner year.

The summer of 1999 was just such a season, when the days stretched out warm and dry into weeks of blue skies, a time when merchants saw more business than ever before.

This summer, if the weather cooperates, merchants in the downtown area are hoping a new park-and-ride service will deposit visitors outside their doors.

Designed to cut down on traffic along the resort strip, the service will begin in July. Motorists will be able to park their cars in a West Ocean City lot and be bused downtown to a small existing transit center and parking lot at Baltimore Avenue and South Division Street.

The transit center is just one element in a new plan designed to rejuvenate the downtown, which has seen the crowds and commerce shift northward. (Previous ideas to help the area have ranged from building an IMAX theater and an aquarium to a science center.)

But now, with Ocean City Development Corp. - founded in February 2000 - in full gear, concrete steps are being taken.

Aside from the park-and-ride service, the downtown revitalization plan calls for closing Somerset Street. The roadway, which runs between the boardwalk and Baltimore Avenue, is to be turned into "a model street" with lights, signs and benches identical to those on the boardwalk.

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