Bethany Beach readies for summer season — with movies

With only about eight weeks left before summer arrives, the Town of Bethany Beach is revving up for the 2012 season. Repair of the town’s dunes and dune crossings, as well as its lifeguard headquarters, and enhancements to the Garfield Parkway streetscape and to wireless Internet access are complete, or nearly so, with a new entertainment option also set to debut in the weeks to come.

Town Manager Cliff Graviet reported at an April 20 town council meeting that the replenishment of the town’s engineered beach and dunes through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) has been completed, though not exactly as originally planned.

“The dune was not restored to the exact height as initially planned,” he noted. “It was always the intention of the State to take the top foot of the total project and use it to reconstruct the dune. But we lost 30 to 40 feet from the initial replenishment before they came in to rebuild the dune.”

Those more than 10 yards of lateral replenishment to the beach meant there was less sand available to reconstruct the storm-worn dunes, which the State had planned to do in-house so, Graviet said, DNREC had scaled back the plan for its reconstruction, leaving it about 12 inches shorter than it was designed to be. That could be welcome news for those who felt the dune was constructed to be too tall in the first place, but the controversial dune height is also considered an important factor in storm protection.

Despite that difference in height, Graviet said last Friday he was expecting DNREC workers to be completing the remaining work expected before the summer in the coming days, with the replacement of the dune fence. Once that was done, he said, the Town would return the Moby Mats to the dune crossings to help improve accessibility and the benches to the tops of the dune crossings for those who wish to observe the water without crossing to the bottom of the dune.

Additional planting of dune-stabilizing beach grass is also anticipated in the future, but reconstruction of the dune was not completed in time for the planting of some sections to take place at a volunteer-based planting a few weeks ago.

Graviet also reported on April 20 that work was progressing on the headquarters for the town’s lifeguards, which is part of the town’s bathhouse building. Both the exterior and interior are getting some renovations after moisture and mold problems resulted in the need for a major reconstruction of the facility, including the showers and locker areas for the guards. The building is only 15 years old, but Graviet said he expected the construction done in 2012 to be more durable, with heavy use of ceramic surfaces this time out.

The town’s streetlight project – part of its Streetscape project – has been completed, Graviet also reported on April 20. He offered high praise for Public Works Supervisor Brett Warner, who he said had acted as a general contractor on the project and “probably saved the town hundreds of thousands of dollars” by doing so. “The look is something we can be proud of,” he added.

In addition to the new streetlights, the Town’s Streetscape work thus far has included the undergrounding of utility lines, so those returning to Bethany Beach this summer for the first time since last summer will see significant changes downtown.

Graviet also reported on completion of major upgrades to the Town’s public wireless Internet access. From the north end of the town to the south end, he said, along the beach and boardwalk, the public should be able to access the public Wi-Fi signal to access the Internet from their smartphones, tablet PCs, e-book readers and other portable devices.

Finally, Graviet requested – and received – support from the town council on Friday for a proposed new entertainment option that the Town will now be offering starting this summer.

On a unanimous vote, the council approved the purchase of a Cinebox outdoor movie system, with an inflatable screen that can show films to around 500 people, for about $15,000. Graviet said he plans to hold movie showings about once each week during the summer, on nights when entertainment is not being offered on the boardwalk bandstand. The movies will be shown on the beach at the end of Garfield Parkway – weather permitting, since the inflatable screen cannot be used in heavy wind conditions.

“I thought this would be something positive for our being the premier family resort in the area,” Graviet noted.

Some residents, however, questioned Graviet’s stated upper limit of ratings for the movies at PG, saying there would be no way to ensure the namesake parental guidance of children watching the films and that even some PG movies might contain material that adults found offensive. Graviet has said, though, that his focus in selecting films to be shown would be on G-rated movies.

Ocean City, Md., and Dewey Beach both have similar movie nights in the summer, showing their films on similar systems, which Graviet said had proven popular in both towns. Dewey Beach, he said, also offers kid-friendly entertainment, such as games, for about two hours prior to the showing of the films, which in Bethany Beach would likely take place around or after 8:30 p.m., due to the late sunset in summer. Additional entertainment on movie nights in Bethany was not discussed at last Friday’s meeting.

Council members, as a whole, did not agree with some concerns expressed by business owners about the proposed movie nights. Councilman Lew Killmer had told the council at a workshop earlier in the week that some business owners were concerned that downtown visitors would watch the movies instead of patronizing their shops and restaurants, resulting in business lost rather than gained.

Killmer said he had tried to get information from the Ocean City and Dewey Beach Chambers of Commerce as to how the movie nights in those towns had impacted businesses but that the time had been too short to get any data back.

“On the surface, it fits in,” Killmer said of the idea, adding that he was not opposed but had been hoping to get more information before a vote.

Councilman Jerry Dorfman asked Killmer if the business owners had any negative comments about bandstand performances, and Killmer replied, “Of course.”

“That’s in the same category,” Dorfman concluded.

But most of the council members said they felt the new entertainment offering would be beneficial to downtown businesses.

“I would think it would be beneficial to businesses – especially businesses that sell food,” said Councilwoman Margaret Young. “People would buy snacks to eat while they watch the movie.”

Graviet and Councilwoman Carol Olmstead noted that the issue had previously been raised by the Bethany-Fenwick Chamber, which favored the idea, and that they had supported extending the movie nights into the spring and fall, as a way to extend the town’s “shoulder seasons.”

“During the summers, personally, I think there’s plenty of time to watch a movie and go shopping,” Olmstead put in. “And it would be good for teens, who don’t have much provided for them here.”

Graviet said the should-season showings might even be moved to the bandstand itself, due to the small crowds and cooler weather at those times of the year.

“It’s a good idea,” added Vice-Mayor Jack Gordon. “I think the businesses, on reflection, will realize that. When we have a G-rated movie, I’m not sure all the adults will want to attend, so they may go have dinner while their child is on the beach watching the film. I think it will help the business community, not hurt them.”

Graviet noted that there were no additional insurance concerns with the beachfront movie showings, since the town’s beach has public access open 24 hours a day, year-round.

Mayor Tony McClenny noted that his wife had been invited to just such a beachfront movie showing when in Barbados, “And she was quite taken with the number of people who attended,” he said. “Anything that’s going to bring a crowd close to my business would increase my business,” he added.

Barbara Howard, manager of the PNC Bank branch in downtown Bethany, represented multiple entities and points of view in her comments on the issue last Friday. Personally, she said, she loved the idea. As a member of the Chamber, she said, it was one of the ideas they had had to bring more people into the town in the shoulder season.

The downtown business forum, she said, had struggled with the idea, being concerned with drawing more traffic to the town’s one major street rather than encouraging them down other downtown streets where businesses traditionally get less exposure.

“This benefits the boardwalk businesses, but not down here or on the other side of Route 1,” she said of the business forums’ position. She said they had considered planning movie nights in June or September on the beach, or in downtown Fenwick Island during the summer, where the business district has a different structure.

Howard said the business forum would also like to see the bandstand performances moved more into the shoulder seasons and less on Friday and Saturday nights, to expand the draw period for moviegoers.

“That doesn’t make it right or wrong,” she added. “We’re not only about the business council. We’re about the families. And giving teenagers something to do is something the Town needs to look at. Right now, there’s nothing to do but mini-golf.”

Howard said PNC’s position was that it was a good idea, and that it would likely not impact their business, since they’d be closed at 8:30 p.m.

Resident Claudia Dieste said she, too, thought it was a good idea.

“Think about those little picnics on the beach,” she urged. “You want the townspeople to be able to sell their food. They’ll get ice cream after the movies. And, as far as the screening of the movies, I have a feeling the screenings have been well thought-out. It will be well-enjoyed by everyone coming.”