The Ocean City Council voted to officially cancel Sunfest on Monday night, after weeks of discussion about the future of the event. Vendors that already made deposits will be refunded, and their spots will be saved for 2021. The town planned to host the 46th Annual Sunfest from October 1-4 in the hopes that the Covid-19 pandemic would no longer be a threat. However, as the event draws closer and the virus continues to spread, officials simply do not believe that holding a major festival is possible.
The 2020 Sunfest has been a hot topic of conversation for the council since the beginning of August. Earlier this month, Special Events Director Frank Miller revealed that statewide Covid-19 restrictions apply to Sunfest, preventing large music events or food tents from being a part of the coveted festival.
Miller said that the loss of ticket sales from musical entertainment alone amounts to $142,000. While he said that the event could still generate revenue, he was skeptical of the willingness of businesses and vendors to participate. A survey of 157 vendors revealed that 38% were questioning whether they would participate, and 54% said that they were comfortable attending. However, 13% of the people willing to attend were motivated by concerns of losing their spot at a future festival rather than actually coming to the 2020 event.
Several weeks ago, Miller and members of the council warned against the backlash the town would face in the media if they were to sponsor the event. They also discussed the negative impact on the event’s reputation as one of the top festivals in the nation.
The responses from vendors, the potential for bad optics, and limitations due to Covid-19 led the council to unanimously vote in favor of the cancellation of Sunfest.
Despite this cancellation, officials are still looking to promote an alternative event dubbed SunLITE. Each member of the council except for Councilman Dennis Dare voted in favor of moving forward with discussions about SunLITE.
The proposed event would take place from October 2-4 and would rely heavily on the Ocean City business community. People would be dispersed throughout the downtown area, and pets and bicycles would be allowed. Visitors may enjoy shopping experiences, while other fun events such as the Kite Loft’s Kite Festival and Park Place Jewelers’ beach treasure hunt could provide families with activities. The town is also hoping to enlist the Art League of Ocean City, the Ocean City Library, and other amusements to make the event a success.
Over the next few weeks, Miller will consult with members of the business community about their willingness to participate. He will also assess the financial impact on the town. If it is possible to have SunLITE, then the town will kick planning into high gear.
There is no doubt among each member of the council that SunLITE is a perfect concept. However, there is much disagreement over whether it is possible to pull it off in so little time.
Councilman Dennis Dare discussed the need for the town to save money, considering the major declines in revenue due to Covid-19. “We’ve got to tighten our belts,” Dare said. He added that room tax is down and that he is concerned about possible furloughs and a hiring freeze, so the event should just be written off for this year. Later, he pointed out that the weather in the fall is unpredictable and that the tropics are more active this hurricane season.
Other members of the council agreed with Dare about the importance of responsible spending, but they are willing to invest in SunLITE if there is an opportunity to generate revenue. Councilman John Gehrig questioned whether the “juice is worth the squeeze.” He added, “If we don’t have the support of the businesses, this will be a dud.”
Officials continued to share their desire to have the event and to provide businesses with an event to boost sales. However, they know that it will not come without a hefty cost.
Members of the council began to ask Frank Miller for a cost estimate. City Manager Doug Miller chimed in with $50,000 to $100,000.
Following this comment, it became unclear if the council would even vote in favor of hosting SunLITE. “There’s a lot of risks, and this is out of my comfort zone with it being 45 days out…In 2020, we don’t know what to expect in terms of interest from businesses,” said Special Events Director Frank Miller. He added that the event is supposed to appease businesses who are desperate for an event during this time frame.
Council Secretary Mary Knight said that she approves of the concept, but that it may be better suited for next June. Councilman Mark Paddack discussed his experience at the OC Air Show and said that since the weather was far from perfect, the Boardwalk was not very crowded. However, he is nervous that crowds could gather on a sunnier day, presenting a social distancing nightmare. “I was all for this last Tuesday, and now I’m having cold feet about it,” Paddack said. Both he and Knight later reasoned that they would support the event, assuming that it can be successful.
Council President Lloyd Martin along with Councilmen Tony DeLuca and Matt James believe that more information is needed. They would support the event if it is possible to pull it off.
The council eventually decided to send Miller on a fact-finding mission over the next few weeks to determine the viability of the event. No funds will be spent during this time.
Councilman Gehrig told Councilman Dare that he may be right about the event not being possible this year, but that it is worth taking a shot.
Mayor Rick Meehan issued a statement following the announcement. “Ocean City has actively promoted the many ways visitors can enjoy the town while maintaining physical distancing this summer, but for an event like Sunfest, we recognized it would not be possible to host the event in a way that was in the best interest of public health. Late summer and early fall offers the best weather of the year in Ocean City, and we look forward to welcoming guests in a way that can balance fun with their safety and health,” said Meehan.
There is no regular meeting or work session currently scheduled for the rest of August. However, Miller is expected to provide officials with more information soon.
To see the council agenda from Monday night, click here.