This one-square-mile city serves it all up. Choice restaurants. Clean beaches. A mile-long boardwalk. More than 50 places to buy liquor. Touted as a Best Beach Resort for Families by Parent’s Magazine and as one of the world’s top destinations for gay visitors by the 10-million-member gay dating app Scruff.
This popular beach town started out life as a Methodist camp meeting — a tent city by the sea where the faithful flocked to see their favorite preachers. Nowadays, beachgoers are more likely to spot actors Richard Gere and Luke Wilson and Denzel Washington or Dave Grohl from the Foo Fighters.
The city’s flip-flop-friendly vibe woos those ready to chill, even a Supreme Court justice. Sonia Sotomayer had a taco here the weekend after a crucial court ruling on gay marriage. NASCAR stars walked the boards after the Monster Energy Series in June. Hoda Kotb regularly mentions her weekend plans in Rehoboth on the “Today” show. Former Vice President Joe Biden bought a six-bedroom beach house on Farview Road last month. (“We’re thrilled to have him as a resident, but he’s always come here,” said Carol Everhart of the Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce.)
“The media people and the people who are in movies, they’re here all the time,” said Chip Hearn, who owns The Ice Cream Store on Rehoboth Avenue. “They just walk along the boardwalk and go to Funland. Joe walks by and says hi to the kids. He’s one of the most powerful men in the country, and he says hi to the kids who are working their butts off scooping ice cream.”
“Being the nation’s summer capital, any given weekend you can find someone who may have been a former government leader or CEO of a technology company. It’s always been a little bit under the radar who’s in town,” said Andy Staton of Berkshire Hathaway. “That’s what’s a little bit unique about where we live. We offer privacy to people who want to come love our little town. They get to wear flip-flops and shorts and relax and enjoy all the things that Rehoboth offers.”
What Rehoboth offers has changed utterly in the past decade, and that is buoying local businesses. Owners like Hearn said more than 100 eateries and a fuller slate of activities sway customers to stay longer and spend more.
“There is a direct relationship,” said Hearn, whose sales routinely rise 10 to 15 percent a year. “From five years ago, we’re way up. Which is pretty hard to do, considering we’re up every year anyway. There will be 10,000 people dancing in the street Sunday night. That’s 10,000 people who didn’t leave town, and they’ll go eat some French fries.”
An estimated 3.5 million people visited Rehoboth last year. Crowds in this city of 1,488 swell to 140,000 on an August weekend. And, each year, the shoulder season grows. The first Sea Witch Festival in 1989 drew 5,000 visitors. Last year’s was pushing 200,000, according to chamber figures.
Weekends are showing some shoulder, too. “Last year, we were saying Friday’s the new Saturday,” Everhart said. “ This year, we’re seeing it on Thursday even.”
Visitors are wooed by reviews like this one from the Travel Channel: “This is one beach town that never feels boring, embracing families, party types and the LGBT community by offering a little something for everyone under the sun.”
Rehoboth police often “deputize” youngsters and have them take an oath to be good kids.
Funland, an arcade mostly unchanged since it opened in 1939, sells ride tickets at prices as low as 25 cents a ticket, and the most expensive ride in the place costs six tickets. As fourth-generation owner Chris Darr put it,
“We’re not driving Ferraris. We make a good living but not an extravagant living. We are truly blessed as a family being the caretakers of something bigger than us. Funland is a rite of passage for so many people who say, “Please don’t change anything.’”
Some shopkeepers along the cottage-lined streets leave bowls of water outside for pet passersby.
Restaurants like the 36-year-old Blue Moon one block off the beach stay ahead of trend on the latest foods, beers and liquors. Currently big: Gluten-free drinks.
Hearn said behind-the-scenes officials like City Manager Sharon Lynn, Police Chief Keith Banks and Corey Groll, who schedules the bandstand acts, “get” what vacationers want. Groll schedules music that turns
Rehoboth Avenue into a dance party. Lynn last worked in Provincetown, Mass., another beach town known for being gay-friendly and family-friendly.
Chief Banks, who poses for photos with more than 20 children on an average Saturday night, hires friendly criminal justice students as summer officers and instructs them never to embarrass anyone, especially if their children are around.
There’s no shortage of potential customers but businesspeople do have a trio of summer problems to juggle — a worker shortage, a shortage of affordable worker housing and customer complaints about parking.
The city’s switch to a parking app that warns drivers when meters are about to run out hasn’t freed up more parking spaces, but it has lessened parking stress, shop owners said.
“At least you don’t have to carry $500 worth of quarters — quarters are heavy,” said Tim Ragan, co-owner of the upscale Blue Moon restaurant, where nothing costs 25 cents but customers often requested change for parking.
Hearn, whose ice cream stand has customers six deep on busy weekends, solves the worker shortage by promoting workers who demonstrate good customer service regardless of age. He has 15-year-old managers.
“You have to have the best customer service people you can. I don’t care if they’re male or female. I don’t care how old they are. I just care how they work with customers,” Hearn said.
He solves the worker shortage by hiring foreign students on J-1 visas and recruiting students from areas such as Milford who get to work via park-and-ride city officials set up. “We love park-and-ride,” he said. “Kids park at the park and ride and come in fairly inexpensively.”
The good news that the shoulder season is drawing numbers like 110,000 visitors on a September weekend and 118,000 on an October weekend is tempered by the employment crunch. Hearn said he often has to replace 50 percent of his crew in one swoop at back-to-school time.
Lion Gardner, Ragan’s business partner at the Blue Moon, like other restaurateurs, said he hasn’t paid minimum wage in many years, not even for back-of-the-house positions that are traditionally lower paid.
Gardner characterized the city’s labor market as “really tight. He said he uses personal networking to find applicants. “A lot of our staff has been with us for many years, so we don’t need a huge number, but we do need some, and, because of the reputation of the bar, they have to be high-quality candidates,” he said.
While the shop windows display bikinis and young families arrive by the carload, city residents are beginning to skew older. The median age of city residents is now 64, up from 59 in 2009.
Staton said more retirees who have vacationed in Rehoboth are opting to move to the city or the many surrounding new developments, attracted by the area’s expanding medical facilities, its proximity to major cities and by Sussex County taxes, which are far lower than New Castle and Kent Counties’ taxes and surrounding states’.