OCEAN CITY — For a guy who says he’s about to retire, Seacrets owner Leighton Moore is an awfully busy man.
Admittedly, the local kingpin of nightclubs and recently crowned “Restaurateur of the Year” by the Restaurant Association of Maryland has a hard time sitting still, and he always has a proverbial iron in the fire. So, when he announced that he would be retiring after the summer season, there were some that were reluctant to believe him, knowing him as a man always thinking of the next move.
Moore’s new venture is not exactly the most parallel of moves in his industry, as he’s been spending most of his time at his boatyard in Bishopville building attack-type vessels that have gained the interest of the United States Armed Forces.
The one he arrived to the interview in last week was a 38-foot flat-bottomed boat that has the capabilities of reaching speeds up to 50 mph in less than six inches of water, stopping on a literal dime at high rates of speed, and boasts maneuverability that could make the most cast-iron stomachs rush for the edge of the boat. Simply put, if you want to feel like you are in some sort of an action movie, take a ride one of these boats. It’s evident, however, that when Moore talks, people tend to listen in Ocean City, as recently referenced by his recommendation, which was eventually approved, to the Mayor and Council that cutting the food and beverage tax in half would still enable the town to fund the multi-million dollar expansion to the Roland E. Powell Convention Center and build a performing arts center that he supports.
Somewhere in the midst of a 360-degree spin in his boat in the middle of the Assawoman bay at a break neck pace, The Dispatch realized that there is no word “retirement” in Moore’s vocabulary.
Dispatch: Last time we talked, you said you were retiring, have you had a change of heart, or are you just putting more time into the boat project?
Moore: I’ve had the same group of guys running Seacrets between 13 and 21 years, and they can certainly run it, and as a result, I was rarely here this summer, because I knew they could do it. As my great grandfather did, I wanted to build boats. He built wooden schooners out of massive sailing ships out of Bethel, Del., believe it or not, and they had to take their boats out on full moon tide and that’s what I’ll have to do in Bishopville.
Dispatch: Talk a little bit about these boats that you are building, and we’ve heard that the US Armed Forces are seriously considering these boats for the future.
Moore: They are metal boats, but I’m using wood too, as wood is cheaper and I’m much more familiar with it.
I would’ve never believed that it would have taken me that long to do anything because it took three construction and destruction trials of the wheelhouse alone to get it the way I wanted it.
We now have a 38-foot fireboat that will be able to pump 1,500-2,000 gallons a minute, a 48-foot and a 28- foot fireboat as well. The fact that the armed forces are even considering these boats is pretty cool.
But, I can see why they would be, as if you’ve got a 38-foot boat that goes 50 mph in three inches of water and can stop in deep water on a dime, it turns some heads.
Dispatch: Are there any boats on the market that inspired your model or is this your original idea?
Moore: The look of the boat is from Alaska, but the ski part that makes it go in really shallow water is our design, as is the wheelhouse that I mentioned earlier. The house is very simply thought but very complicated to actually do, but it’s a challenge and that’s what I’m all about.
I’ve got to keep moving because other boat companies are going to try to copy it once they get a feel for what I’m doing, and believe me, the word is out on these boats far and wide.
Dispatch: There are many businesses that franchise, and with your recent “top 10 nightclub” in the United States ranking, any thoughts of opening Seacrets anywhere else?
Moore: We were considering franchising this place about seven years ago. We patented and trademarked the name here and Canada and the Bahamas and Mexico, and all of that, and when we got ready to use it, another company came in and stole the name. So we are finishing the second of what could be a three-round legal fight on that front, but after that, we may franchise Seacrets.
You know, I had a challenge with Seacrets, but if I stay and keep running this place, the great crew that I’ve surrounded myself with won’t want to stick around, so that’s why I’ve worked hard to make this place self-sustaining.
Dispatch: Everyone is talking about the state of the restaurant industry in this town, especially since the summer was so rough on a lot of the business owners. What’s your take on how the summer went and how the winter in Ocean City is going to be?
Moore: The people who were able to handle the masses of customers when they were here, and those who can shrink and scale back their properties when the masses go home will always fare well. I stopped enlarging Seacrets when the government lowered the allowable Blood Alcohol Content to .08, which I think we still haven’t felt the full effect of that decision. The fact that people can’t imbibe as much obviously hurts the bottom line, but most people are just pointing to the numbers of people who are coming in the door rather than the fact they are spending much less. People are still coming to Ocean City, but they are just spending much less.
Dispatch: What do you see for the future for the local restaurant business?
Moore: The future is probably going to bring more of the same. High-end places have taken a hit, and I think it’s going to be that way for awhile. We’ve got a really bad situation with the economy as more people are being laid off, but still wanting to travel, people staying in smaller units, and the cost of food is continuing to rise because of how expensive the land is here, not only in the restaurants, but in the grocery stores as well. People are going to go out less and bring their own supplies with them when they come here, and unfortunately, I think it could get worse before it gets better.
Dispatch: In recent winters in Ocean City, more and more businesses are closing for longer periods of time, including your restaurant a few days a week. Do you think that trend will continue?
Moore: I think anyone that doesn’t do that is stubborn, especially on the island, because of the taxes and the cost of land that the tax is based on.
People are moving out of town, and everyone in this town loses money by staying open in the winter. Why more places don’t close down in the winter, I don’t understand. God bless them, but I don’t get it because there’s really no one in town. We started closing down because we couldn’t afford to keep playing that game anymore in the winter, and that’s why we are revisiting the idea of franchising Seacrets, so we can provide a place to go in the off-season for our employees who need to sustain their income and have the mobility to go.
Dispatch: The town of Ocean City is now spending more money than it ever has before to advertise to all places off the so-called island. As far as the current advertising campaign goes, how do you rate the town’s message to the masses?
Moore: When a lot of other resorts were cutting back on their advertising budgets, (the town of Ocean City) actually increased theirs dramatically, and if they hadn’t done that, we all would be really hurting in this town. But, changing the ad agency now in my opinion is a bad move. I don’t have any axes to grind or have any candle to hold for the current company, but sometimes you stay with something that put Ocean City on the map more so than ever, and they did that so why would we change to a new agency now in these uncertain times. There’s a ramp up cost in anything, and to just start over with a brand new company would take time and produce a percentage loss in effectiveness, so I’m not in favor of switching.
Dispatch: So are you saying that the Rodney the Lifeguard campaign was a success in your eyes?
Moore: I think the money thrown at the campaign was more of a factor than the actual campaign itself, but to be honest with you, I couldn’t be happier with how this summer ended up, and we certainly didn’t break any records here at Seacrets. We were quite prepared for a break-even type of summer.
Dispatch: You’ve been a big proponent of the town’s approved measure to expand the Roland E. Powell Convention Center and the creation of a 1,200-seat performing arts center. With the start of the expansion being pushed back in lieu of the economy and statewide funding cuts, how important is it for the town of Ocean City to get a nod to begin construction sooner rather than later?
Moore: I think the decision to push it back is political, as there are so many hitting the governor right now, and so many things draining the money brought in right now. Every facet of Ocean City is effected as there are more people in town for conventions or events at the convention center, and it will create more revenue and tax dollars for the state, which they need right now.
I think the Maryland Stadium Authority will eventually agree to go into a partnership with the town of Ocean City and get this expansion done, but anyone who voted against the expansion and the performing arts center I think has an axe to grind somewhere else and are trying to make a point. I don’t get it, and I never will understand why people wouldn’t want this.
Dispatch: You’ve also built a pretty successful radio station (WOCM 98.1 FM) that has gotten a lot of respect all across the country as being a top-notch place on the dial with top-notch talent. What was idea behind getting into the radio biz?
Moore: At first it was a way to promote Seacrets, and now, mostly because of the guys I have, like Bulldog and Skip (Dixxon), it’s turned into something much more. People want to go and see shows in this town, they call the station all the time for tickets in other cities, so that money we could be getting by bringing acts to Ocean City, we are losing because there is not a real place to see a real show in this town.
Dispatch: As Ocean City moves into the future, can this town walk the line between staying true to nostalgia and history, while still catering and offering amenities that the modern vacationer demands?
Moore: Ocean City isn’t a fishing village anymore, but it does have some of the amenities that larger towns don’t have, such as Assateague next door, and all the outdoor sports and activities.
I don’t think the town is going to grow that much more, because there are so many empty units as there is, plus I think the emergence of all this large condominiums has damaged some of the charm of Ocean City.
We can’t afford to lose Trimper’s, Jolly Roger or overbuild the Boardwalk. The only thing I see [City Council] doing of detriment to the town is to raise taxes anymore than what they are, and to not put in the Performing Arts Center. That’s the draw that the town needs for the near future.
Dispatch: So, when you said you were retiring last spring, you basically just were saying that you weren’t going to be clocking into Seacrets anymore, because it doesn’t sound like you are slowing down at all.
Moore: When I get done designing these boats, I want a new challenge and maybe the Armed Forces will offer me a challenge as far as a project goes, or maybe we’ll get to franchise Seacrets, which is something I’ve always wanted to do.
But, as far as coming in on a daily basis to 49th Street, I come in so rarely now, my guys probably have forgotten my number.