(Sept. 4, 2020) The Ocean City Council agreed on Tuesday that the city needs an economic development director position, but exactly what this role entails remains to be determined.
City Manager Doug Miller said that part of last year’s strategic plan update had been to develop a “boots on the ground” employee who would work on targeting and attracting groups, events and activities to the resort, with an emphasis on sports tourism.
“From that, I did speak to many of you individually and I found your impressions of what that directive [meant] was slightly different, but I was able to meld it all together and in doing so I came up with a concept of adding a position namely called a business development coordinator,” Miller said.
This person would be billeted in the tourism department and would have spearheaded sports tourism and coordinate other economic development needs with local and state economic development agencies.
“I was looking to bring it to you on Feb. 11 … that got delayed and then we had, obviously, covid-19, which disrupted a great deal,” Miller said.
Miller said the council did leave a placeholder for the position in the Fiscal Year 2021 budget, although more events caused Miller to rethink the position. Foremost of those was the loss of Tourism Director Donna Abbott, who died of cancer in April, and covid-19’s devastating effect on the resort’s economy.
With that in mind, Miller created a dual economic development and tourism director role, which could be filled immediately.
This person would be responsible for Abbott’s responsibilities, as well as boosting the city’s economic development.
Later, the city would add a lower salary position, a sports tourism and events recruiter, to do more of the groundwork of “selling” Ocean City to investors and working with the county to develop an indoor/outdoor sports complex.
Another option that had been considered was to create a Bureau of Tourism using existing departments plus the new economic development and tourism director.
Mayor Rick Meehan said the role needs to be filled now more than ever, and pointed to actions city officials took during a previous economic recession.
“If you go back into the 2006-2007 time period, when the economy went flat on us … we went out and raised room tax a half a percent, and we did that in a time when everybody else was cutting back,” Meehan said. “And we took that additional funds an doubled our tourism budget and we started advertising when everybody else was cutting back.”
Meehan said by doing so the city was able to maintain a steady economy and eventually saw gains.
“The message … there is when times are tough and you’re in economic trouble that’s not when you cut back from advertising that’s when you increase your advertising,” Meehan said. “That’s when you go out and you maintain your presence in an industry or in a particular business. We did that and it was successful. I look at this as a parallel.”
Councilman John Gehrig, who has been one of the most vocal about creating the position, agreed, although he desired to see the economic development and tourism director begin outreach efforts immediately, as there was no clear timeline as to when the recruiter would be hired.
“This director position needs to be a salesperson,” Gehrig said.
Councilwoman Mary Knight said she believed the position should be an entirely new one, rather than combined with the tourism director role.
“I think economic development and tourism are two very different skill sets,” she said. “… My concern is if this economic development person … is part of this one job, part of the job is not going to get done.”
She added that economic development extended beyond the scope of sports and events and included primary residency and business development.
“I think we all realize that Ocean City cannot survive if all we are is a tourism destination,” Knight said. “We have two grocery stores in town full time, we have, as Councilman Dennis Dare said before, no dry cleaner. I mean what we have is so limited, so I see two jobs here and not just one.”
Councilman Matt James agreed.
“We need a director of economic development … so busy that they don’t have time to worry about the typical tourism duties, such as marketing and advertising,” he said.
The council directed Miller to begin writing a job description for the economic development director position.
“I will sit down with each [council] member to get their individual thoughts and opinions,” Miller told Ocean City Today. “Then the human resources director and I will develop a formal job description. I then will sit down with each member again and get their reactions to the job description. Finally, I will bring it back to a work session for approval.