Down the ocean in downy parkas

Winter: Full-time residents and off-season visitors to Ocean City find special charm this time of year.

January 31, 2004|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

OCEAN CITY - Alice and Jourdan Kilgour call it "our reward," these slow, frigid days when the couple often winds up on a Boardwalk bench, a front-row seat to watch the inlet meet the ocean.

Not that the Kilgours, a pair of semi-retired 60-somethings, don't love the beach during the bustling summer, or in the fall and spring when the tourists and the condominium owners still flock here.

It's just that, this time of year, people feel like they have the place to themselves.

"We walk the whole length of the Boardwalk, from the inlet to 20th Street and back again," says Alice Kilgour. "It's so pretty, you lose yourself. It's another world down here now."

This is the time when Maryland's second-largest city (350,000 people crammed onto 10 miles of summer sand) shrinks down to its small-town core of fewer than 7,500 residents.

Winter in Ocean City means residents can plan their meals by hitting a half-price special at a different restaurant every night. Church volunteers rustle up pancake breakfasts. Folks like the Kilgours, who work part-time during the summer, take off altogether and enjoy a far, far slower pace.

Year-rounders have time for lunch at Layton's at 16th Street, where second-generation owner Larry Layton keeps his core employees working, even though he barely makes enough to pay the utility bills.

"From a business standpoint, it probably doesn't make much sense," says Layton, who has lived most of his life within walking distance of the restaurant, an Ocean City institution since 1959. "I think continuity is important. You see people you don't see the rest of the year - they're too busy, we're too busy."

Nearly 40 percent of year-round residents are 55 or older, and most working people are connected to the hospitality industry.

"Tourism is our smokestack," says Donna Abbott, the town's media relations director. "We don't have dot.coms; we don't have paper plants. Even the professionals, the doctors, bankers, lawyers - it all leads back to tourism."

So in the winter months, especially after the holidays are over, people just have more time.

Alfred Harrison, who owns a 9th Street apartment building that has been in his family since it was built in 1926, admits there are plenty of details to take care of now. But he says the landlords and merchants here have always lived a "yo-yo existence" - frantic in the summer, laid-back in winter.

His two sons are among the 800 or so students who live in town. One's in college, one's a 10th-grader, and both attended blue ribbon public schools - Ocean City Elementary, Stephen Decatur middle and high schools.

"The schools benefit from parents who have this kind of time to devote," Harrison says.

No one is suggesting the off-season hasn't changed in recent years. The city and the business community have spent a fortune marketing the resort as a year-round destination, offering an array of wintertime events and attracting conventions throughout the year.

If there's any doubt about their success, count noses when 100,000 or more visitors hit town for the Presidents Day holiday, a dead-of-winter crowd rivaled only by the 80,000 who typically arrive for the long Martin Luther King Jr. weekend.

Of course, not everyone slows down.

"It's an illusion that we work ourselves to death all summer, then sit around drinking beer with our feet in front of the fire," says Patrick Poloney, a partner in a chain of six photo stands on boardwalks in Ocean City, Delaware and Virginia.

Lately, he has been building a faux-Western saloon bar for customers who love to have their pictures taken in period garb. The women dress as dance hall girls; the men want to look like cowboys or desperadoes. Poloney remodels at least one of his shops every winter.

"I don't know anybody who doesn't have to work year-round to be ready for the season," Poloney says. "There is no off-season."

Don't tell that to Phyllis Davis and Linda Golis. The friends from Carroll County left their husbands at home and headed to the ocean for a couple of days, precisely because it's winter.

Walking the beach and Boardwalk or driving past towering high-rises along Coastal Highway, they're practically alone - exactly what they expected in the middle of the week when most of the city's 10,500 hotel rooms and 25,000 condominiums stand empty.

"We made the same road trip last year," says Davis, as the pair sat bundled on a restaurant patio having coffee and bagels. "There are so few people, so little traffic. We walked the entire Boardwalk."

Lots of businesses have shut down, leaving billboards that welcome customers back in April or advertise for summer rentals. Many open only on weekends this time of year.

Visitors, local residents and what appears to be an army of carpenters, plumbers, electricians and other workmen can cruise the 10-mile length of Coastal Highway in 20- or 25-block chunks with barely a pause - a dream when compared with the hectic traffic of the summer.

Sal Fasono, who manages the Georgia Belle Hotel near 120th Street, has been doing brisk business, renting rooms at $29 a night to tradesmen from as far away as North Carolina.

"It comes to mind that there is no time off down here," says Mayor James N. Mathias Jr., a Baltimore transplant who arrived 30 years ago and has held office for a decade.

But the city, which has 500 year-round employees and an annual budget of more than $50 million, still bears many of the hallmarks of a small town, says Michael James, general manager at the Carousel Hotel.

"People outside Ocean City don't understand the community and camaraderie we have here," says James, a newcomer whose company took over the hotel in 2000.

"For me, the main attraction for coming here was the off-season. I love to fish, walk the beach. Unless you live here year-round, you don't understand the quality of life we have."

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