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City casting wide net for tram ads despite locals’ pushback

(March 13, 2015) The city is still trying to sell additional advertising panels on Boardwalk trams for this summer, despite a lukewarm reception, both financially and aesthetically, from local businesses.

Contracts with four advertisers for the 2015 summer are under way, it was revealed at this week’s Transportation Committee meeting. None of those businesses, however, are located in Ocean City, after solicitation of Boardwalk merchants earlier this year fell flat.

Still, officials are sticking by the viewpoint that local businesses will eventually warm up to the idea.

“Once people see them, we’ll definitely get [the additional clients],” said Mayor Rick Meehan.

However, City Manager David Recor noted that there was “some concern about the aesthetics” of the tram-top billboards in a recent meeting with members of the Boardwalk Development Committee.

“It’s a slap in the face,” said BDC member Danny Robinson, who owns Hammerhead’s Bar and Grill and Backshore Brewing. “We have no problem with advertising on the trams … but this is just shooting yourself in the foot.”

Concern stems from the apparent double standard the city has about signs. Boardwalk merchants have to pay several hundred dollars for sign permits, and are limited in the number of fluorescent or backlit marquees they can have. That’s also something BDC merchants have endorsed as a way to cut down on the venue’s visual clutter.

But the city, it seems, can bolt such verboten sign designs to its own property without pause.

“There was no thought to aesthetics,” Robinson said. “There’s been such an investment in beauty of the Boardwalk, and [the tram ads] are exactly what we’ve been trying to get away from.”

At the end of this past summer, the city installed ad panels on one of its tram cars, “to see if it was a concept that could take off,” Recor said.

McDonald’s was the only interested advertiser, although it will not be returning this year. The panels cost $7,200 per tram to build.

The ads are sold via Direct Media, the city’s agent for all transit advertising, including the ubiquitous summer bus wraps. Direct Media takes a 35 percent cut of all revenue, thus, in an effort to break even on the first year, tram ad prices were quoted at $4,000 per month, making the city’s ideal haul $7,800 for a three-month season.

Resort businesses, particularly on the Boardwalk, were indeed given the first offers for the advertising space. None were interested, but not because of price.

“It wasn’t a matter of advertising. I spend a lot of money on advertising,” Robinson said. “I didn’t want to do it because I was against it. [The city] did give us first shot, but nobody wants to put their name on something that’s just ugly.”

The BDC had suggested that the city invest in additional tram beautification, with themes such as sharks or mermaids to make the advertising less garish. This was not well received.

“From a practical standpoint, if you start to enclose or build up on [the trams, using decorations], it limits the viability of the advertising,” Meehan said.

The four advertisers for the upcoming season are Dippin’ Dots, Tanger Outlets, Ocean Downs, and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s Tobacco Quitline.

Several merchants, some of whom did not want to speak on the record, voiced discontent at what seemed like a counterproductive strategy.

If the city proceeds with the plan, they pointed out, it will be relying on the draw of Boardwalk businesses to drive up the value of its advertising spaces. But at the same time the city reaps this profit, the actual message on the advertisements will be directing tourists to go spend their money at a mall and a casino on the other side of the Route 50 Bridge.

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