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Vacationers are returning to beach and coastal towns in Delaware and Maryland

Some residents fled to the beaches for the holiday weekend, while others participated in parades. More than 250,000 flags were placed on graves at Arlington National Cemetery.
By Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 30, 2010

A year ago, subtle signs of recession hovered like a cloud over the beach towns of Delaware and Maryland.

Tourists delayed making hotel reservations, then stayed for two or three days instead of a week. The breadman kept selling out of hot dog buns used for backyard and beach grilling, but had a surplus of restaurant dinner rolls.

This year, as Memorial Day heralds the unofficial start of summer, the sun is peeking out again for the coastal resorts of the Mid-Atlantic.

That's particularly true in Rehoboth Beach, Del., which is favored by so many Washingtonians that it calls itself the nation's summer capital.

Hotel reservations are being booked months in advance. Revenue from parking meters and real estate transfer taxes is up. In a rare occurrence, the weekend before Memorial Day was jammed with visitors and restaurants, and summer rental firms say they're well ahead of last year.

"We're off to a decent start," said Al Fasnacht, 81, whose family has run the Funland rides-and-games arcade on the boardwalk for almost half a century. Kiddie rides still cost as little as 22 cents.

Rehoboth's year-round population of 1,500 swells to weekend highs of 35,000 or many more people, depending on who you ask, and there is widespread optimism that this season will be better than the recession-strapped 2009.

But cost-cutting measures instituted last year remain in effect. Thursday concerts on Rehoboth Avenue have been canceled. About 20 fewer employees are on the city's summer payroll, including police officers, street cleaners, trash collectors and parking enforcement officers. Overtime has been canceled, raises forestalled.

"I can't tell you the economy is improving," said City Manager Greg Ferrese, whose son is a laid-off plumber. "But it was a rough winter, weather-wise. I don't know if people will say they gave up their vacation because of the snow and the recession, and they've got to go somewhere for a few days."

Rehoboth has been drawing vacationers since the 19th century. The lobby at city hall is lined with photos of three decades' worth of Miss Delawares, who used to be crowned here until the pageant was lured to a hotel and casino in Dover.

Ferrese's office is decorated with more than a dozen photos of the city's lifeguard teams from years past, all clad in red swimsuits. This year, fewer lifeguards on area beaches and cashiers in saltwater taffy shops and flip-flop shops will be foreign students. Most have been replaced by Americans who need the paycheck.

"When the economy is good, American students go to non-paid internships or travel abroad and don't want to work," said Mike Jandzen, owner of Aquatic-Marine, which provides lifeguards to resorts and private beaches in North Bethany, Del. "In a bad economy, we've got a waiting list of people trying to get jobs."

Jandzen said he received nearly 500 applications for 25 to 30 lifeguard positions, which went almost exclusively to Americans this year compared with previous years in which 8o percent were filled by foreigners.

Some towns and businesses are being more aggressive in wooing tourists. In Ocean City, for example, the town's advertising budget quadrupled to almost $4 million, thanks to a new half-percent room tax earmarked for marketing. In Rehoboth Beach, cottages and apartments can sometimes be secured for part of a week. But weekly rental prices, which average $2,000, have not sagged. Some rentals go for $18,000.

Jo-Ann Bacher, rental manager for Jack Lingo realty, estimated rentals are running 10 percent ahead of last year.

Carol Everhart, the local chamber of commerce president, counts traffic, trash and bread deliveries to assess the business climate. Many businesses, Everhart said, are reporting better sales than last year. But they hope that June is better than a year ago, when it rained 20 out of 30 days.

The stream of visitors from the Washington area was heavy this weekend. The 125-mile drive Friday afternoon took more than four hours, as even two-lane country roads were blocked with traffic.

"Nobody gets fired in Washington," said Don Derrickson, owner of the Sandcastle Hotel and a new bar called Conch Island, carved out of three failed restaurants and bars. "We're only a gas tank away, and our market is still stable."

Still, some tourists remain cost-conscious.

William and Elisa Evans of Gaithersburg, strolling the boardwalk with their 4-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter, said they took advantage of the free breakfast in their hotel instead of going to a diner, and they brought food in a cooler to take to the beach. "Typically, we'd go out, instead," Elisa Evans said.

Some see a silver lining in any economy that has forced visitors to rein in some of their free-spending ways.

Longtime Mayor Sam Cooper said the town's character had been threatened during the first half of the decade as speculators came in and helped drive housing prices up by a multiple of three or four. He said Rehoboth Beach risked becoming overrun and overpriced, and he paraphrased a Yogi Berra comment on a restaurant: "It's so popular, nobody goes there anymore."

"No way I could afford to live in Rehoboth if I hadn't been here already," said Cooper, who lives in a house his grandfather built in 1918. "I don't want Rehoboth to be an exclusive place that takes millions to get into. The key to Rehoboth is to keep it a nice place to live."

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