Mayor made sure Ocean City didn't tank

Quirky gas strategy, ads drew tourists during tight times

Back Story

July 13, 2008|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,Sun Reporter

Now, let's not get all giddy and break out the vintage Louis Roederer Cristal Brut Champagne in order to celebrate the news that oil prices sagged late last week from $141 to $136 a barrel.

And I needn't remind you of the awful continuing reality that it still costs over $4 a gallon to fill up the family chariot, and who really knows where and when it'll end?

Now, let us return to the thrilling days of yesteryear, when the gasoline panics of the mid-1970s threatened several summer vacation seasons for motorists heading for Ocean City, and led "Mr. Ocean City," the irrepressible and charismatic Mayor Harry William Kelley, to spring into action.

As the Arab oil embargo threatened Ocean City tourism during the early spring of 1974, Kelley and the City Council came up with a slogan, not the catchiest in the history of advertising but effective, designed to woo would-be vacationers: "Only half a tankful away for most cars."

In authorizing the $20,000 promotional campaign that featured 30-second television spots that aired on six TV stations, it was hoped that tourists would ditch their gas worries and stream eastward over the Bay Bridge to indulge themselves in cool Atlantic waters and enjoy the resort's other attractions.

It stressed the theme that it "takes less gas to get here than to most other major resorts," reported The Evening Sun.

"All sorts of suggestions are being put forth for getting around the shortage: more scheduled flights at the local airport, special bus excursions, even the use of cruise ships or school buses to get urban travelers to the seaside and back," observed the newspaper.

Another problem Kelley tackled was reassuring visitors they could find a gas station open in Ocean City on Sundays so they could fuel up.

"Mayor Kelley said he intends to call in local station operators to work out a schedule whereby at least one station will be open every Sunday," reported The Evening Sun.

"It was the era of gas rationing and odd and even days. Harry was the best and his rationale was, 'If you come to Ocean City, we'll make sure that you get home,' and that was very smart," said former Ocean City Mayor James N. Mathias Jr. the other day.

"He realized that gas was a dominating factor in people's lives and that they had saved all year to come to a wholesome family-oriented resort. He was very practical and sensitive to their needs," said Mathias, now a member of the Maryland House of Delegates.

"It was a solution to save the summer for the Ocean City merchants. He knew he only had so many days to make it work, and this is what he did," Mathias said. "He didn't wait. He wanted to do something, and it worked."

Eventually by the spring of 1979, with gas prices hitting the 90-cent-to-$1 range, Kelley, fearful again of its potential impact on the economic health of his city, unveiled a bold "secret plan."

During the spring that year, Kelley had quietly purchased 41,000 gallons of gasoline that he then "buried," reported The Sun, while reviving the "half a tankful away" theme and guaranteeing motorists that there would be fuel for the journey home.

"The 'secret plan' turned out to be a cache of gasoline the mayor had started buying at spot markets that April at higher than market value and storing in city tanks," wrote Mary Corddry, a former Eastern Shore correspondent for The Sun, in her book City on the Sand: Ocean City, Maryland, and the People Who Built It.

"He had arranged for the rental of a tank truck to deliver it, at cost, to filling stations that requested it," Corddry wrote. "The mayor had bought the gas with city money. It was his plan to sell to service stations at the going rate, with the city subsidizing the rest."

The gas was sold to motorists for 50 cents a gallon less than it cost Ocean City.

"OPEC would think Mayor Kelley's crazy," The Evening Sun quipped.

Kelley's "secret plan" brought him and Ocean City national media attention when he posed holding a gasoline hose while flashing his trademark broad grin.

Kelley later told Corddry it brought Ocean City "a million dollars' worth of publicity."

However, even though the City Council had become restive over Kelley's gasoline purchases, and had only passed the deal by a vote of 5-2, "By the Fourth of July weekend, dissenters had been shouted down by local businessmen at a crowded and emotional council meeting, and Mayor Kelley renewed his gasoline supply to reassure vacationers and keep them coming to Ocean City," wrote Corddry.

To ensure that motorists could find gas, the city had leased a vacant Citgo station at 30th Street.

Even though newspapers were referring to the mayor as "Kelleyoco," he continued to ebulliently forge ahead.

At the end of the summer season, while Kelley's gas plan had cost city taxpayers between $30,000 and $40,000, it resulted "in the biggest season we've ever had," he told Corddry.

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