Ocean City’s seasonal workers go elsewhere for housing, work | News

D-1 students passing through the resort for lack of rental accommodation

Until the early 2000s, students flocked to Ocean City for summer jobs.

Back in the day, students could get a list of available house or apartment rentals and find something that suited their needs before entering into a summer lease so they could earn some money before returning. at school.

But these days, things are quite different.

Summer labor rentals are rare, and even when they do exist, they can be well over the budget of a student or seasonal worker to make beach life possible for 12-15 weeks. , much less interesting.

Last weekend’s job fair witnessed a lack of candidates wanting to join the seasonal workforce, with some attendees reporting lower turnout compared to previous years.

The lack of housing, as Lachelle Scarlato, executive director of the Greater Ocean City Chamber of Commerce, said this week, is the result of a perfect storm of events that has led to a shrinking workforce. to help meet the needs of local businesses.

“The inventory available in and around Ocean City is extremely limited at this point,” she said. “A good number of properties that would traditionally be reserved for seasonal labor housing have been absorbed by Airbnb, VRBO and related platforms…they are no longer reserved for seasonal labor. It was already a challenge with limited availability for many years, but now the availability is even less.

Scarlato was hired by the chamber nearly 16 months ago, and ahead of her arrival, the organization compiled a list of available summer rentals. These days, the list consists of property management companies and real estate companies for prospecting employees to contact and find out what is available.

With a background in real estate, Scarlato was researching solutions to the crisis long before taking on his new role, even speaking with other communities facing the same issue.

She also took on the role of director during a pandemic, which presented even more challenges to the business community.

Businesses, she explained, have had to navigate the summer season during the pandemic with a quarter of the workforce needed. Most were able to do so despite the resort area extremely nearly all traceable tourism benchmarks that indicated more people were visiting Ocean City.

For example, the number of vehicles entering Ocean City last year increased from previous years, as did room, food and beverage tax collections.

“Although we have an increased need for manpower, we have a reduced capacity to accommodate them,” Scarlato said.

Ocean City, she explained, was the top destination requested by J-1 international students. That’s no longer the case, and that’s because the cost J-1 students face to stay in Ocean City far exceeds what it would be for them in another seasonal community.

J-1 students must live in or near the community where they work. They don’t have cars and many ride bikes around town.

The same goes for college students.

In a traditional year, or any year before the pandemic, Ocean City hosted about 4,000 J-1 students, who would work between one and two jobs per season.

The resort’s year-round population is about 7,000, and based on needs during the summer, Ocean City needs about 12,000 seasonal workers, according to Scarlato.

“They’ve been deficient,” she said. “This season, we will have less than 1,600 D-1 students. This number is solely due to the lack of housing for the seasonal workforce. It is not due to the political climate. It’s not for lack of interest. It’s not for lack of sponsors wanting to do internships in Ocean City. This is only due to the lack of housing for the seasonal workforce.

And those J-1 students had to be approved and have housing by Jan. 1, Scarlato added.

While these international students still come to the United States, many choose to go to other communities due to lack of housing.

Now there is a push to build seasonal dormitories in and around the resort area.

Late last year, Ocean City officials investigated the development of dormitory-style housing in the resort area, but all plots considered encountered some sort of problem that they were located too close residential area or not large enough to accommodate the 4,000 workers needed.

On Tuesday, James Bergey of Berlin and Dan Bullock, the owner of Holtz Builders, met with Worcester County Commissioners and asked for a letter of support in their quest to secure a state bond to help pay for a dormitory in West Ocean City.

“Businesses in Ocean City have a severe labor shortage,” Bergey said. “The county and the city must step up and basically help solve this critical housing and student housing issue in Ocean City.”

Over the past couple of years, these companies have struggled with rising operating costs, lack of housing for their staff, and some have reduced their potential revenue to house staff in their own hotels.

Bergey said that in years past, students would come to Ocean City and pay $150 a week for accommodations, and that cost rose to well over $200 a week.

To soften the blow to these students, Holtz plans to build housing that can be provided at an affordable price.

The project would cost between $60 million and $80 million to build, but when complete it could accommodate 2,500 to 3,000 workers.

The builder is considering two properties of at least 9 to 10 acres in West Ocean City, close to buses, businesses and restaurants.

Many details of the project have not been discussed, because unless the financing is guaranteed by the bond, it will fall flat.

Bergey compared the project to the Atlantic General Hospital, which was created through a public-private partnership and built under a nonprofit entity and does not pay taxes.

“It’s kind of the same…we’re not asking the city of Ocean City or the county to be responsible for any of this,” he said. It would simply be the State of Maryland, through (the Community Development Association), issuing a bond issue to put the money in place to do it. So the non-profit entity would be the one that owns the property, pays off the bonds and does it. What we need to do is make it affordable…so students can get in.

If funding is approved, the rest could be settled and would take 12-18 months from start to finish.

Similar housing projects have been completed in places such as Wisconsin Dells and Dollywood. Concerns have been raised about staffing and call-charged emergency services. Bullock told commissioners that other communities had similar concerns early on, though EMS found their job had become easier due to 24/7 staffing and strict on-campus rules. .

Commissioner Chip Bertino said he was not prepared to support the project with a letter because it had not been discussed with the community and it did not benefit county ratepayers. Jim Bunting echoed Bertino, suggesting the community should be able to weigh in before applying for funding.

“There are so many tentacles that you have to put together to make it work,” Bergey said. “The first step is to get you to support him.”

When the commissioners voted to send a letter to the state, the result was 5-2, with Bertino and Bunting opposing the measure.

However, summer is fast approaching and housing is needed.

Scarlato cautiously admitted that even if a deal were signed to have the accommodation built tomorrow, it wouldn’t be ready by summer 2023. Instead, summer 2024 would be the best-case scenario, meaning the next two years will be difficult.

“We need to be actively engaged now in all the solutions and pieces of the puzzle, otherwise it’s going to get worse way beyond what anyone would have expected,” she said. “It has been a matter of concern for a long time. Covid has participated in its challenges, and now we are at a critical moment.”

This story appears in the print version of Ocean City Today on April 8, 2022.

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