Officials at Maryland, Delaware Beaches Are Optimistic Regarding Summer Travel

By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 23, 2009

REHOBOTH BEACH, Del. -- At the shore, the recession looks something like this: fewer bandstand concerts, fewer lifeguards at a neighboring beach and a half-finished boardwalk project that needs stimulus money to be completed.

But it also looks like this: last-minute vacancies for beach rentals, good deals on expensive cottages and an influx of families looking for a less expensive way to spend the summer.

That's what officials at the Maryland and Delaware beaches are banking on. As the summer season opens this weekend, they are cautiously optimistic that the thawing economy and frugal travelers looking for close-by getaways will mean better times after an unhappy 2008.

Early signs are encouraging. AAA Mid-Atlantic estimates that 730,000 area drivers will road-trip this weekend, a 4 percent increase over last year. Occupancy rates at hotels in Rehoboth Beach, long known as Washington's "summer capital," are at more than 60 percent. In nearby Ocean City, 30,000 more tourists frolicked on its beaches last weekend than at the same time last year, officials said.

"The crowds are going to be strong. They may not spend as much, but they'll be here," said Sam Cooper, Rehoboth's longtime mayor.

Cooper has seen the city's revenue from real estate transfer taxes fall by more than $1 million from the previous fiscal year. He has seen a $6 million beachfront property, once bemoaned by locals as a prime example of boom excess, sit on the real estate market for more than a year. The big yellow mansion is set to be auctioned off tomorrow, furniture and all, as its owner downsizes.

City budget cuts have reduced the number of concerts in Rehoboth and the number of lifeguards in Dewey Beach, officials said. And although Rehoboth is unveiling a piece of its long-awaited boardwalk renovation project this week -- a $2.4 million upgrade of the south end -- the north end will have to wait for October and $7.5 million in federal stimulus money.

This federal money has not gone unnoticed by conservative commentators, who say that an upscale resort town that happens to be in the home state of Vice President Biden (D) hardly needs such aid. Cooper disagrees. "I don't see any [other] way we could do it, given the current economic climate," he said.

In Ocean City, more than 3,000 residents showed up at a job fair in March seeking seasonal positions; merchants near the shore reported out-of-work secretaries and lawyers applying for jobs as servers and surf shop clerks that would normally go to high school or college students. Some employers said privately that they would rather give a seasonal job to a local than someone coming here from overseas.

Consequently, there will be fewer of the foreign students who typically stream into the beach towns to scoop ice cream and pull taffy. In Rehoboth, for example, employers are hiring about 1,500, down from 2,000.

Alex Belousov, a 21-year-old student from Ulyanovsk State Technical University in Russia, said he felt fortunate to get his job as a host at the Dogfish Head Brewing and Eats restaurant in downtown Rehoboth. Thursday, his second day at work, he said he fielded inquiries from a half-dozen job seekers who turned up at the restaurant's door -- in the span of half an hour. He gets paid $8 an hour.

Rehoboth and Dewey beaches generally draw about 7 million visitors annually, according to Carol Everhart, chief executive of the Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce. She expects the same this year, although visitors might spend fewer days and less money.

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