CRISFIELD — Traffic at Somers Cove Marina during the month of June was up 15 to 20% compared to 2019, with 30 to 35 transient boats arriving each week bringing up to 100 new visitors to town.
That’s just one of the updates from the Department of Natural Resources as Secretary Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio and other officials attended remotely last month's City Council work session to discuss marketing, infrastructure and future plans for the state’s largest marina.
Marina Commission Executive Director Tom Schisler said 2020 with its COVID-19 lockdowns and travel restrictions "is something we all want to forget about" but he is encouraged by the traffic this year and the positive reviews the facility receives from boaters.
More business is coming through the website somerscovemarina.com which was revamped and despite some kinks to iron out "draws a substantial number of reservations," he said.
As a local courtesy, the marina provides a slice of Smith Island cake when transient boaters arrive, has a loyalty card program that provides a fourth night free if the stay for three nights, and coupons to shops and restaurants. There are also discounts on fuel.
One promotion, the Chesapeake Bay Passport, was introduced in 2019 and offered a premium for boaters who visited many of the 11 participating marinas. It, however, was a victim of the coronavirus and not reintroduced in 2021. "It was fairly popular," Mr. Schisler said, and something that he intends to revive in 2022.
For slipholders the 515-slip marina now offers semi-annual memberships which Mr. Schisler said is rivaling annual membership in popularity. Over the last five years the number of rented slips has hovered between 186 to 204.
The Red Shell Shanty, while open to the public, serves alcohol only to members and guests unless there is a separate permit obtained for an event.
"We’re not looking to compete with anybody," Mr. Schisler said, and he encourages those with events to let boaters know about these opportunities. He said for example that the Red Shell Shanty will not have entertainment on Saturdays if there is a similar activity in town.
"Events are what drives boaters to the marina," he said.
Advertising was recently booked through Facebook and other online sites, with an estimated 600,000 boaters being reached especially in the area from Baltimore to Virginia Beach. There is also radio, television and print advertising — with some of this paid for in collaboration with other businesses while some is short-term messaging ahead of events such as Wheels On the Waterfront.
These efforts are paying off, Mr. Schisler said, and are expressed in online reviews. Somers Cove Marina "is highly rated for customer service," he said. It was a "Boaters’ Choice" award winner in 2020 and 2017, according to marinas.com.
"One of the best assets is our staff," said DNR Secretary Haddaway-Riccio. "We routinely get feedback about how friendly and knowledgeable our staff is, and we’re constantly getting positive feedback on the great customer service they exhibit."
Capital improvements range from comprehensive upgrades to electrical power that forced a temporary shutdown of the facility to the concrete floating dock that boaters "really, really love." "It’s one of the sturdiest boat docks I’ve been on," Mr. Schisler said.
In the future fixed docks will be replaced with floating piers.
Internet service to transient piers is substantially improved, and visitors can easily find the marina office now under a new bright red roof.
Of particular interest to city officials are changes that will reduce street flooding outside of the marina fence. Most of the downtown stormwater drains through the marina, Mr. Schisler said, and with $2 million recently approved for bulkhead maintenance that means new sidewalks and what’s underneath will be addressed. Engineers are now working on the design.
DNR Assistant Secretary Bill Anderson said bulkheads, tide gates and parking lots all "tie-in together." He said five different outfalls will be replaced in the 10-year improvement plan with the total estimated cost $10 million, however, he would not be surprised that tide gates are ranked as one of the top priorities.
Crisfield can help the marina by cross-marketing, "so we’re not an island all to our own," said Secretary Haddaway-Riccio. "We’re promoting businesses that are in the city," she said, so in return the city can do likewise and promote the marina.
The marina is open to partnerships with community businesses and would especially be interested in a water taxi to and from Janes Island State Park, or additional golf cart or bicycle rentals. As an aside the park’s new manager, Christine Carlson, is married to the marina’s maintenance chief Timothy Carlson, and Mr. Schisler said if a boater wants to get to the park or anywhere else, "let us know and we will figure it out."
Secretary Haddaway-Riccio said public-private contracts for services can be arranged and are not uncommon. "We always look at opportunity for the private sector to get an economic advantage."