By Donald Wittkowski
When it comes down to her choosing between Ocean City, New Jersey, and Ocean City, Maryland, Baltimore resident Patricia Haley has some strong opinions that might surprise the people in her home state.
“I make sure my clothes say Ocean City, New Jersey, instead of Ocean City, Maryland,” she said, referring to the words embossed on her garments.
Haley, who grew up in Wildwood before becoming a Baltimore transplant, continues to have an allegiance to the Jersey Shore, not Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
On Saturday, she was among an estimated 25,000 people who crammed Asbury Avenue for Ocean City’s annual spring block party, an event that gives the town a jump-start for the peak summer tourism season.
Asbury Avenue is closed to motor vehicle traffic between Fifth and 14th streets for the block party, turning the heart of the downtown shopping district into a gigantic, outdoor pedestrian mall for the day. This year, a record 500 vendors lined the street and sidewalks to add to a festive atmosphere that included plenty of food and live music.
Now in its 35th year, the block party has grown from relatively humble beginnings into one of the top events in May for Cape May County. In October, Ocean City will do it all over again with its annual fall block party.
Haley, who had heard raves about the block parties, decided that she would finally attend one. So, she booked a room for the weekend at the Seaport Inn Motel on Wesley Avenue and made the drive up from Baltimore.
“This is my happy place. I like it because it’s so family-friendly. There’s something about the Jersey Shore that causes the stress to melt away,” said Haley, who vacations in Ocean City each year.
She noted that she lived frugally for the past month to save up enough money for a shopping spree at the block party. She peered into her shopping bags at all of the clothes, wallets, soaps and decorative crystal stones she bought on Saturday.
“I really like the avenue,” Haley said of Asbury Avenue. “It’s nice to find so many bargains. Believe me, I am spending some money.”
It looks as though she will continue to spend money in Ocean City. She said she has already made reservations at the Seaport Inn to come back for the fall block party and will return again in the spring of 2018.
Haley is an example of the event’s drawing power. Michele Gillian, executive director of the Ocean City Regional Chamber of Commerce, said many out-of-towners plan weekend trips around the block party.
The economic impact of the event for the city is well into the millions of dollars, Gillian said. She also noted that hotels, motels, restaurants and retail shops around town use the block party to reopen for the summer season, after a winter hibernation.
“It’s really a vital part of the kick-off for the summer season. It’s great,” Gillian said.
The Chamber of Commerce, the block party’s principal organizer, partners with the downtown merchants and the city to run the event. Boardwalk businesses also benefit from the surge of visitors for the block party.
“The Boardwalk is quite busy,” Gillian said.
Downtown merchants reported doing brisk business Saturday, even though a forecast calling for some rain may have scared away some people. For the most part, the weather cooperated. Skies were partly sunny, with a stiff breeze and temperatures in the 60s.
Ione Talese, owner of Artisan Body Products, a shop on Asbury Avenue that sells lotions and soaps, said she was doing an “incredible” amount of businesses.
“This is a really good spring block party. It’s really great, money-wise and crowd-wise,” Talese said. “We’re really lucky to have such a great downtown and great stores.”
Talese characterized the event as huge for the local economy. Like Gillian, Talese said the block party provides a catalyst for the all-important summer season and also attracts many out-of-towners for weekend trips.
With summer vacations on the horizon, the block party shoppers were snapping up warm-weather gear. Becky Friedel, owner of 7th Street Surf Shop, said she sold a lot of swimming suits, wet suits and sandals, along with some sweatshirts.
“I had a line at the register all day,” Friedel said.
Outside the Sun Seekers women’s clothing store on Asbury Avenue, Lissa Allegretto, of Absecon, and her sister-in-law, Mary Henry, of Ocean City, were hunting for some bargains on the racks of shirts lining the sidewalk.
Asked if she was looking for anything in particular, Allegretto quipped, “Something that catches my eye.”
“But I also like taking a walk down the avenue,” she added.
She and 25,000 other Ocean City block party aficionados, it seems. That, by the way, is Ocean City, New Jersey, not Ocean City, Maryland.