OCEAN CITY — With growing momentum, a coalition of small business owners in Ocean City is challenging resort leaders to relax the overly burdensome bureaucracy they believe is stifling new commercial growth in the town.
In the midst of the annual Fourth of July celebration, much appears rosy on the surface in the resort playing host to hundreds of thousands this week, but for some local business owners, many of whom have run family operations for decades, there is an underlying current of discontent and frustration. To that end, the recently formed Ocean City Small Business Association (OCSBA) is on a mission to ensure the “Mom and Pop” operations, the bedrock on which the resort was built, can continue to thrive while encouraging another generation of would-be entrepreneurs to step into the breach.
The OCSBA is founded on the premise the growing list of rules and regulations promulgated by a perceived less-then-business-friendly leadership in the resort has driven out many small businesses and stifled new commercial growth.
“Over the last two or three decades, a cascade of laws, rules and regulations have inhibited the formation of new businesses, the future vitality of Ocean City,” the statement reads. “Therefore, the Ocean City Small Business Association will undertake to remove, mitigate, eliminate or otherwise dispense of these constraints that violate our constitutional rights, to privacy, to property and our right to practice non-coercive free enterprise.”
In short, the OCSBA wants the town government to pull back on burdensome overregulation and encourage, not restrain, new commercial growth. OCSBA member Tony Christ, whose family founded Anthony’s on 17th Street, said this week the town’s perceived attitude toward small business must change.
“We want to return Ocean City to an environment that will welcome small business,” he said. “We want to bring back the blue collar vacationer.”
Christ said new businesses don’t necessarily need a leg up from the public sector, they simply need the same lack of restriction on free enterprise an earlier generation of entrepreneurs enjoyed.
“Risk takers don’t want a guarantee,” he said. “Just about one in 20 sticks. They just want an opportunity to take that risk with an overly burdensome bureaucracy.”
OCSBA member Larry Layton, whose family has operated Layton’s restaurant on 16th Street for decades, agreed the business climate in Ocean City is less than friendly and it starts with an overly burdensome list of regulations.
“City Hall should embrace people coming to town and try to start something rather than curtailing it,” he said.
Christ said while the current season has shown signs of progress, the summer crowds are only masking an underlying problem.
“We’re just a little north of zero growth,” he said. “These vacant stores are a symptom.”
OCSBA member Yehuda Peretz, who has owned and operated Island Cycles for 14 years, agreed the vacant storefronts illustrate the lack of new commercial growth in the resort and the slow death of existing business in some cases. Peretz agreed city leaders either don’t recognize the problem or are turning a deaf ear to it.
“Driving through town, you see a lot of empty businesses for a reason,” he said. “They’re sitting on Olympus and they’re out of touch with what’s going on down here on earth.”
Increased federal and state regulations coupled with higher taxes and fees on just about everything related to small business are a big part of the problem. However, addressing those issues could be beyond the scope of the coalition, which will choose to focus attention on what it can control.
“We want to focus on the head, and that’s the local government,” he said. “They always seem to have good intentions, but the net effect becomes arbitrary and capricious. They may be well-intentioned, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
The OCSBA is hoping to audit the city’s budget and tackle the duplication of services the town pays to the county such as the police and fire departments. Perhaps most importantly, the OCSBA is hoping to put forth small business friendly candidates in the upcoming election.
“We intend to vet and run candidates for the council and mayor that are sympathetic to small business,” said Christ. “We want to audit the Ocean City budget, and we want to inform ourselves on why we pay our county for fire and police, and then pay for our own fire and police.”
Christ utilized a popular fairy tale to help illustrate the point.
“They’re plucking the golden goose,” he said. “If you keep plucking the golden goose, eventually you kill the golden goose. This is an extinction event, a survival event. The influx of venture capitalists has been wiped out. Without new blood, eventually the old blood will go too. There are business people who have been here 30 years who are thinking about pulling out.”
The coalition has quietly been gathering steam with a growing, although not entirely public, membership base.
“The response has been positive thus far and there are tens of millions of dollars is business assets behind us right now,” said Christ. “We have a lot we want to achieve this fall. We’d consider it a victory if we just got one council seat.”