These are the last, quiet days in Ocean City, and Roland (Fish) Powell, the new mayor, knows them well.
The Xanadu, the Shangri-La, and the Stark Ravin' Motel have plenty of vacancies. Tony's Casa Di Pasta and Sandbar Lounge is open only on weekends. The top floors of the towering condos are hidden in a chilly mist. A lone gull sails over the green foam of the Atlantic.
Powell, 56, who has spent his entire life here, has regarded the changing season -- peaceful spring to tourist-packed summer -- with the exhilaration and vague regret common to most year-round residents of this seaside resort town. But Powell's role has changed since last night's special election and tonight's swearing-in ceremonies. As mayor, a largely ceremonial, $25,000-a-year position, he now is the town's major publicist, chief lobbyist and smiling host to the 300,000 vacationers who routinely stream into the area on a summer's day.
"The place changes overnight and it's a dramatic change," said Powell, whose nickname is so old he doesn't remember its origins. "It's kind of like shifting a car into high gear for the next 100 days."
Powell, formerly president of the City Council and president of the Worcester County Commission, also is the successor to Harry W. Kelley, a flamboyant leader with a sometimes controversial, always quotable style. Kelley, who had been mayor for 14 years, died Feb. 13 after a heart attack while vacationing in Florida.
"I knew Harry all my life and we were very good friends," Powell said today. "He was 10 years older than me and he was a person I looked up to. I think the things he enjoyed and liked and stood for are the same things I want. He loved Ocean City and so do I."
Kelley, who referred to himself as "the old walrus," was famous for his daily strolls along the boardwalk, shaking strangers' hands and passing out miniature keys to this city of about 5,000. Powell, a short, trim man who owned and managed rental property until his retirement, makes his daily excursions along the boardwalk on an old bicycle.
Unlike Kelley, Powell is not given to wearing flame-red suits and crazy-quilt pants. Early this morning, he was neatly dressed in a starched blue-oxford shirt, navy slacks and glossy loafers. Powell, who said he likes to hunt and fish, is a widower and has three grown children. He lives in a neat brick home with his daughter.
Granville Trimper, council president and acting mayor since Kelley's death, sees a more fundamental difference in the two men.
"I guess 'Fish' is a little more quiet, not as boisterous or lively as Harry, but they've both got a lot of that small-town-boy personality," Trimper said today. "And I guess you could say 'Fish' has a more acquired diplomacy, rather than Harry's 'give-'em-hell-Harry' style."
Harry Kelley's exploits, by now, have the patina of legend: Residents laughingly remember the time he hoarded black market gasoline during the shortage of 1979 and resold it at town-subsidized rates to keep the tourists coming. And they fondly recall the time he defied the Army Corps of Engineers and drove back the storm-tossed Atlantic with bulldozers spreading new sand on the beaches.
Powell, who captured 57 percent of yesterday's vote in a race with three other candidates, said he is concerned about the same problems that worried Kelley -- beach erosion, orderly development, the crucial tourist trade. But he will approach them in a more subdued manner, calling for close cooperation and deliberate study among city leaders.
Most of all, he said, he echoes Harry Kelley in what he hopes for the future of Ocean City -- no gambling, no big-time casino interests, no Junior Atlantic City.
"I want us to remain a family town," he said. "Ocean City belongs to the whole state. I want us to continue to prosper, but with good planning and with dignity."