Downtown Carts Need Another Look
Faced with constant complaints from at least one merchant, it was said throughout the summer the carts on Somerset Street will be discussed extensively over the offseason. When those talks take place, there is only one conclusion to make - they should not be permitted unless the operators follow the rules.
The only way Ocean City can allow these carts to return is if they truly do not sell the same wares as the shops that pay large amounts of rent on the block and if they severely limit where they can set up. Neither of which happened this summer.
We checked out the situation on Labor Day weekend after fielding routine complaints from Ocean Pines resident Al 'Pop' Wendling, who owns a business along the block. While we did not see the carts set up directly along the Boardwalk as has been confirmed by a number of sources, there's no question the carts are competing directly with the Somerset Street merchants. That's exactly what was not to happen and defeats the intent to create viable businesses on the model street program.
Outside of special events, such as the White Marlin Festival and Crab Soup Cookoff in June and the concerts and classic car events during the summer, Somerset Street Plaza is still struggling to accomplish one of its goals - to get people off the Boardwalk and circulating through downtown. We do not feel like that's something to be ashamed of because it's been a short amount of time since the block was made pedestrian only. These things take time.
Getting pedestrians to leave the boards every once and while and venture into the downtown core is a worthy initiative, one that's closer now than ever to being realized. With Somerset Street, Sunset Park, the weekend flea markets and the pending parking garage, there are more reasons for people to leave the Boardwalk and explore old town. However, it will always be a challenge to get people mingling through the downtown core, that is the area between Baltimore and Philadelphia avenues. Many municipalities have similar struggles with their downtown as Ocean City in this respect.
The cart idea was a good one to try, but the reality is it did not work this summer. If the city believes in the carts on the block, it could be improved with some tweaks and stiff enforcement.
On our recent visit to the block on a Friday night, we spotted at least a half dozen items being sold on those carts that were also for sale in the stores including jewelry and sunglasses. That's a direct violation and runs contrary to the intent of the city and the Ocean City Development Corporation, which is to be applauded for dreaming up the idea of having a pedestrian-only block in the downtown area.
What does work on Somerset Street is the entertainment and special events and that should continue to be pursued, if not expanded, for future seasons. The sound of music does draw people off the Boardwalk and gets them into those businesses. Last June's White Marlin Festival enjoyed its best attendance yet.
It was said often this summer the carts were putting the merchants on the block out of business. That's hard to believe but we also understand they were not serving the intended purpose It's important to mention here it's not a guarantee every business will be a success when it's opened no matter where it is. Clearly, having a viable retail business takes a lot of effort and a niche, the least of which is a reason to exist and carrying items of interest. However, we agree the carts exacerbated the problems of a gloomy retail picture along the block.
When the OCDC and the city examine the carts in the coming months, they need to determine whether the carts, even if they were following the guidelines, have been successful in bringing people to Somerset Street. If they find that they have helped, there must be some strict enforcement of the rules.