- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 22, 2003

OCEAN CITY — The biggest threat looming over businesses here this weekend is the rain that promises to dampen the start of the critical summer season.

Despite the sluggish economy and the heightened terror alert, restaurants, hotels and boardwalk merchants point to Mother Nature as their biggest enemy, especially after a harsh winter and soggy spring.

“This is such a weather-dependent weekend,” said Susan Jones, executive director of the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association, adding that only a few hotels are sold out for the holiday weekend.

Beaches have been successful in extending the summer season from early May to late September, but Memorial Day weekend still marks the unofficial start of summer. Nationwide, 35 million people are expected to travel this weekend, according to AAA Mid-Atlantic.

Nearly 479,000 Washington-area residents are planning to travel during the weekend, AAA Mid-Atlantic said. Some of those road warriors may be making the 150-mile trip to Ocean City, as beaches continue to be the top destination for summer travelers. During the weekend last year, an estimated 238,000 people hit Ocean City, compared with 216,000 in 2001.

Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay Bridge Authority expects 332,344 cars to cross the bridge during the three-day weekend, a 3 percent increase over last year.

But those numbers won’t hold up if the weather is dreary. Wind and rain are expected tomorrow, turning to partly cloudy Sunday and scattered thunderstorms Monday, according to the Weather Channel’s Web site (www.weather.com).

“I don’t know what to expect because they are calling for lousy weather,” said Fred King, who, with his brother Dan, owns Kingie’s funnel-cake shop on the boardwalk. Business has been slow at the nearly 60-year-old eatery thanks to the weather.

“We’re anxious for things to get busy,” Dan King said.

Norma Koons, owner of Jessica’s Fudge House on the boardwalk, is concerned but remains optimistic.

“I think it’s going to be a good season,” she said. “I think people are tired of being cooped up because of the harsh winter.”

Many Ocean City merchants say business doesn’t pick up considerably until the peak months of July and August. The town draws an average of about 8 million visitors annually — half of them between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

Hoteliers don’t know what to expect this year. Despite discounted rates and package deals for the town’s more than 10,000 hotel rooms, vacationers are continuing to wait until the last minute to book trips.

“The economy is making people shop around,” Ms. Jones said. “It’s not stopping people from coming here; they’re just waiting until the last minute.”

But even they won’t come if the weather doesn’t cooperate — and that could be a devastating start to the season.

“If you have a bad Memorial Day, it could take a business out,” said Leighton Moore, owner of the popular, 15-year-old Seacrets nightclub and restaurant at 49th Street on the Assawoman Bay.

The bad weather in the off-season has hurt sales, he said. And if it continues, business could drop about 50 percent this weekend.

Mr. Moore this season has lowered daytime prices to draw crowds in case rain keeps patrons away at night.

Earlier this week, Mr. Moore was busy overseeing another expansion of his vast Jamaica-themed, indoor-outdoor complex, which can hold as many 3,500 people. Every year since opening as a tiny tiki bar, Mr. Moore has added to and upgraded his business.

Each year he fills the property with 250 to 300 new palm trees, at a cost of about $350,000, and buys a $100,000 tent to cover part of the grounds.

This year, a $3 million expansion ranges from such amenities as a waterfall, bakery, clothing boutique and information booth to necessities such as an upgraded security system and widening entrances and exits.

“This is our most aggressive year [for expansion],” Mr. Moore said.

Earlier this week, on one of the only days the sun was shining, workers hammered away to get the buildings constructed in time for the Memorial Day rush.

“For a business to be successful, they have to reinvent themselves,” said Ocean City Mayor Jim Mathias. “And Memorial Day is a good target time for that.”

Other businesses have expanded and refurbished during the off-season. Dumser’s Dairyland, a 64-year-old ice cream institution, recently opened a 12,000-square-foot building downtown, which serves as a restaurant and the ice-cream factory that supplies the company’s six other locations.

Owner Don Timmons is worried about this weekend’s weather and said his three boardwalk locations will suffer the most. But since Memorial Day marks only the start of the season, he’s more concerned that the weather won’t cooperate during the busier months.

“I have a fit every time it rains in July and August,” he said.

Other retailers like unexpected rain because it drives the crowds indoors — to shop, dine or watch movies.

Mr. Mathias said Ocean City continues to evolve from a summer-vacation hotspot to an year-round destination as businesses, especially downtown where Dumser’s is located, continue to change and grow.

“In today’s economy, to find businesses continuing to grow is tough to do,” Mr. Mathias said. “We’re very grateful for businesses like that.”

While weather remains a major concern, Mr. Mathias said safety remains a top priority, particularly since the country’s terror alert was elevated earlier this week.

“Our vulnerability up to September 11 was thought to be Mother Nature and storms,” he said.

He said the town’s “emergency operations plan” is always being checked. About a month ago the town staged a drill that involved a hijacked city bus full of explosives and chemical weaponry that hit a city vehicle carrying hazardous materials.

About 100 officials including firefighters, police, Coast Guard and paramedics participated.

“If you are a host community, it is your obligation to provide safety,” Mr. Mathias said.

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