Why Is Ocean City So Afraid of BYOB?

The fight over liquor turns ugly in "America's Greatest Family Resort"

“Don’t Change Ocean City”—that’s the slogan you might have seen on lawn signs scattered around the Jersey Shore town recently. It’s in response to a proposed ballot question on whether to allow BYOB restaurants for the first time in the town’s 132-year history. And—surprise!—that idea isn’t going over well with some of the locals. Leading the anti-BYOB charge is Richard Stanislaw, president of the Ocean City Tabernacle, a Christian group whose roots trace back to the Methodists who founded the dry island. Stanislaw thinks that bringing a bottle of pinot noir or a six pack of Flying Fish to Cousin’s on Asbury Avenue would be “all-around bad for Ocean City and its reputation as a family resort. This is ‘America’s Greatest Family Resort.’ That is our brand, so why tamper with that?”

The 54-member O.C. restaurant association thinks a little tampering is a great idea—and they’re right. I grew up at the Shore, from childhood trips to grandmom’s in Cape May County to vacations in Wildwood, Sea Isle and Ocean City. I won cassette tapes (remember those?) on the boardwalk record wheels as a kid, and years later, did (and still occasionally do) my share of bar-hopping. But I rarely dine in Ocean City when there are so many great alcohol-friendly restaurants everywhere else. A good friend of mine has a gorgeous house on the beach in Ocean City, and he’s there nearly every weekend with his wife and three young sons. Would it really ruin the town’s rep if we could go out for a nice meal and share a bottle of wine one night after the kids went to sleep?

Of course not. BYO’s will not attract the Ocean Drive crowd. It won’t draw the Wildwood power-drinkers who take full advantage of that town’s 3 a.m. last calls. And this is not a slippery slope that would lead to a bar invasion and turn Ocean City into Old City East. No one wants that. All the carping about sullying the town’s grand reputation is also way overblown. National Geographic recently named the top 10 boardwalks in the nation: Rehoboth, Wildwood and Atlantic City made the list, but “America’s Greatest Family Resort” did not. Last year, Travel & Leisure ranked the “America’s Best Beach Boardwalks.” Again, no Ocean City on that list.

I’m not bashing Ocean City as a vacation spot, and I don’t agree with either of those mags and their picks (Boardwalk Empire nostalgia aside, I’ll take Ocean City’s boards over A.C.’s any day). But the town isn’t at risk of losing millions in international family tourism; Ocean City ain’t Disney World (where, by the way, the restaurants serve alcohol—even Mickey is down with a little booze!). All they’re losing is money from folks who would rather eat elsewhere. And if Snooki and The Situation haven’t already poisoned the public’s opinion of the Jersey Shore by now, do you really think uncorking some vino with dinner will turn Ocean City into Sodom and Gomorrah By The Sea?

What’s pathetic is that this debate over booze seems to have turned nasty. The Inquirer reports one of the residents charged with getting signatures to place the BYOB question on November’s ballot was so harassed that he resigned from the job for the sake of his family. (It’s worth noting he’s not a restaurateur and doesn’t have a horse in this race.) The man declined to discuss any specific incidents, but they apparently happened at St. Peter’s Methodist Church and Stanislaw’s Ocean City Tabernacle. For all the heavy-handed talk of family values, it sounds like this guy was bullied at church. Seems a little off-message for the Ocean City brand.

Here’s hoping some civility returns to the family resort and that they round up the 747 signatures needed for this referendum by the August 3rd deadline. I’m sure I’m not the only beach-goer who would bring more of my dining dollars to Ocean City if I could also bring a bottle of wine.