We need a course change. Our focus has been on how to make money off of Ocean City in the short term … where we can build next … how much inventory we’ll have to sell this year. Instead we should be focusing on how to make Ocean City both a better place to live and vacation. Isn’t that the purpose of a municipal government? Taking such a short sighted approach can only lead to a future defined by accident. If you need proof of that think of how Ocean City has changed over the past decade or two. Is it a better place to live or vacation today?
Many would say that the future is already determined … that we passed a tipping point … that there’s nothing to do now but keep on keeping on. We had our opportunities to chart a different course but chose instead the path to short term profitability. Hey it might be true that it’s already too late for Ocean City, but those that proclaim it the loudest are those who benefit the most from the old tried and true … the “here a duplex there a duplex everywhere a duplex” crowd. If that’s where the money is it’s also what created the Ocean City we know today.
What follows is a vision for an Ocean City I’m skeptical will ever exist. You can call it a dream if you like. Yet if it’s a dream that we share, and if we all take a stake in it, some part of it may come true. I’m going to cover a lot of ground so I envision this as a series. I can’t do it in one editorial. This is part one.
Two factors came into play to provide the opportunity I referred to. The first was the loss of commercial business. It’s bad enough losing businesses but what’s worse is rezoning that commercial land for yet more high density residential development. The second factor was a decline in property values. Taken together they offered an opportunity. A barrier was lowered by the (relatively) lower cost of land acquisition.
One opportunity was to develop traditional single family neighborhoods that are more appealing as residences. Remember single family? It was the buzzword at the last ward election. From single family came Coastal Cottage and condominiums. The tune is the same but the words have changed to “here a condo, there a condo, everywhere a condo.” That lower cost of acquisition only resulted in even greater density and increased profit margins for the developer.
The second opportunity was to increase open space. Two of those commercial parcels along Haven could have been converted to park land. I attended an Environmental Commission meeting where the concept of a linear park was proposed. What better place for park land than along Haven? Can you imagine a park within walking distance of virtually every home in Ocean City? The wildlife preserve towards the South end of town runs along Haven and with good reason. Haven Avenue is one of the lowest areas on the island and is subject to recurring flooding. Much better I think to have converted that land to open space than to build housing in a swamp. So much for missed opportunities.
Our most pressing problem is the loss of residents. Our population decreased from 17,000 to 11,000 as of the last census. A loss of residents (and consumer demand) results in a corresponding loss of businesses. A thriving business environment is the backbone of any community. It’s difficult to attract residents without a commercial base, and difficult to retain commercial without a stable market for goods and services. We’re losing both and as a result Ocean City is dying as a community. Why aren’t we addressing that?
If we’re going to turn things around we need to play to our strengths. Ocean City is primarily a retirement community. We should be promoting Ocean City not only as a place to vacation but as a place to retire to. To that end we should be building more modest single family (retirement) homes.
If we can build up our population we’ll create demand for commercial. We don’t need to subsidize commercial investment. We need to create demand for it. In time we might be able to attract working families too … business owners and job opportunities. Once commercial is converted to residential there’s no turning back. What we’re doing is selling off our future as a community. People do not want to live where there’s an absence of goods and services; of places to go and things to do.
The remaining challenge is to find a way to make Ocean City a destination in the off season. I’m not sure how we can accomplish that but I am sure that building more vacation homes isn’t the solution. Word is the “Solaris” is back on. Doubtless the provisions of the new Hospitality Zone have made it viable. What is contemplated is a high rise (for Ocean City) condominium complex in parking lot adjacent to Flanders. Imagine instead an all season resort with conference rooms. Flanders is probably the closest thing we have to a conference center. That parking lot would be a natural location for a convention complex.
The next installment of this editorial will make some specific suggestions as to how to make Ocean City a better place to live and vacation. If you were to ask me I would say that Ocean City peaked some 20 years ago and has been in decline ever since. If you don’t move forward you fall behind. I see so many opportunities for improvement. We can’t get back what was lost but we can at least salvage what we have left. If Ocean City is to survive as a community it’s imperative that we take a different approach. How can we ensure that Ocean City remains a first class resort? How can we improve?