Fenwick business leaders brainstorm on future

Members of the Fenwick Island business community came together Wednesday, April 13, to discuss their vision for improving the town’s commercial area. The event was inspired by similar visioning workshops held for the town’s property owners in 2004 and, like those workshops, was facilitated by Town Council Member Harry Haon.

The town’s Commercial Liaison Committee, led by Council Member Chris Clark, organized the workshop and worked to bring together as many business owners, managers and landlords as possible. The goal was to gain the same kind of input on the town’s future as had been obtained from the (primarily residential) property owners last year.

Clark said he hoped the workshop would help lead to a “unified voice” that the business community could use to talk to the town council, providing a “lasting and greater impression” than individual concerns might.

Slipping smoothly from his leadership role at the previous workshops, Haon noted that, despite the makeup of attendance at those workshops, one of the repeated refrains had focused on a need to create and sustain a thriving commercial area in the town.

Spurred by the opportunity of the workshop and the efforts of committee members to maximize turnout, 17 business owners, managers and landlords attended the meeting, providing a variety of viewpoints and ideas in a brainstorming session that lasted more than three hours.

Though they broke into three groups to discuss the factors they believed might positively impact business in the town over the next five to 10 years, there were a number of issues and ideas that were common ground for the vast majority of those in attendance.

As expected, concerns about Fenwick Island’s signage ordinances topped most lists, focusing on the need to review the ordinance and make changes that would allow more attractive and efficient signage.

Improvements to the town’s parking situation were also a top priority, with ideas for improving business focusing also on peripheral issues of bringing more customers into the town without impacting the already scarce parking.

From his group of businesspeople, restaurateur Gabby Mancini brought ideas for encouraging bicycle traffic, bringing in a rickshaw or trolley service and improving crosswalks and sidewalks from the bay to the ocean.

Drawing people into the commercial area through events was also a common theme. Mancini said he felt consistency was the key, providing a predictable reason for people to head into the town through regular events such as bonfires, volleyball or other sports, as well as town festivals. The goal — “to get people out and about.”

Though emphasis was put on the workshop’s positive aspect — away from old gripes about problems with the town — the businesspeople did point to what they said was a clear reluctance on the part of town officials to be open to new ideas. They said they sought more ability to find compromises with the town and get a “positive attitude” from the town toward such ideas.

The signage concerns, proposals for outside dining and changes to parking regulations were examples where they said they felt such new ideas could benefit the town, if town officials were willing to create additional flexibility for the businesses and not automatically say no on the basis of established practice or ordinances.

Another common thread was the potential benefit of emphasizing Fenwick Island as a distinct town — through ideas such as signage saying “Welcome to Fenwick,” and emphasizing the town’s unique and growing village character, as well as its place as a gateway to Ocean City and to Delaware.

That gateway character also caused concern, as the businesspeople noted the ongoing trend in Ocean City of commercial property being purchased and built out as expensive — and profitable — residential property. That the trend could increasingly spread to Fenwick was a real fear for those at the workshop, centering on the looming likely sale of the Sands motel.

They said they were concerned the town could not afford to lose any more accommodations, resulting in fewer visitors to the town’s commercial district (and further compounded by decreasing rentals as cited at a recent budget workshop).

But they also pointed to the difficulty of encouraging motel owners to keep a 28-unit business going when the value of their properties for residential building was well into the millions and vastly outweighed potential business profits from providing motel accommodations.

Increasing density restrictions was one idea some businesspeople floated, with mixed reception from others at the meeting and from Haon, who indicated a five-story hotel in the town was simply not going to happen. (He cited both the county’s four-story maximum and repeated objection from most property owners to the idea of raising the town’s 30-foot maximum building height.)

Others objected to the potential parking headaches that would be created by mixed-use zoning that could allow residences on upper floors of commercial buildings. The group was also of separate minds as to whether the town should try to capitalize on existing tourism draws, such as Ocean City events, or whether it should focus on off-season promotions that emphasize its differing character.

The spirit of cooperation won out over ideas of competition as discussion turned to ways businesses could foster the town’s commercial area — such as promoting businesses to their customers with menus, lists and phone numbers made available.

Carol Hughes of Blue Heron Gifts referenced her group’s suggestion for attractive buildings and accessible parking to draw customers. With a landlord also in that group, it was perhaps natural that another suggestion was to encourage longer leases — a way to reduce commercial tenant turnover and potentially reduce expenses to business owners due to moving. Selective tenanting was also suggested as one way of fostering business — by reducing competition between immediate neighbors.

Multi-business signs and increased sign conforming were also suggested by Hughes’ group, along with the renewal of town-sponsored events that would encourage the participation of the town’s businesses.

While the businesspeople praised the growth and ability of the Bethany-Fenwick Chamber of Commerce, they also expressed a need to focus more on the businesses of Fenwick Island — both those who are members of the Chamber and those who are not. The concept of a town-wide business group blossomed with Hughes’ renewed calls for involvement in the Commercial Liaison Committee.

In the end, expansion of the committee’s areas of influence was suggested — to include not just business but also the concept of tourism and its inherent interest in bringing people into the town.

Southern Exposure’s Tim Collins brought from his group a focus on the town’s appearance, suggesting the town emphasize a distinct character, such as that of a village, with walking paths, bike paths, distinctive street signs and street lights, and perhaps a central gathering area, such as a boardwalk.

Collins also pointed to the need to maintain the general appearance of commercial properties — a common discussion topic at recent committee meetings. And he suggested going further than the simple idea of improving parking, recommending the town’s formulas for creating parking be re-examined, perhaps using its wide setbacks to accommodate additional small vehicles.

Latching onto the idea of compromise and flexibility on the part of town officials, Collins group also voiced support for a review board made up of both residents and businesspeople. Such a review board could address trial exceptions to existing ordinances on a case-by-case basis, he said, referring to Building Inspector Patricia Schuchman’s statements that her hands were often tied by the letter of the town’s code.

Moving on to discussion of how to implement such ideas as a group, the workshop attendees ran into a speed bump of a sort. Haon placed the ball squarely in their court, asking them what they would do to move the ideas forward.

Several of the businesspeople objected to that concept, arguing that the town council should be presented with a prioritized list of ideas from the workshop but should indicate its willingness to work with the business community by taking an active role in the next steps.

Bobbi Blake, representing Sunshine Plaza, said the alternative to the town working with the business community to ensure its future was to instead picture a town with no commercial district, as business dwindled and commercial business locations were replaced by large, expensive homes. That, she emphasized, would deny the town’s residents and visitors amenities such as nearby restaurants, services and shopping.

Haon said the council could not grant the businesspeople “a blank check” by guaranteeing that the ideas would be approved, but Mancini replied that such carte blanche was not what they were requesting — merely an open-minded attitude of the council toward the ideas and a willingness to work with the businesspeople as a team.

(Haon’s adamant rejection of the five-story motel concept was taken by some as just the sort of outright rejection they feared receiving for many of their out-of-the-box ideas.)

The restaurateur said he and the other businesspeople would feel more comfortable putting in the time and energy needed to make their ideas a reality if the council showed it was willing to be open to the ideas and work with the business community toward their fruition.

Without guaranteeing support for individual ideas, Haon emphasized the eagerness he said he and some fellow council members felt for the idea of working with the business community to improve the health of the commercial area. He said most had wanted to attend the meeting but had been asked not to, so as not to overwhelm the workshop atmosphere with council presence.

That established, Clark said he would take the list of ideas generated at the workshop and work on creating a survey that could be sent to all of the town’s businesspeople. A similar survey was sent to property owners after the previous workshops. From there, a list of priorities could be developed and presented to the council for reaction and possible support.

The liaison committee could also be a focus for proposed changes, especially if the additional participation sought by Hughes and Clark is achieved. Many of those present at the workshop were not regular attendees of the committee’s meetings, and the presence of so many people from varying viewpoints (business owners, landlords and owner/operators) was seen as by Clark as a positive step in its growth and effectiveness.

The end result of the workshop will be seen over time, as the ideas generated are analyzed and responded to by businesspeople, residents and town officials alike. With a vision period of five to 10 years into the future, the meeting could potentially be the first in a series of steps that secures the future of the town’s business community.