This is part of WTOP’s coverage of the Delmarva beaches leading into the summer season. Read more.
More people than ever are visiting the Delmarva beaches during the summer. That increased popularity, combined with post-pandemic realities facing the hospitality industry, have created more challenges for the local economy.
Carol Everhart, with the Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce, said she could make a ton of money making signs that read “Now Hiring All Positions.”
“We do have a tremendous staffing shortage,” Everhart said.
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Like many places in the country, she said filling restaurant and retail openings in Rehoboth has become harder to do.
“It’s not just restaurants,” Everhart said. “The shortages in people and the shortages in supplies — it’s tremendous. Every industry we have has a staffing shortage. And every industry we have is saying, if it’s not a shortage, it’s a limited supply.”
In Lewes, Delaware, along the calm waters of Delaware Bay, the beaches will be without lifeguards for the first time in years.
“We had a total of four applicants,” said City Manager Ann Marie Townshend. “We usually have 10 lifeguards. Two of the applicants that we had have never guarded before, so this would be their first time.”
Townshend said the applicant shortage is still happening, even after the city hiked the hourly pay rate to over $16 per hour.
“It’s not something we take lightly, and it’s not something we’re at all happy about,” she said. “We did not think it was appropriate to try to guard the beaches with an insufficient number and insufficiently experienced lifeguards and give the people a sense that the beaches is more professionally guarded than it is.”
What does that mean for people swimming in Delaware Bay?
“Families need to keep eyes on their kids,” she said. “Look for people. It’s not just kids who can sometimes have issues.”
Businesses on the move
It’s not just workers who are leaving businesses at the beach. Some businesses themselves are moving away from the downtown areas.
The Frogg Pond, a mainstay in downtown Rehoboth for decades, has moved to a new location on Coastal Highway between Rehoboth and Lewes.
And this will be the last summer you’ll find Nicola Pizza operating in downtown Rehoboth. It’s moving toward Lewes, near the Five Points intersection, this fall.
“Some of the businesses have stated that parking is part of their problem,” said Everhart. “If I’m a customer and I can pull into a business or restaurant somewhere on Route 1, and not have to worry about parking, nor do I have to pay for parking, that’s very enticing to the customer.”
Nick Caggiano, whose parents opened Nicola Pizza in 1971, said he’s moving primarily because he owned the land in Lewes, and running back and forth between properties was too difficult during the summer.
Caggiano said that parking and the traffic aren’t the primary reasons for the move (he called them “the icing on the cake”), but he did acknowledge they can be a hindrance to his local customers and seasonal employees, who have been priced out of the area. He said the downtown property where his restaurants have been has already been sold.
Everhart said the business lobby has been pushing the city to open a big parking garage downtown to address these concerns. But city leaders and residents who own homes there are strongly against the idea. In fact, they see the relocation of businesses away from the downtown as a good thing.
“It’s really not because they were hurting or unsuccessful,” said Rehoboth Beach Mayor Stan Mills. “We believe it was because of their success. They were so successful, they wanted more parking. And in Rehoboth Beach, we’re limited on parking. Parking is a premium.
“It’s my belief they just wanted to go out of town, where parking is essentially more plentiful as well as free,” said Mills.
The housing problems Caggiano cited in Rehoboth are also being experienced in Ocean City.
“Finding seasonal housing is difficult, more difficult today than ever before,” said Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan. “During the pandemic … a lot of the property owners repurposed the units that had previously been for seasonal housing and made them rental properties. That took an awful lot of that type of housing out of the inventory.”
Meehan said some businesses have started providing housing to workers, but that it’s barely made a dent in the need.
Meanwhile, longer-term solutions are being sought. In the spring, Ocean City and Worcester County asked the State of Maryland to approve special, low-interest financing to help develop new housing for thousands of seasonal workers.
Meehan said town leaders have been working with Holtz Companies, which would build and operate the “dorm concept” housing project in West Ocean City.
“It’s probably a couple of years away,” he added.
In one proposed plan, Holtz would build and operate the facilities, while Ocean City would provide transportation back and forth.
“It would be a two or three-building complex and house anywhere from a thousand to 1,500 seasonal workers,” said Meehan.
Meehan estimated 3,000 to 3,500 beds are needed for seasonal workers in the area.
In addition, the number of foreign workers who used to come work in Ocean City every summer is down by around 3,000, compared to pre-pandemic levels. This means businesses are having a hard time hiring as well.
“That’s going to continue to put a strain on our local businesses,” Meehan admitted. But he also said many businesses are learning how to adjust.
“So we’re still going to have some help shortages, but I don’t think it’s going to be as noticeable as it might have been a year or so ago,” he said.