(Nov. 1, 2019) Money, money, money—despite a strict agenda and schedule, curated by Ocean City Communications Manager Jessica Waters, the topic of money and where to get it dominated resort government’s Strategic Planning Update meeting Tuesday.
“We need to talk about making money,” Councilman John Gehrig said early on the first day of what had been scheduled as a two-day session. “We’re out of touch.”
Gehrig jumped straight to a sports complex project that the City Council had been ruminating on for several years.
“We have so much to offer that other sport complexes don’t have,” Gehrig said. “We need to think big, and I think we can dominate this [market] nationwide.”
Gehrig pushed to begin development planning for the sports complex as soon as possible.
However, several council members expressed their desire to wait until a previously ordered feasibility study is completed in November.
“I think that we are smart enough to decide what is good for our city,” Gehrig said.
He said the city needed to create goals and to identify potential partners from both the private and public sectors.
“In order for us to get partners, funding from the state and enterprises, we need to show them we can do it [generate revenue] with the study,” Mayor Rick Meehan responded.
While the sports complex was one of Gehrig’s priorities, he made it clear that it was not his only focus, and that he believed the city had many assets that it needed to market aggressively and sell.
“We have to determine what we are selling, and think broader,” he said. “[Let’s] find what fits our brand and bring them here … we are more than families, [and] we need to diversify our market.”
He pushed for the creation of an economic development director position, which would be in charge of “selling” Ocean City.
“The bulk of our funds are spent on advertising,” he said. “We need to rethink economic development, [and] we need to be all in, or all out.”
While the mayor, council members and staff concurred with Gehrig’s general notion — and established a plan to begin plotting out the economic development director role — they disagreed as to where development focus should be.
Gehrig’s assertion of being “all in, or all out” referred to spurring economic growth during the shoulder season. This, however, would likely result in the addition of special events, which could be financially difficult.
According to data provided by the City Budget Manager Jennie Knapp, the city’s special events expenditures are a little over $1 million per year on full-time staff, part-time staff, overtime pay and supplies.
“The more we push the season out, the more we need to look at expanding full-time staff,” Knapp said.
Public Works Director Hal Adkins added that his department has remained relatively the same size since 1987, yet the city’s special and private events — and their demands on his department’s services — continue to grow. He said virtually the same thing seven years ago, apparently without effect.
Following the 2008/09 recession, the city introduced a variety of budget cuts. At the time, Adkins said his department had confidence that it could maintain its services, as long as its burdens didn’t increase. But the burdens did increase.
“We don’t have the manpower,” Adkins said. “Events need to be self-supporting. Sooner or later, it’s [staff shortage] going to break the camel’s back.”
Knapp highlighted potential inefficiencies inherent in operating with an overextended staff.
“If they [staff] are putting up lights, what job are they not doing?” Knapp asked.
Despite Adkins and Knapp’s input, Gehrig remained adamant about boosting the offseason.
“Do you think we could sell the offseason enough to match in-season?” Knapp demanded of Gehrig. “Because the staffing costs will be astronomical.”
“We need to plow forward,” Gehrig asserted, arguing that growth was always preferable to stagnancy. “The status quo is the problem.”
The number of workers versus the scale of the event schedule was just one problem, Council President Lloyd Martin said.
“We don’t have people readily available to work,” Martin responded. “You can have 10 Spartans in December, but no hotels are open.” The Spartan Race was an obstacle course event that garnered more than 3,000 participants.
With that days’ time running short and with the group unable to find a definitive course to pursue, the session’s participants took on another involved topic: parking.
Hardly lost on the group was that the city could take in almost $1.5 million in additional parking revenues, but only if the council deviates from the resort’s Parking Task Force’s recommendations.
City Engineer Terry McGean explained to the participants that the task force had agreed to recommend a 50-cent rate increase, $3 per hour to $3.50 per hour, in the inlet parking lot during June, July, August and September.
The rates for street parking and other municipal parking would increase by one dollar during these months.
In April, May and October, parking would be free on weekdays, but $3 per hour Friday through Sunday.
Not including the month of September, the rate increase would generate roughly $185,000.
Despite the task force’s recommendation, Council Secretary Mary Knight argued it would make more sense to raise the rate by a dollar, and charge $4 per hour at the inlet lot during peak season.
This would increase potential revenue to $520,000.
In addition, while the task force voted against paid-parking expansions, its recommendations are just that—recommendations, a point emphasized by Councilman Tony DeLuca.
“The task force recommended no expansion, but it’s up to us to decide that,” he said.
Expansions in paid parking could result in up to $961,000 in additional parking revenue, according to data provided by the city engineer.
The mayor and council will decide definitely whether to hike parking rates and expand paid-parking at a future council work session.