Wrecking ball ushers the `lifers' out of O.C.

Sea change: Demand for building sites has led longtime residents and businesses to sell out and move on, even the former mayor.

July 09, 2004|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

OCEAN CITY -- After a lifetime spent in Maryland's beach resort, former Mayor Roland E. "Fish" Powell is leaving town, lured like so many these days across the U.S. 50 bridge by developers who will soon demolish his modest St. Louis Avenue home for another condominium project.

In a time of unprecedented redevelopment, the sand beneath his place and other older houses, restaurants and businesses is worth too much to stand pat. Even landmarks such as the silver English Diner at 22nd Street -- once an unofficial town hall, where Powell and other regulars still hold forth every morning -- are facing the wrecking ball or have already been demolished.

Change, Powell says, is the way of things in Ocean City, part of a continuing cycle of growth, fresh starts and expanded opportunities that the old-timers he calls "lifers" have witnessed, pushed and profited from through the years.

"I'm not going far, I'm just going over the bridge," Powell says. "My children are here, their businesses are here. I have as much interest in Ocean City as when I was a kid. As far as I'm concerned, it's all Ocean City."

But with developers and landlords scrambling to refit or rebuild old properties to meet demand for condominiums, townhouses and hotel rooms, Ocean City lawmakers are concerned about the pace of development that is rapidly altering the beach town, which draws 8 million tourists a year. The town council imposed a temporary halt this week on construction projects of more than five stories.

Powell's successor, Mayor James N. Mathias Jr., who considers Powell a friend and political mentor, supports the slowdown as town officials craft a new master plan to guide development.

"There is a sense of place here that ought to be preserved," Mathias says. "Ocean City has something on an emotional level in people's minds. We need to look at the balance between that romantic sense of place with the realities of a changing economy."

Hard to strike balance

Businessman Bill Gibbs says that balance is getting harder to find.

Gibbs, 55, grew up on 3rd Street, made his first spending money by hawking The Sun on the boardwalk, then ran the pizza shop at the Breakers Hotel. Twenty-four years ago, he bought the hotel and opened the first of five Dough Roller restaurants.

During the past year, he has torn down the old place in favor of an updated hotel and restaurant.

"I procrastinated on this one for years," Gibbs says. "I've spent my whole life here at the Breakers, but you don't have much choice with a lot of these old buildings. You can't put in elevators, you can't add sprinklers, the fire insurance is sky-high. A lot of them have just not been maintained, and now people are cashing in. It's a tough call, but you have to move on."

Lauren Taylor, whose grandmother, Willye Ludlum, helped launch a wave of motel construction when she built the Santa Maria Motel on 15th Street in 1954, says Ocean City has remained vital by adapting.

"This is the way the world works," Taylor says. "It's not like it was yesterday, and it won't be the same tomorrow. I hate to see a lot of these old buildings go, but the layout in many of them just doesn't work anymore. I think if we aren't changing, we're in trouble."

`Go for it'

Those who remember the decade of 1985 to 1996, when Powell was spokesman, civic cheerleader, lobbyist and the official face of summer, might expect the always-quotable homespun politico to wax nostalgic about all the changes in the town he has left only during a six-year hitch in the Coast Guard, for extended vacations in Florida or on cruise ships when the weather turned cold.

Not at all, says Powell, 75, who served for nearly 30 years in local politics. He got an offer he couldn't refuse, and by the end of October, he and his wife, Jean, will move a mile or so to the new house in West Ocean City -- a former working-class enclave undergoing a real estate boom.

Powell says his new neighborhood will put him and his wife closer to three of their four children. The new place is practically within shouting distance of the beach, and it is surrounded by familiar names such as Trimper, Showell, Cropper -- members of Ocean City's oldest and most prominent clans, who have also made the move to West Ocean City.

"I'm not one for leaving home, and I would have been perfectly happy to stay right where we are," Powell says. "But if there's one thing I've learned, it's that once in a while something comes around, and you ought to go for it."

Diner's future

As for the English Diner, which has operated since 1939, the future isn't clear. Owners Norman and Bruce Bunting have agreed to sell the property on which the diner sits. It will be the site of two dozen condominiums. But they reportedly want to sell the business to someone willing to move the diner to a new location outside the beach town.

In the meantime, Powell will spend his last summer here following a warm-weather rhythm so predictable that friends say you can set your clock by him.

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