Ocean City's dreary summer puts a dent in tourism

Ocean City began the summer with high hopes for a blockbuster season, fueled by a newly rebuilt fishing pier, the return of the Dew Tour and the possibility of an influx of tourists from northern beaches ravaged by superstorm Sandy. But nature had a different vision: rain and lots of it.

"It's been a noticeably slower summer, and that's mostly because of the weather," said G. Jordan, manager of Treasure Island Sunglasses, who has worked on the Boardwalk for five years. "The ocean is supposed to offer sun," and when it doesn't, he said, people go elsewhere.

The number of visitors to the resort has fallen from last year in nine out of 12 weeks since late May, according to city statistics.

Some Boardwalk business operators say the weather, which has included record-setting rainfall in June and a 5-inch downpour Aug. 1 that had water flowing in the streets, has left them struggling through one of the slowest summers in memory.

National Weather Service data show that the region set a record for precipitation in June, with nearly 10 inches of rain. Rainfall for July was below normal with slightly higher temperatures than usual. August, however, has brought more than 6 inches of rain, about 4 inches above normal for the month so far.

"We had a slow start to summer that was attributed to the weather," said Jessica Waters, communications manager for Ocean City. The effect of rain and lower temperatures could be seen at outdoor restaurants, she said, as well as in the drop in visitors most weeks this summer.

"Usually we see large crowds in June, and we did see that with the Dew Tour and the [Ocean City] air show," Waters said. "But we didn't get the steady crowds until July."

Ocean City uses Demoflush statistics, based on the amount of wastewater used, to determine changes in population from week to week. The figures show a drop from the previous year in nine out of 12 weeks since late May. The number of people in town was down 17.8 percent for Memorial Day weekend. Demoflush shows a 23.5 percent drop for the first week of June and smaller decreases in July. The first full week of August, however, there was a nearly 4 percent rise from 2012.

"The weather is cooperating finally," said Mayor Rick Meehan. "Took a while for the sunny weather to come our way. We got a lot of rain, and it didn't seem to really warm up until we got to July."

Meehan noted that room tax receipts for June were up despite the wet weather — but hotel and lodging owners said the number of vacancies also increased. The receipts were higher, they said, because demand for weekend events like the air show and the Dew Tour drove up room rates.

Susan L. Jones, executive director of the Ocean City Hotel-Motel Restaurant Association, a nonprofit trade association, said the weak summer also is the result of an economy that has never fully recovered.

"Ever since the economy tanked in 2008, it's been slower," Jones said. She sees business finally picking up this month, though plenty of vacancies remain, especially during the week.

"Weekends have been great and we have no complaints — any weekend really," she said. "But weekdays are what's softer. There are more deals for rooms."

Another factor could be concerns about crime this summer, including a brawl on the Boardwalk, a shooting near a motel pool, stabbings, robberies and a scuffle between Ocean City police and visitors on the beach.

Meehan said those crimes garnered attention because they are unusual for Ocean City.

"We had some isolated incidents ... [but] actually our crime statistics were down for June," he said. "The [incidents] were unforeseen, and you're just not used to seeing them in Ocean City. They were the exception, not the rule."

But the high-profile incidents have led some to question whether crime might have scared away visitors this year.

"I don't think you can just blame the weather. It's a multitude of things," said Brent Ashley, a member of the Ocean City Council.

He mentioned "major incidents" and said the town needs to rethink its marketing strategy, noting that efforts to draw tourists from New Jersey and New York have not been more successful than usual despite the common wisdom that damage from Sandy would send more beachgoers south.

"In July, we had many 90-degree days and our tourism metrics were still down," Ashley said. "If you lose 10 percent in June, it's virtually impossible to make that up in July and August because our season is so short."