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On a crisp, clear weekday afternoon, the salty breeze blows gently over the Ocean City Boardwalk. The sunshine beckons walkers onto the near-glowing beige sand, and the cusp of spring is building in the air.

Near the water's edge, a couple dressed in black embrace, contrasted by the vibrant blue sky hovering over the ocean.

Despite the pristine serenity, the boards lie nearly barren, with the occasional wandering passer-by, a Candy Kitchen bag in hand. The lone call of a sea gull, which would have been muffled by the bustling of tourists in the summer months, comes through almost blaring as winter comes to a close and spring begins.

That all changed this weekend.

That all will change this weekend.

Green-clad paradegoers will fill Ocean City's streets, and runners plan to trot down the Boardwalk. Locals say the St. Patrick's Day Parade, now in its 34th year, is the new beginning of the tourist season, replacing the traditional Memorial Day kickoff.

Coupled with a litany of special events throughout the fall and winter, Ocean City continues to strive to become a year-round destination. However, Ocean City still boasts only a modest 12-month population.

Steve Pappas, owner of the Greene Turtle, concurs that the start of the season has moved to coincide with the St. Patrick's Day Parade.

"That's the weekend when there's just so much going on, and it just seems to pick up from there now," Pappas said.

More Ocean City businesses are also extending their months of operation and Pappas has taken notice.

The Original Greene Turtle, located at 116th Street, opened in 1976. Throughout the year, it never closes it doors.

"A lot of the restaurants and businesses we have here are staying open year-round," said Mayor Rick Meehan. "That's different than how it was in the 1970s or '80s, when almost everything was seasonal."

In the quieter months, visitors and locals enjoy the serenity of the near-desolate Boardwalk.

Strolling down the Boardwalk with her husband, 11-year resident Claudia Gausepohl said these unusually warm winter days are the best time of the year.

"It's just so peaceful," Gausepohl said. "Plus all of the local specials."

Gausepohl, originally from northern Virginia, noted Ocean City's growth since her first winter visit, when the town had only blinking yellow traffic lights, and the post-Labor Day atmosphere was silent.

"Back then, we had to drive all the way to Salisbury to go to the mall," Gausepohl said, noting Ocean City's increased shopping choices.

A lengthened season

The town has added nearly three months to the beginning of the season.

But the efforts of the town and business owners before March and after October and is what has grown Ocean City's winter appeal.

"The two biggest things that I can think of are the convention center and a lot of the events they put on at Northside Park," Pappas said. "Those two really drive year-round business."

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The parks and recreation center has served as a catalyst for the winter Ocean City community, with Director Susan Petito stating it may be the group's busiest time of year.

"We have basketball, pickleball, volleyball, so many different things," Petito said. "There isn't a night of the week during the winter when we don't have people coming in and out."

The Winterfest of Lights, entering its 25th year in 2017, has served has a massive draw for locals and visitors alike.

"This is an event that started very small, but it has grown to be something that brings so many people down," Petito said.

The shrinking offseason is attributed to a growth in special events. The two most notable additions, Meehan said, were Sunfest, started in 1974, and the addition of the Roland E. Powell Convention Center in 1997.

"What we've seen in recent years is an Ocean City that has done a great job in growing its season," Meehan said. "There's still an offseason — typically what was right after Labor Day — but now it has become much smaller.

"Sunfest brought in more people in September," Meehan said. "It just grew from there with the Cruisin' events and Springfest in early spring."

Convention center events, such as March's Reach the Beach cheerleading and dance competitions, added to Ocean City draw during the colder months.

Pappas noted the increase in offseason attractions as a sign the town is headed in the right direction.

"I find it almost ironic that so much effort is put into events in the summertime," Pappas said. "The beach and the sand and the sun: That's the reason people come down here. So we don't have to add a lot of the things we put on in the summer."

Hurdles ahead

With the ocean and beach as the showpieces of the resort, outdoor activities are a natural attraction. With more moderate temperatures in the offseason, Ocean City tourists can extend their outdoor entertainment options.

"The longer it stays warm, the more people we have coming down wanting to walk around and support our year-round businesses," Meehan said.

While there hasn't been a distinct upward trend in winter months since 1990, record highs are becoming more common, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The record for December was set in 2015 at 57.5 degrees, while January 2006 set a record at 47.4 degrees and February 2017 set one at 51.5 degrees.

This was the second warmest February on record nationwide.

Visiting for the third time, Kirsten Lenderman of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, enjoys the Boardwalk in the winter.

"I like it; it's a lot more peaceful," Lenderman said. "Plus, you don't have to deal with any trash on the ground."

While business in Ocean City continues to evolve and adapt to a lengthened season, not all change has been positive.

Billy Carder, owner of BJ's on the Water, said he hasn't been pleased with all the development and growth.

"Back when we first opened in '79, all of our workers and regulars were locals; they could ride their bikes to work," Carder said. "Now, people come from the surrounding area: from Powellville, from Ocean Pines, from Berlin or wherever."

Ocean City's population has remained modest, declining 0.7 percent from 2010 to 2015 (7,102 to 7,055), according to the U.S. census. Likewise, Carder noted that the push for more year-round businesses has effectively balanced out any surge in winter business he may have seen from winter-themed events and families visiting during the offseason on the weekend.

"We do good on the weekends, but everyone's open now," Carder said. "But during the week, there isn't that same local presence. And no guy from Powellville wants to get off work, drive to Ocean City and have a dozen beers."

Despite this, Carder is optimistic, stating that Ocean City will continue to grow — and summers will always be key.

"Like every year, we're looking forward to summer, and a great season," Carder said.

gfanelli@dmg.gannett.com

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