Resort town takes a deep breath before the plunge

Ocean City might be a year-round destination, but it still is bracing for the coming onslaught of summer vacationers


OCEAN CITY — OCEAN CITY-- First things first. Next weekend isn't the beginning of anything.

Anybody snooping around town looking for an early hint of vacation season is likely to get a friendly lecture, a dose of propaganda or a familiar spiel: Maryland's beach resort is open all the time. It's a year-round business.

Even in the dead of winter, tourists stroll the Boardwalk. Sunny weekends in February sometimes rival summertime crowds. Nearly 200,000 people are expected for this weekend's "Cruisin' Ocean City" car show. To hear some tell it, the adage about making hay while the sun shines from Memorial Day to Labor Day is passe.

But don't bother telling sentimental guys like Joey Kroart.

A beach veteran who now runs his family's business, perhaps the Boardwalk's wackiest art gallery, Kroart says a palpable excitement takes hold about this time of year.

Up and down the beach, city crews have taken down the snow fences that held Ocean City's most valuable commodity -- the sand -- through a winter of wind and storms. Last week, members of the beach patrol were slapping fresh white paint on lifeguard chairs.

The first few faces of the summer work force -- kids from Russia, Latvia, Ireland -- started to trickle into town. A traveling carnival crew was oiling the rides at an amusement park.

"There's no doubt that it's a rush when everything starts happening," said Kroart, 35. Having spent slack time over the winter doing inventory and framing prints, he says he's looking forward to an onslaught.

"We always have a little build-up with Easter and the cruisers' weekend, but then it always seems like everything kind of explodes," Kroart said.

Many merchants hope that spiraling gas prices might mean a boost in tourism. Summer rental reservations are up 7 percent from last year, and many people are predicting that record prices at gasoline pumps will boost beach business even more.

Something about $3-a-gallon gas has gotten resort business leaders thinking about the mid-1970s. There's been talk about reviving a bumper sticker campaign from that era -- "Ocean City Is Only Half a Tank Away" -- the brainchild of former Mayor Harry Kelly.

"It is something we've been kicking around," said Paul Wall, a vice president at Phillips Seafood Restaurants who has worked at the beach for 40 years. "Even now, even if you have a big gas-guzzler, it's still not far from our primary markets, Baltimore, Washington and Pennsylvania. Good old Ocean City is still close by."

Though it's a year-round resort, a few folks have to get ready for summer.

One business that still operates mostly on the old seasonal schedule is the 32-acre Jolly Roger Amusement Park, where workers from Florida are readying rides for customers who will converge on Memorial Day weekend.

Scott MacNeill supervises 36 workers who inspect, oil and test every bearing and gear in the 33-foot Mini-Drop, a slightly scary ride amid dozens of others at Jolly Roger.

A fourth-generation carnival worker with his family's Miller Midway company, MacNeill, 22, and his crew follow a safety and maintenance routine MacNeill learned from his grandfather and father.

Their contract to operate the rides will keep them in Ocean City for 15 to 20 weeks, a respite from traveling to carnivals, festivals and county fairs in Florida.

"We are seasonal, but it gives us a good long period living here in the same place," MacNeill said. "It's great; we live at the beach in summer and then head back to Florida for the winter."

Soon to arrive in town are most of an estimated 4,000 to 6,000 European students who fill jobs for hundreds of merchants who have come to depend on them, especially as the season continues into September, when American student workers are scarce.

Olga Skalina, a 20-year-old linguistics student from outside Moscow, was an early arrival last week to begin her second summer at Daniel Kovacs' Out of the Blue restaurant. Others from Eastern Europe and elsewhere will arrive over the next couple of weeks, most recruited by a half-dozen job services that match foreign workers with jobs.

"Most of the businesspeople in town are waiting for the kids to get here," Kovacs said. "You know it's summer when they're all over town looking for work. We depend on them, so you have to grab the good ones early."

Yvonne Meyer spent a couple of days last week supervising workers who installed a new metal-and-glass storefront for the Somerset South jewelry store she has managed for 16 years. It's standard maintenance for a building that pays a price for its ocean view in salt erosion and other wear and tear.

"With this weather we've had, the real season has probably already started," Meyer said of the balmy spring.

"Ocean City is establishing new habits in people," she said. "There's a second season now, no off-season, no real stop and start. The popcorn is always the same. The beach is always there."

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