By Donald Wittkowski
Boosted by a strong housing market and brisk tourism industry, Ocean City’s economy is surging overall and should continue on an upward trend through 2018 and beyond, business leaders predicted at an economic summit Thursday night.
At the same time, the city should make an aggressive push to attract more millennials because they represent the next wave in the travel industry and will be crucial for helping the beach town remain a coveted vacation destination, they said.
Brigid Callahan Harrison, a political science and law professor at Montclair State University, described Jersey City, the Princeton-Trenton region and Brooklyn, N.Y., as fertile areas for Ocean City to tap for well-to-do millennials looking for family-friendly vacations.
She said a combination of Ocean City’s manmade tourist attractions, natural resources and maritime history may offer an ideal setting for millennials to fulfill their desire for “authentic experiences” when they travel.
“They perceive there is an abundance of things to do,” Callahan Harrison said in keynote remarks to the business summit, which was sponsored by the Ocean City Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Overall, Callahan Harrison credited Ocean City with doing a “fantastic job” of building its tourism market. She said the city’s image as a clean, safe and family-oriented resort is appealing to multiple generations of tourists, especially those who first began vacationing here as children.
“It is a very sentimental experience that you are selling,” she said.
However, Callahan Harrison and other summit speakers stressed that it is particularly important for the local hotels and motels to reinvest in their properties to create the type of facilities that tourists will want. They also said the lodging industry must make greater use of mobile communications and social media to attract the tech-savvy millennials, who generally range in age from 18 to 35 years old.
“The current situation and conditions for many of the hotels, motels and B&Bs is not the destination that our customer is looking for, and if they cannot successfully find what they are looking for through a digital device, it will not be an option for them,” according to a report on the lodging industry submitted at the summit.
The Chamber of Commerce made a big jump in mobile communications this year by creating a tourist-friendly vacation app to promote the town’s special events and other attractions. The app also includes a daily beach report.
Michele Gillian, the Chamber of Commerce executive director, said there are plans to add even more features to the app, making it even more inviting to millennials and the rest of Ocean City’s visitors.
“It’s how we’re going to stay connected with the millennials,” Gillian told the summit audience at the Ocean City Yacht Club.
Gillian described the tourism industry as strong overall, noting that partnerships with the Chamber of Commerce have opened up new opportunities for the local business community. The new vacation app, for instance, is a collaboration between the Chamber and the Ocean City Tourism Commission.
The tourism market was able to capitalize on other public relations coups this year, Gillian noted. Among them was the city’s selection for the fourth year in a row as New Jersey’s “best beach.”
Other sectors of the city’s economy were discussed at the summit. Grades were assigned to each one, including the school district. Most sectors received an “A,” while the others were given a “B+” in the rankings.
Gillian said the downtown and Boardwalk retail merchants both enjoyed a prosperous year and were awarded a “B+.” She added that business owners continue to look for new ways to promote themselves, draw more customers and diversify their attractions.
The school district was awarded an “A” grade, based on its stable enrollment, academic achievements and innovative programs to support the social and emotional well-being of the students.
“Our community has the most amazing students in the world. I’m not kidding you,” Superintendent of Schools Kathleen Taylor told the summit. “They’re there to learn and be the best students they can be.”
Taylor also praised the school district’s employees. She offered her congratulations to Amy T. Andersen, an American sign language teacher at Ocean City High School who was named this week as New Jersey’s “Teacher of the Year.”
“It’s big doings in education. That’s a big deal,” Taylor said of Andersen’s award.
Another standout in the local economy is the city’s real estate sector, which received an “A-” in the gradings. Industry representative Burt Wilkins, of Goldcoast Sotheby’s International Realty, said real estate sales have been climbing at a healthy rate and are approaching their highest levels in more than 10 years.
So far this year, the average sale price of a home is about $618,000, up 8.8 percent over last year, Wilkins said at the summit. He also said total real estate sales this year are projected to break the $600 million mark, the highest level since $871 million in 2005 during the pre-recession boom in the housing market.
“I’m here to report that the 2017 real estate market is very strong,” Wilkins said.
Thanks in part to growth in the luxury home segment, Ocean City’s total property tax base – the combined value of all commercial and residential real estate – is now more than $11.5 billion.
Frank Donato, the city’s chief financial officer, said the tax base increased by $120 million in 2016 and is expected to jump another $160 million in 2017.
The tax base has increased four years in a row. At $11.5 billion overall, Ocean City’s tax base is now the third-highest of any municipality in New Jersey, trailing only Toms River and Newark, Donato said.
As Ocean City has added more ratables, it has given the town the ability to undertake an unprecedented level of capital projects totaling more than $100 million over five years, Donato pointed out.
Road and drainage improvements to alleviate flooding in low-lying neighborhoods, new decking for the heart of the Boardwalk and a series of dredging projects to deepen the shallow lagoons along the back bays are some of the highlights of the capital plan.