Ocean Grove vs. Ocean City: The BYOB issue

Ocean Grove, N.J. labels itself as “a blessed place to play.” They lock the gates between itself and neighboring Asbury Park at midnight. They denied permits to two lesbian couples who wanted to have a commitment ceremony on their boardwalk pavilion.

At night, a giant florescent cross glows from a top the Great Auditorium. It’s a building run by the Ocean Grove Camp Association. Their description of Ocean Grove “God’s Square Mile at the Jersey Shore.” In July, Kirk Cameron, former child star turned anti-gay rights activist, will be a guest of honor there.

Until 1979, you couldn’t drive in Ocean Grove on Sundays. Shops and restaurants were closed, going to the beach — yes, even on a Sunday in the summer — was prohibited.

But in this, the most conservative and religious town at the Jersey Shore, you can BYOB.

Ocean Grove is 80 miles north of Ocean City, the South Jersey shore town that is having an As the World Turns soap opera about whether or not non-boardwalk restaurants can let people bring beer or wine to dinner.

It’ll be put up for a vote on May 8.

An intense debate

The fighting, to put it mildly, has been unpleasant: an alleged fight outside of a church, political attack-style robo calling, proclamations about how allowing BYOB is going to destroy Ocean City as a family friendly resort and, as Robert W. Patterson, editor of the journal Family in America, wrote in a Philadelphia Inquirer opinion piece, “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,” and that “If the restaurant lobby achieves its Holy Grail of serving liquor for profit, Ocean City’s foundations will crumble.”

Please.

I’m in Ocean Grove often. You know what I see when I walk through Ocean Grove late on a summer weekend night?

Pretty buildings. Strolling couples. Dogs. Flowers. Porch lights. The glowing cross.

There are no raucous parties. There are no drunks stumbling down Main Street waving bottles wrapped in brown paper bags, no college kids running down the boardwalk jonesing for their next keg stand.

Before I started writing this piece, I had to check to make sure Ocean Grove actually allowed BYOB because I didn’t know of anyone who had actually done it.

Still, I can see why some Ocean City people are opposed to BYOB. Change is hard. There’s fear of losing their “family friendly” status (even though allowing BYOB means it’s still a “dry” town since alcohol is not sold inside its boundaries).

People like Patterson are still keening that the repeal of Ocean City’s blue laws in 1986 was the first step in ruination of the town because it bowed to the “crass priorities of commerce” — in a shore town, mind you, that relies on tourism dollars. While Ocean Grove is the most religious town I have ever visited, Ocean City, which was founded by Methodists, is a close second.

So the topic of alcohol is touchy

But BYOB opponents can stop clutching their pearls that this is going to destroy the Ocean City. Replacing the 9th Street Bridge and building the L.A. Freeway-style causeway has been a much bigger change. BYOB didn’t harm Ocean Grove. It was allowed, and life progressed ahead per usual.

And it’s not like people don’t already get drunk in Ocean City.

When I had my picture taken for a magazine at Gillian’s Wonderland Pier in Ocean City, I had not one, not two, but four drunk people come up to me to ask what we were doing, if I was Miss New Jersey, and if they could photo bomb the picture.

Last summer, as I made my way up 5th Street to the boardwalk on a Saturday morning, I encountered a couple out in front of a house drinking Coors Lights.

Where was the post-prom party I attended in 1997? A house at the intersection of Plymouth Place and Atlantic Avenue in Ocean City.

Allowing people to bring beer or wine to non-boardwalk restaurants is not going rip the town apart.

But supporters of BYOB aren’t off the hook, either.

They talk about a restaurant boom that will follow, which I doubt is going to happen.

If I wanted to open a Jersey Shore restaurant, I’d be looking for a town that had two things: a year round population, and the ability to serve alcohol.

Ocean City has neither. The year round population is about 11,000, and declining, dropping 24 percent in the last 10 years. A place like Margate, which is part of the year round Downbeach community, or Cape May, would be more likely candidates.

The N.J. towns that the proponents cite as BYOB success stories — my lovely town of Collingswood, and our close neighbor Haddonfield — are where people live year round. They’re not deserted nine months out of the year.

In Ocean Grove, allowing BYOB didn’t bring in a rush of restaurants. The biggest change was an old seafood place becoming the upscale SeaGrass. Other than that, your fine dining options lie in neighboring Asbury Park, where restaurants have liquor licenses. Even BYOB spots are choosing Asbury Park because they want to be part of that dining scene that flourished in conditions where restaurants could serve alcohol, which is typically a big part of the profit margin in restaurants. As the owner of a now-closed South Jersey BYOB told me, not having a liquor license is “like operating an ice cream stand but not being able to serve vanilla.”

Will BYOB help the restaurants already in Ocean City? Probably. But they opened up in town knowing the BYOB situation, so they can hardly complain if the measure is voted down, which I think it will be since the only people who can vote are full time residents, not second homeowners.

Whatever happens, what makes Ocean City Ocean City will not change. People who want to drink already do. Allowing someone to bring wine to dinner is not going to ruin the town.

Since this issue first came up, I’ve said I’d be okay with the vote going either way. Would it have been nice, after a long day in the sun at the Doo Dah Parade, which I followed up with a beach run, to have a beer with my dinner at Rojo’s Tacos? Sure. A necessity? Of course not.

So, Ocean City, after the vote, do yourselves a favor. Shake hands. Make amends. Get ready for the summer season. Because no matter which way the BYOB vote falls, you’re all in this together. The As the World Turns has got to stop. That, more than anything else, is damaging the town’s reputation.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.