By Donald Wittkowski
The notion that the seashore closes down after Labor Day and becomes a veritable ghost town can be refuted with just three words: Fall Block Party.
Resembling Times Square on a busy afternoon, Ocean City’s Asbury Avenue retail corridor was transformed into a sprawling, downtown pedestrian mall Saturday for the annual Fall Block Party celebration.
An estimated 50,000 people crammed the blocks of Asbury Avenue between Fifth and 14th streets for an extravaganza of shopping, dining and entertainment during the city’s signature fall event.
“This event certainly showcases our downtown,” city spokesman Doug Bergen said. “When people mention Ocean City, they often think of the beaches, Boardwalk and bay. But the downtown area is also a very important part of the city.”
The Ocean City Regional Chamber of Commerce, the principal sponsor of the event, partners with the downtown merchants to host the block party, now in its 36th year. The Chamber estimates the event pumps millions of dollars into the local economy in a post-Labor Day surge of business for the shops, restaurants and lodging industry.
“Certainly, this is our premier fall event,” Bergen said. “I estimate that 50,000 people will travel along Asbury Avenue today.”
With temperatures flirting with the 80s, the block party unfolded under summer-like weather that Bergen said no doubt boosted the turnout.
“As with all things in Ocean City, weather is the primary factor,” he said. “Certainly, it is as crowded today as anything I’ve ever seen.”
In May, Ocean City will do it all over again with its annual Spring Block Party, which generates momentum heading into the peak summer tourism season. Of the two, the Fall Block Party is usually the most popular.
Some visitors use the event as the centerpiece of overnight tips to Ocean City. Derek and Alison Dentler, accompanied by their 3-year-old daughter, Raegan, made a three and a half hour drive from their home in Chambersburg, Pa., for a weekend getaway.
“We come to the block party every year,” Derek Dentler said. “After the block party, we’ll go on the beach, the Boardwalk and hit some amusement parks.”
Dentler noted that his parents brought him to Ocean City for vacations when he was a child. Now, he and his wife are doing the same thing for their daughter. Prompting smiles from her parents, Raegan Dentler hopped on a pony ride during the block party.
“This is amazing,” Derek Dentler said of the family-friendly activities. “The big crowds are also amazing to see, especially in a small town like Ocean City. It’s great to see so many people come together. It’s great for the community.”
With Asbury Avenue closed to motor vehicle traffic for the block party, throngs of shoppers casually strolled along the thoroughfare and navigated through crowded sidewalks. About 400 vendors sold food, crafts and other goods from tents lining the street.
Vendors reported doing brisk business. Halloween-themed novelties were among the hot sellers at Creations by Kelly, a holiday decorations and ceramics business.
“It’s very busy,” said Kelly Reed, owner of Creations by Kelly. “It’s nuts. It’s insane. I’m just trying to keep up with the customers.”
Reed said the block party is just the type of boost that Ocean City’s business community needs as the town begins its traditional post-Labor Day slowdown.
Shoppers used the block party to hunt for bargains and get a jump on their holiday gift-buying.
Lori Merachnik, of Gloucester Township, was carrying shopping bags filled with decorations and gifts for both Halloween and Christmas.
“Let’s see, I have tin pumpkins, lawn ornaments, Christmas ornaments, bird feeders and pound cake. We also have some items with Ocean City’s name on them,” Merachnik said as she peered into the bags.
Merachnik was accompanied by her mother, Joyce Petrozza, of Ocean City, and her niece, Morgan Petrozza, of Washington Township.
Joyce Petrozza noted that she attends the block party every fall.
“I just love it,” she said. “To me, it’s a good way to meet people. Everybody is in a good mood.”