City, bikeathon working toward agreement to keep MS event in Ocean City

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OCEAN CITY – For lack of a staging place, the Bike MS: City to Shore ride may be forced to leave Ocean City this September.

Both the city administration and the Greater Delaware Valley chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society say they are working to keep Ocean City as the finish line for the event, which last year raised $5.6 million. Chapter president Tami Caesar added, “We have reason to hope we will have a solution by Friday,” (Jan. 11).

The 75-mile, one-day, or 150-mile, round-trip bike ride, which had its second most successful fundraising year in 2012, has stopped in Ocean City for decades, and at the Sixth Street parking lot for the last 15 years. But the city administration’s recommendation that the bikeathon’s 7,000 cyclists conclude their ride this fall at an alternate site in town has forced Caesar to consider the possibility of taking the event, and the minimum $600,000 it generates in the host town, elsewhere.

“We have a 32-year history in Ocean City,” Caesar said Tuesday morning, five days after she had asked Mayor Jay Gillian to respond by Jan. 3 to her latest email. “We have no desire to change. We want to stay in Ocean City.”

Tuesday afternoon, community services director Jim Mallon said he, Gillian and business administrator Mike Dattilo had responded that day by phone to Caesar “as a team,” emphasizing, “We’re continuing to work to keep the event in Ocean City.”

Alternate locations

“We were told we have to move away from our location of the last 15 years, the Sixth Street parking lot,” Caesar said Tuesday morning, adding that Gillian, Dattilo and Mallon had, during a Dec. 4, 2012, meeting with her and her team at City Hall, expressed concerns over public safety being compromised by 10,000 bikeathon participants and supporters overflowing the Sixth Street parking lot.

Mallon said Tuesday afternoon that the city had had a series of “friendly conversations” with the MS chapter to “share input after the event to make the event better” and “to provide constructive criticism.” Of particular concern to the city, Mallon said, was the tendency of bikeathon participants and supporters to mill about the street ends by the Sixth Street parking lot, a threat to public safety in the event of an emergency.

Also, Mallon said, the Sixth Street parking lot is located in an area more residential in nature, and therefore more prone to congestion than Ocean City Intermediate School and the city-owned parking lots at the Boardwalk end of Ninth Street, which were suggested by the city as alternate sites for the bike ride’s finish line. Mallon said the new, bike-friendly Route 52 Causeway leads directly down Ninth Street, making it a natural choice for the bike ride’s conclusion, and that the bike path on Haven Avenue to OCIS is more accommodating to bike traffic than the area around Ocean City High School, making that a better choice than the current bikeathon route along the high school track.

Caesar said ever since she and her team of Jeff Brody, development director for the MS chapter; Nicole Lewis, bike tour manager; and Pat Counsellor, an Ocean City resident and former member of the MS board, had presented their four minimum finish-line requirements to Gillian, Dattilo and Mallon more than a month ago, two members of the MS team have been working full-time to assess the feasibility of the administration’s suggestions.

Neither alternate site suggested by the administration satisfies the event’s needs, Caesar said late Tuesday afternoon, adding she was sending Gillian a letter explaining the shortcomings of both locations.

“We appreciate that alternate locations were offered, but they won’t work for us,” she said. “They’re not feasible for us as they do not meet our requirements.”

Suggestions fall short

In brief, the school lacks the ability to give event organizers full access to the space from Friday morning through Sunday evening, in addition to other obstacles. Plus, Caesar pointed out, the bike ride is named “City to the Shore, not City to the Bay.”

The two Ninth Street parking lots together equal half the square footage of the Sixth Street parking lot, plus require the event’s continued use of the Civic Center and OCHS’s cafeteria, venues that are three blocks away from Ninth Street. Also, the use of two parking lots across the street from one another would seem to lead people to congregate in the middle of Ninth Street, which would defeat the city’s intention to keep the street end clear. In fact, Caesar said, closing off Ninth Street was one of the group’s conditions in a scenario where it accepted the Ninth Street suggestion.

It was her hope, she said, that Gillian, once he received her letter and understood the problems presented by the alternate locations, would make the Sixth Street parking lot available to the bikeathon again.

Last year’s Bike MS: City to Shore ride raised half the Greater Delaware Valley chapter’s annual budget, Caesar said. Without it, the organization cannot offer the same services. So forgoing the bikeathon is not possible.

“We are in contingency planning with Avalon,” Caesar said, adding that was not a surprise to Ocean City’s top brass. “If there has to be a change, we need to inform a great many people as soon as possible.”

“It’s a good thing for the town, it helps a charity, and we make money on it,” said councilman-at-large Keith Hartzell, mentioning the “huge boost to our economy” enjoyed by the city’s merchants.

MS surveys show the average cyclist spends $50 during an overnight stay in town, accounting for $350,000 of the $600,000 the event brings in on Saturday alone. Another $250,000 is spent on accommodations, food supplied to participants, and fees paid to the city. Caesar said MS is unable to quantify the amount of money that is spent by the 7,000 cyclists and their 3,000 supporters on private housing and purchases made during multi-day stays, although anecdotal evidence is that the weekend is a huge one for retailers and restaurateurs.

”I’m cautiously optimistic this can be worked out,” Hartzell said.

“I had hoped to have this finalized by the end of the year,” Caesar said. “Every day that goes by, the clock is ticking.”

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