Shore counting on tourist wave

From Tilghman Island to Ocean City, areas hit hard by Isabel eagerly await bounties of a busy summer season

May 24, 2004|By Penny Hartman | Penny Hartman,Special to

Hurricane Isabel left such an impression on the Tilghman Island Inn on Maryland's Eastern Shore -- about $400,000 worth -- that its owners gave it a permanent marker. The inn's remodeled restaurant now is called Isabel's.

"She was the one that destroyed it, and she stayed for awhile -- so we figured we'd have some fun with it," said Jack Redmond, who has co-owned the inn for 15 years. "It's better than crying.

"We say, 'She came, she saw, she conquered' -- and we redecorated," Redmond added. "It was named for a once-in-a-hundred-year guest."

With that memory, many businesses on Maryland's Eastern Shore turn to this summer's tourism season. Weather proved to be a major problem for shore operators last season. The cool, wet summer dampened revenues; then, Isabel struck in September.

This summer, merchants have to contend with rising gas prices, pushing a gallon of gas past $2 a barrel in most parts of the state and country.

"It's not going to be hard to beat last year's figures," said Rico Rossi, general manager of Seacrets, a popular restaurant and nightclub in Ocean City. "We're planning on a season more like 2002."

That summer was Maryland's hottest, with temperatures averaging 75.7 degrees, according to the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C. Eastern Shore tourism outpaced that of the state's metropolitan areas that season, according to the Maryland Office of Tourism Development.

As for this summer, which unofficially begins this Memorial Day weekend and continues through Labor Day, the temperatures are expected to be above average, according to National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center in Camp Springs.

"Expectations are high," said Deborah L. Dodson, director of the Talbot County Office of Tourism. "We're just praying for good weather. When the sun's out, we do well."

Donna Abbott, a spokeswoman for Ocean City, agreed.

"Barring unforeseen circumstances, we're expecting a big season," she said.

Tourism brought in about $1 billion last year to Ocean City, half its regular revenues. While the town is making greater efforts to attract year-round visitors, most annual incomes there are made in about 120 days.

Visitors can expect several new accommodations this summer, including a 72-suite Best Western Hotel, to open in July, and an 84-room Comfort Inn. Next spring, the 41-room luxury Breakers Hotel will open in downtown Ocean City.

Other remodeling projects near the boardwalk include the 72-room Howard Johnson hotel, as well as Dolle's Candyland, which more than quadrupled its space for selling salt-water taffy and other confections.

"We're looking at a stand-up year," said Andrew Dolle, a Candyland co-owner. "Last May, we had 27 days of rain. This year, we haven't even had half that. The weather's been on our side."

Seacrets manager Rossi added that his new six-unit Seacrets Hotel already is booked for half the season. He's also upgraded his nightclub with a new bar and other changes.

Isabel's damage to Ocean City primarily was limited to power outages and other minor occurrances, officials said. Earlier measures taken to control beach erosion paid off, they said.

But that was not the case for low-lying communities in Dorchester and Talbot counties; Kent Island in Queen Anne's County and Rock Hall in Kent County, said Deborah Rosen McKerrow of the Maryland Insurance Administration.

"The storm surge was certainly 2 to 3 feet and higher in some places," McKerrow said. "If someone said 18 inches of water [was discovered on their property], it was not unusual. Parts of the Eastern Shore had more water than that."

Isabel hit Maryland on Sept. 18 and 19, causing an estimated $410 million in damage statewide, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami. Maryland was declared a disaster area.

Overall, Isabel directly was responsible for 16 deaths, including 10 in Virginia and one each in Maryland, North Carolina, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Florida. The hurricane, which later was downgraded to a tropical storm, was indirectly responsible for 34 deaths, including 22 in Virginia, six in Maryland, two in North Carolina and Pennsylvania -- and one each in New Jersey and Washington.

"The storm provided a forced opportunity for extensive remodeling of many popular spots," said Dodson, the Talbot County tourism director. "A lot of work has been done, especially on Tilghman Island."

'Let's make it better'

Redmond, the co-owner of the Tilghman Island Inn, said about 18 inches of water flooded the inn's first floor. The waters had receded by the next afternoon. He estimated renovation costs and damages at $350,000 to $400,000. A claim is pending with the insurance administration.

"Everybody ended up, whether they planned it or not, better," he said. "Our place is totally new on the first floor. While we were in the mode of making renovations, we said, 'let's make it better.' "

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