By Logan Dubel
Editor’s Notes: The following interview took place before the spreading of a now-viral video, showing the arrest and tasing of a man accused of vaping and violating the town’s smoking ordinance on the Boardwalk. The video has sparked outrage as well as confusion. Additionally, an investigation is underway in a second incident also circulating on social media, in which officers kneed a man on the ground. This situation also involved vaping and alleged refusal to comply with officers. Local officials contend that vaping is not an arrestable offense, but refusal to comply warrants an arrest. In response to the events, Mayor Rick Meehan released a statement available on Facebook Monday evening. Click here to read his response and here to see the latest updates from the Ocean City Police Department.
The statements below have been minimally edited for clarity.
Since taking office in 2006, Ocean City’s longest-serving Mayor Rick Meehan has spent a lot of time on the sand, though not catching the warm summer rays like the tourists throughout the resort. Instead, the veteran Mayor travels from street to street, taking on everything from the pandemic and crime, along with promoting businesses and working to create a family-friendly atmosphere. Now entering his sixteenth tourism season, Meehan is ready to get back to normal and face the growing challenges in Ocean City, Maryland.
Safety on the Ocean City Boardwalk
In 2021, Meehan has several goals in sight, but one that is clear to both local insiders and outsiders is to reduce crime and alleviate concerns surrounding safety on the Boardwalk. In June 2020, as the most stringent pandemic restrictions eased, some visitors packed unruliness in their suitcases, bringing unwanted unrest to a place that is frequently touted as one of the premier family-friendly destinations. While this year is not and will not be perfect, Meehan assures tourists that the town remains proactive and has taken steps in the right direction.
“We become the second-largest city population-wise in the state in the summer, only behind Baltimore. We are experiencing an influx of 300,000 visitors in June, and unfortunately, just like the world around us, some things have changed,” Meehan explained. “As a result of that many people being here at the beach, we are going to experience some bumps along the way.”
However, as Meehan notably stated amidst frustration on the Boardwalk last summer, he is doing more than providing lip service, and instead initiating action.
“We have been very proactive and able to contain and address the situations that do arise to ensure the large population of people in town is not subject to these kinds of events. We’ve increased our presence, changed deployment schedules on the Boardwalk, and it has made a difference,” Meehan said. “This shows everyone that we are here to keep people safe, and this has deterred people from starting problems. We are on the right path, and we want to assure people that Ocean City is safe despite these isolated incidents. Members of the public are not placed in dangerous situations, and that’s what we expect to continue in 2021.”
Post-Covid Era in Ocean City
With the pandemic finally in the rear-view mirror, Meehan is anxious for a normal season, as everyone gets vaccinated and ditches their masks. Although the spread of the virus itself has almost entirely ceased, the impact of Covid-19 on the hospitality industry continues. Still, most J-1 workers, who fill between 4,500 and 5,500 positions each summer, have yet to arrive due to remaining hesitancy surrounding visas from various embassies and consulates, despite the lifting of the federal ban on J-1s at the end of March. J-1s are paramount to local industries, and more of these international workers typically arrive in Ocean City than any other destination in the country. Mayor Meehan promises that Ocean City is prepared to accommodate visitors but requests that they ‘pack their patience.’
“We are finally starting to see some of the workers trickle in, but it continues to be a difficult process as we wait on the embassies for approval. But boy, it will be a very welcome sign for our businesses when those J-1s start to arrive,” he said. “Our businesses have done an amazing job during the pandemic, but because of these employee shortages, they might not be open 24/7. We’re going to do everything we can to accommodate you during your stay, but we just need a little bit of patience.”
For those still searching for a summer job, Meehan notes that there are plenty of openings and is hopeful that Governor Larry Hogan’s recent announcement of the termination of federal unemployment benefits will attract more potential workers. In May, Meehan wrote the governor a letter arguing in favor of ending those benefits.
Reflecting on the past year, Meehan is grateful that the resort made it through the pandemic with a moderately successful summer. In June 2020, the hotel occupancy rate was 67%, only slightly down from 75% in 2019. Now, tourism officials project that pent-up demand will mean an even more successful 2021.
“The reason that Ocean City had such a high degree of success last year is that most of our notable activities were outdoors. It is possible to spread out and social distance on our beaches, despite the camera lenses that suggested people were on top of each other,” he reflected. “We did everything we could to assist our businesses and give them a lot of credit for being able to adapt. Now, people are more comfortable and want to be here. We saw that even in March and April, on any weekend when the sun peaked through the clouds. That should be an indication of what it will be like throughout the summer.”
Solving Ocean City’s Trash Problem
With large crowds comes lots of unwanted trash and littering, but the issue has reached such a fever pitch in the resort that a major campaign against pollution is underway. Since January, the town and the OC Green Team have discussed starting a fierce new campaign against trash, aiming to become a litter-free destination. Now able to focus on issues other than the pandemic, Meehan promises to make this a top priority.
“We have to remind people to be more conscious, and that’s what we’re doing with this campaign. We are targeting our messaging to say that this is a team effort, and we all have to look at the beautiful beach and know that the best thing we can do for our environment and pleasure is to keep it clean,” Meehan explained. “We supply trash receptacles everywhere, especially on the Boardwalk, and our goal is to make it easier for people to help keep Ocean City clean. It’s a message that we are very serious about. We’re hoping that everyone heads that message and takes this seriously.”
Trimper’s Big Ferris Wheel is Out – What Happened?
As many have noticed, the removal of Trimper’s Big Wheel is complete, sparking frustration and disappointment from visitors who enjoyed the spectacle housed at the famous amusement park on the south end of the Boardwalk. The ride opened for a 40-day summer tour during the first week of June, though its hasty removal took place just days later after the Mayor and City Council raised concerns about the placement of the attraction. The ride sat ten feet into the public right-of-way, initiating a zoning violation. Due to reconfiguration issues and cost concerns, Trimper’s opted to remove the ride entirely. Mayor Meehan insists that while he is as pro-business as they come, giving in to this violation would have set a bad precedent.
“This is not a position that we want to be in. We certainly support Trimper’s Rides and the amusement park. Last year, when the wheel was in a different location, I even went down for the ribbon-cutting ceremony. We are all there to help them because it’s a great attraction to Ocean City,” Meehan explained. “However, the Ferris wheel was erected, and it was ten feet over their property line and lies over the Boardwalk. That’s the public right-of-way, and we just can’t allow that. If we allowed Trimper’s to do this, then everyone would do it. We hope Trimper’s still has a successful summer but had to be addressed.”
Events Coming to Ocean City
Ocean City is back for 2021, and fan-favorite events are on the calendar. Meehan’s personal recommendations include the very patriotic OC Air Show, which features the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds flying over the ocean, along with the brand new drone shows, which will take place at Northside Park and on the Boardwalk.
The Longest-Serving Mayor in OCMD History
Even after fifteen years, the job never gets old for Mayor Rick Meehan. He has a long and storied career in Ocean City government. He first ran for a seat on the City Council in 1985, became Council President in 1990, and ascended to the Mayor’s office in 2006 following the resignation of Mayor Jim Mathias. Although he never imagined becoming the top leader and spokesperson for Ocean City, Meehan loved the job from the start.
In 126 years, Meehan is just the 22nd Mayor of Ocean City. He is grateful to have known and worked alongside legendary leaders such as Harry Kelly and Fish Powell and does not take the responsibility of serving as Mayor lightly.
“In the summer, all you have to is get up in the morning, take a walk, and see how happy people are to be here – that’s what keeps me going. When I talk with locals in the offseason, everyone has their love for this town in common,” Meehan said. “They love the community that we live in, and it’s contagious. It’s just one of those very special places. I take this job very seriously and do my best to represent the residents and tourists that come here by the millions every year. It’s the best job ever.”
Since Meehan first moved to Ocean City in 1971, the town has grown astronomically, welcoming approximately eight million visitors annually. Born in New York City and raised in Cleveland and Baltimore, Meehan started vacationing in the resort in 1962, when he stayed at the Commander Hotel. He started working at the Funcade Arcade on 9th street in high school and has kept a strong connection with the town ever since.
Meehan says that even with all the changes, Ocean City is still the best place to be. “If they say you knew everyone, you probably could. We all saw opportunities here, and as the town grew, we grew with it. We all wanted to be part of that and still wouldn’t trade it for anything.”