Voters do not simply face a procedural matter regarding which beverages can be brought to which restaurants, but rather a referendum on the very nature and future of Ocean City.
Since its founding in 1879, this gem of a Shore resort, cherished by generations of Philadelphians, has established itself in a class of its own. The reason: City leadership has remained committed to protecting the “social sector” of society against the shortsighted and often crass priorities of commerce.
While the city’s Methodist founders pursued moral and religious objectives, today’s leaders zero in on maintaining a wholesome environment for families, subordinating the desires of adults to the needs of children. Whatever the motivation, that intentional devotion to building “social capital” — the benefits arising from “investment” in community life and human relationships that deliver the greatest satisfaction — has distinguished Ocean City from other Shore destinations and many hometowns.
That foundation has been very good for families, as high school daughters can roam downtown and boardwalk unsupervised with friends on summer evenings without provoking parental anxieties. It has also made Ocean City a cash cow for businesses willing to live with, not bite, the hand that feeds them.
Why the restaurant association isn’t willing to abide with the town’s historic covenants remains unclear. Most eating establishments on the island face no difficulty attracting summer patrons, judging from the long waits my family has experienced at favorites like Varsity Inn, Piccini Pizza, Oves, and Voltaco’s.
Perhaps the association hasn’t noticed the ironies of 1986, when the repeal of Sunday-protection ordinances first shook the city’s foundations. That “reform” did little to improve the bottom line of boardwalk shops — as nonstop, seven-days-a-week commerce yields higher profits only if competitors operate just six days a week. Indeed, it forced most retailers to remain open every day of the week with no greater return than under the old system that gave the entire city a Sunday break. In the same way, a BYOB scheme will fail to boost the dining trade and impose hidden costs. Having customers lollygagging over their own-supplied drinks will only slow turnover and extend wait times.
But there’s a broader cost. In their 2006 study, Jonathan Gruber of MIT and Daniel Hungerman of Notre Dame discovered that repeals of blue laws between 1955 and 1991 deeply eroded social capital in the 16 states they examined.
The noted economists established that voiding Sunday-closing laws triggered “a very strong reduction” in the frequency of church attendance between 1973 and 1998, significant declines in personal charitable giving, and marked increases in illegal drug and alcohol use among young people ages 14 to 21. Clearly, the hit to churches and charities and increased costs of crime and delinquency offset any marginal benefit of Sunday commerce.
The study quantifies the risks of “creative destruction,” per Joseph Schumpeter, when the business sector thinks it can thrive while the social sector deteriorates. BYOB could well alter the character of Ocean City in ways that weaken her economic prospects. Proponents — citing Haddonfield, Collingswood, and Ocean Grove as BYOB success stories — insist the ballot question offers a compromise that will not undermine the city’s charm. That may be the case for quaint municipalities with few dining establishments. A popular beach community that draws 100,000 weekly summer vacationers is an entirely different proposition.
Once established, BYOB will only serve to expedite the trade group’s stealth goal of pushing alcohol by the drink — and making Ocean City look more like its sister city in Maryland, a party mecca where restaurants and bars dominate the scene seven days week, driving out the family trade.
If the restaurant lobby achieves its Holy Grail of serving liquor for profit, Ocean City’s foundations will crumble. Lost forever will be the Lake brothers’ 1879 vision of a “Christian seaside resort,” meaning a refuge for the embattled social sector — family and church — from emerging, yet troubling patterns of American life that have emboldened both business and government.
That founding insight should not be forgotten, as only the social sector can provide the cultural glue and vigor needed to improve our quality of life as well as the bottom line. Such safeguarding of social capital will also prevent voters from buying the BYOB fast talk, ensuring that Ocean City remains America’s Greatest Family Resort.
E-mail Robert W. Patterson at firstname.lastname@example.org.