(Sept. 26, 2014) For most area residents, the distinct sound of the H2O International rolling into town this week is somewhere between a Whoopee Cushion and a bagpiper with a respiratory infection.
But for an increasing number of local businesses, the VW- and Audi-centric car show is the sound of cash hitting the drawer.
And for the Ocean City Police Department, it’s the crisp sound of traffic violations being torn out of ticket books.
“I know a lot of people don’t like it and the town officials want to keep their distance,” said Jeff Burton, General Manager of the 45th Street Village, whose parking lot has long been a de-facto congregation during the week leading up to the show.
“But I think this year is the start of us [the business community] trying to organize this event,” Burton said. “I’m trying to use it to build my business up, rather than just having them sit and take up all my parking.”
The show – known to enthusiasts as the H2Oi – will take place this weekend at the Fort Whaley Campground, the third iteration of the show to take place in Whaleyville and the 15th year for the show in Worcester County.
For nearly as many years, and again in 2014, Ocean City officials have stressed that they have no formal control over the event itself – even though the vast majority of participants sleep, eat, and cruise the highway in town – and have treated the show with what is best described as skeptical optimism.
“The event, even though it’s not sanctioned by the city or organized in any way throughout town, certainly brings in a tremendous amount of people,” said Susan Jones, Executive Director of the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association.
“We have a fair number of places – breakfast place, pizza places – that are expecting a big weekend from the event,” Jones said.
The H2Oi is expected to again see about 17,000 to 18,000 attendees, according to show organizer Jay Shoup. But judging by the city’s demoflush numbers – which estimate population based on wastewater usage – many more people come into town just to hang out and cruise, and never even head out to Fort Whaley.
On the Saturday of the H2Oi last year, the city estimated 164,206 people in town. For comparison, OC BikeFest drew 202,275 on a Saturday last year, and Cruisin’ 181,021.
The fact that the H2Oi is nearly as big as the resort’s flagship automotive events, but isn’t centralized within town, creates a headache for many property owners who find attendees loitering and setting up impromptu car shows in their parking lots.
This year, the Ocean City Police Department has re-introduced the Trespass Enforcement Authorization Program, which allows property owners to sign an affidavit authorizing police to enter their property on suspicion of trespassers, and take appropriate enforcement action. The TEAP initiative was specifically targeted at H2Oi.
But for some businessmen, such as Burton, it’s an opportunity for a pivotal late-September shot of revenue.
“We’ve had them in our parking lot for the last two years, but it wasn’t organized. It turned into kind of a free-for-all,” Burton said. “I’ve never had any altercations with them or anything, there’s been no problem there, but it’s just the sheer mass of them.”
This year, the 45th Street Village – which contains four restaurants owned by Sunsations founder Avi Sibony – will be charging for long-term parking. One day will be $20, two will be $30, and three will be $40, starting Thursday, Burton said.
Parking will also come with 20 percent off food and beverages at the restaurants. Staff are also working to organize vendor exhibits and activities.
“I’ve gotten some negative feedback from people, but also a lot of positive,” Burton said. “We police it well. I have a dozen security guys just for this. We don’t let them drink in the parking lot as best we can.”
But offenses such as open container violations pale in comparison to traffic citations.
According to OCPD data, officers conducted 1,245 traffic stops from Thursday, Sept. 26 to Sunday, Sept. 29 for the 2013 H2Oi. This is 62.5 percent more traffic enforcement than the 766 stops done over the same span in 2012. For comparison, Bike Week last year saw 825 stops.
Critically, cars arriving for the H2Oi are extremely prone to violations of the state’s vehicle code. While many modifications – such as extremely low suspensions – may be on-trend for show participants, they aren’t seen as admirably in the eyes of the law.
“One of the biggest things we are looking at again this year is excessive camber,” said OCPD Public Information Officer Lindsay O’Neal. “That is our biggest issue, again, because it is so unsafe and unfortunately very prevalent with this crowd.
“Camber” refers to the angle of a vehicle’s tires relative to a perfect vertical plane. Most cars, with their suspension at rest, have no perceptible camber angle. But installing shorter shock absorbers in a car not made for them will pivot the wheels up via the joints that connect them to the vehicle’s axle, creating what is known as “negative camber,” something which is plainly visible when traveling behind a car whose tires appear to be flared out at an extreme angle.
While negative camber can provide better handling on tight corners, the fact that the car is riding only on the inside edges of the tires, and not their complete contact surface, reduces straight-line traction and the likelihood of skids.
The OCPD has been known to stop vehicles, and even have them towed, if officers believe the vehicle is unfit for the road under the Maryland’s prohibition on “excessive camber.”
Cars lowered to this extent also typically violate Maryland’s 24-inch minimum for headlight height above the surface of the road.
But despite the problems with the vehicles themselves, the H2Oi participants are still spending money in town, and not causing many serious problems, at least comparatively. Last year’s H2Oi had 54 arrests, including 10 DUIs. But while Bike Week had slightly less arrests, 51, 18 of those were DUIs.
“I really would like to talk to the town and some of the other businesses for next year, and ask how we can make this event more a part of us,” Burton said. “They may say ‘we don’t want it,’ but I think this is a big opportunity.”