OCEAN CITY — Merchants and others in Maryland's premier resort are hopeful that that an improving economy, stable gas prices, stepped-up marketing — and the lingering effects of superstorm Sandy — will combine to produce a strong summer season.
Shops and restaurants are being built, and the town is poised to reopen the fishing pier that was damaged in last fall's storm. As the season kicks off with the start of the Memorial Day weekend, hotel bookings and rentals appear strong, and some in town believe Sandy has something to do with it.
"First of all, there's everything that's happened in New Jersey. They're still not fully recovered. We've had a lot of visitors from there so far," said Jay Davenport, manager of Dolle's Candyland in downtown Ocean City, who has been working on the boardwalk for 20 years. He says he can tell when a strong summer is about to start, and he has that feeling now.
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But the reasons for optimism involve more than displaced Jersey vacationers. All the elements of a rocking summer seem to be in place — if the weather cooperates.
Susan Jones, executive director of the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association, said the resort really needs a strong summer. "It's been very soft all winter and spring — probably because it's been wet and cold," she said.
This weekend might not bring an immediate change of fortune. The National Weather Service is forecasting a cool weekend, with highs in the 60s and a chance of showers for two days before a sunny Sunday and Monday.
Nevertheless, Mayor Richard W. Meehan said advance bookings are up this year — reversing a recent trend of vacationers waiting as long as they could before booking. "Things are looking good for our visitor count this summer," he said.
Davenport, whose business has been selling saltwater taffy, caramel popcorn, fudge and other confections to Ocean City visitors since 1910, said that squares with what he's been hearing from his friends in the hotel business. "Most of them say they're booked pretty solid for the summer," he said.
Except for the partial destruction of the fishing pier, Ocean City sustained minimal damage from Sandy. A news conference is scheduled Friday to announce the reopening of the pier, and any other damage has been fixed, Meehan said.
Donna Abbott, the town's tourism and promotions director, said video of the pier falling into the surf circulated nationwide — contributing to a perception that damage in Ocean City was worse than it was. Reopening the pier sends a message that "we're back," she said.
To a far greater degree, New Jersey faces a perception problem as well as a grim reality. Much of the southern Jersey shore was spared serious damage, and officials are working hard to spread the word that they're open for business. But in the northern and central parts of the state, the damage to many resorts was severe — and some are still struggling to rebuild.
Abbott said she's been hearing about increased interest in Ocean City from New York and New Jersey but attributes much of that to the town's aggressive advertising in that region in recent years.
"It's not directly related to Sandy and the problems up there," she said.
Abbott sympathizes with people who might lose business because of storm damage, but she's not apologizing for welcoming any who previously vacationed in New Jersey.
In addition to stepping up advertising in the Northeast, Ocean City is working to expand its drawing power to the west, with steady advertising in the Pittsburgh area and a recent foray into the Columbus, Ohio, market — about as far as Abbott believes visitors will drive to a vacation spot.
Unlike some years, when gas prices spiked in the spring and caused concern that tourism would be hurt, visitors can't expect to see promotions offering to defray the cost of fuel. Abbott said she doesn't know of any hotels offering such deals this year.
Ocean City officials say July and August bookings are looking quite strong but that June requires extra effort to attract visitors other than the hordes of graduating high school seniors who invade each year. So they've packed the schedule with events next month. Among them is the Dew Tour — an extreme sports competition that has been moved from August to June 20-23. Also on the calendar is the annual air show on June 8-9, though some merchants worry that attendance will drop because the Blue Angels have been grounded by sequestration budget cuts.
Visitors to Ocean City won't find a lot changed this year — an asset in a resort where familiarity and continuity are a big part of the appeal. But some new restaurants will supplement a dining scene that's heavy on Italian, seafood and barbecue but light on adventurous cuisines. One new entry creating a buzz is Hooked, with its theme of offering food that is grown or caught locally.
Adding to the shopping amenities will be a new bayside development called Boardwalk Midtown, which is scheduled to open in stages beginning June 6 at 67th Street and Coastal Highway. Developer Peck Miller said the center will include 10 shops and restaurants.
Meehan said visitors will also find a fully rebuilt boardwalk with the completion of a two-year project that wasn't related to Sandy. The new version will be stronger and sturdier than the old one — protected by a concrete sea wall and with new pilings atop a concrete base, the mayor said.
"It looks like it'll last another 100 years," Meehan said.
May David, manager of the family-owned, 89-year-old Lankford Hotel, isn't convinced the new boardwalk will bring more business, but she thinks it's beautiful. "It looks a lot nicer now," she said.
Merchants say they've had no problem hiring this year
Danny King, owner of King's Cotton Candy Stand on the downtown oceanfront, said he's optimistic about the summer season — though not about the next few weeks.
"It takes a while to get the ball rolling," King said. "The kids slowly and surely get out of school."