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OC Mulls Closing Asbury Avenue to Traffic to Help Merchants

The Ocean City Block Party typically draws large crowds to Asbury Avenue

By Bill Barlow

To access the Herald’s local coronavirus/COVID-19 coverage, click here.
OCEAN CITY – City officials agreed to consider closing the downtown along Asbury Avenue, at least for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis.
City Councilman Keith Hartzell suggested the idea at the May 28 City Council meeting, held remotely because of the pandemic. He said the proposal grew out of another remote meeting, held earlier that day with downtown merchants. Hartzell described the matter as part of an ongoing discussion.
“This has been going on for about three weeks. It’s kind of been all over the map. There’s been a lot of back and forth on it,” he said.
Hartzell reported that Mayor Jay Gillian would appoint a committee to examine the idea, to include two people from each block.
“This is not going to be a permanent thing, like a Cape May, but it’s being thought of to help get more people getting out to shop,” he said.
It seems as though opinions are far from unanimous on the idea. Hartzell said many people like the ability to pull up and grab something from one of the restaurants and shops. Others like to stroll the sidewalks.
As envisioned, the streets would be blocked between Sixth to 11th streets, with no vehicle traffic, bicycles and parking. In normal times, the city closes multiple blocks of the downtown for the spring and fall block parties, which draw thousands to the avenue.
Hartzell said he wanted the public to know about the proposal.
“It’s not just our downtown, the business people – I’m a business person down there. It’s not just our downtown. It’s everybody’s downtown,” he said.
He added that he was not advocating for the idea. He planned to walk the downtown neighborhoods with flyers.
“I think it’s important to tell all of the stakeholders in the area, so that they can weigh in, too,” Hartzell said. He said the city wants to hear opinions on the proposal.
Members of council supported exploring the idea. Councilman Robert Barr said a business owner told him that on a normal Memorial Day weekend, the store does more than $100,000 worth of business.
“This past weekend, they did $18,000,” he said, calling for the business community to look at unusual solutions to help the local economy.
“People are hurting all over the country,” he said. “It’s really, really scary.”
Councilman Michael DeVleiger said the city should explore all options, but did not say he was pro or con on the idea of closing the street to traffic.
“We should take a good, hard look at everything we can do,” he said.
Councilwoman Karen Bergman described Asbury Avenue as near and dear to her.
“A lot of my friends have businesses there and a lot of them are suffering,” she said. “I’ve talked to some people who are for and with some people who are against. It’s just a matter of seeing what we can do as a town to assist them in recouping some of what was lost.”
Council made no decisions on the idea.
The downtown runs from Sixth Street to 14th Street, along Asbury Avenue, with additional retail corridors along Eighth Street and Ninth Street. There are more than 100 businesses in the downtown, which has been part of Ocean City since the early 20th century.
For years, the stereotype was that the boardwalk was for the summer crowds and the downtown for the locals, with department stores, hardware stores and bakeries open throughout the year. That’s still part of the downtown, with several businesses run by the children or grandchildren of their founders. The hardware store remains open throughout the year.
The area also includes a number of boutiques, along with cafes, clothing stores and a bakery and surf shop.
To contact Bill Barlow, email bbarlow@cmcherald.com.

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