Labor Day no longer means closures for Delaware beaches.

Rehoboth’s Sea Witch Festival drew more than 100,000 party goers last year. Photo by David Koster

Merchants at the Delaware beaches no longer call September to December the “shoulder season.” They’ve christened it the “second season.”

And many say that “second season” now stretches into January, February, March and April for them.

Hotel occupancy is up. Most restaurants are open.  And retailers are not far behind.

“It’s no longer a part-time town,” said Andy Staton of Berkshire Hathaway in Rehoboth. “It’s a full-time town. It’s busy.”

Lauren Weaver stayed at her office until 5:30 p.m. on Columbus Day weekend helping visitors find places to stay.“They came thinking they’d be able to find something when they arrived because it was October, but every town from Lewes to Ocean City had an event,” said Weaver, executive director of the Bethany Beach-Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce.

Zac Warner, general manager of Bethany Blues, a popular barbecue spot with locations in Lewes and Bethany, said 30 percent of his sales now come between Labor Day and Memorial Day.

“I remember back when Labor Day hit and it was like a ghost town,” Warner said. “Now, Labor Day hits and you’ve still got a couple months until you start to feel like the off-season is actually hitting.”

Rehoboth’s Sea Witch Festival, a costumed parade that began in a single parking lot in 1990, drew more than 100,000 partiers to town on the last weekend of October last year.

The number of hotel rooms booked for Sea Witch weekend rose from 3,038 in 2013 to 3,872 last year, according to Rehoboth Beach Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce figures.

“We don’t have what you would call an off-season anymore, said Tina Coleman of the Southern Delaware Tourism Office. Skim boarders are still in the water in October, antiquers come for autumn road trips and Winter Wonder Fest drew visitors from 26 states last year, she said.

Stores saw anywhere from 25 to 50 percent sales spikes during last year’s fest, said Weaver of the Bethany chamber.

And the uptick isn’t just on weekends. Visitors are coming on weekdays too.

Several factors are at the root of the change. Towns and business groups are creating more events – jazz festivals, art shows, surf fishing tournaments, winter light shows, antiquing trails.

And, there are more people living in Sussex as developers infill lots around the beaches and new communities spring up far west of Coastal Highway. “I remember the days when you’d drive five minutes and you’d be in corn fields. Now, you drive 20 minutes before you hit corn fields,” said Warner of Bethany Blues. “Development inland has really bolstered the economy and helped bring people here.”

Just as residents are spreading out from the small beach towns, so are visitors. Coy Johnston, who owns the Anchorage Motel on Coastal Highway, said more hotels inside the beach towns are booked solid, and his business is benefiting.

“I’ve noticed over the past five years that the towns are filling up and it’s helping us on the outside – that and the parking issue in Rehoboth,” he said. He added that his occupancy spikes with the Jazz Festival, Sea Witch and holiday shoppers in late November.

“The events are making a big impact,” said Staton of Berkshire Hathaway. “They’re using our band stand. They’re sticking around. They’re going to our restaurants. The hotels are booked. The Rehoboth Jazz Festival and the True Blue Jazz Festivals were going on at the same time this month. It was like summer downtown.”

The three-year-old Winter Wonder Fest at the Cape May-Lewes Ferry Terminal attracts families with its light shows and events, said Karen Falk, executive director of Rehoboth Beach Main Street, an organization of businesses and residents in the town of 1,496. “It impacts our community because people come in and they want to see the lights and they want to do Christmas shopping and they want to stay here.”

Thomas Ibach, owner of Dolle’s Candy on the Rehoboth Boardwalk, said the Sea Witch festival crowds are almost as large as the Fourth of July. He sees a little uptick the rest of the fall, but “not gigantic.” He said even a little tick upward means he can keep his staff working and getting ready for the holiday season.

Chip Hearn, who owns The Ice Cream Store on Rehoboth’s boardwalk and Peppers on Coastal Highway, remembers when everything shut down after Labor Day.

“The festivals have changed the rules,” he said. “All the restaurants are open. Most of the retail stores are open. And the customers know it, so they come. It’s not just about shoulders anymore. It’s going through Thanksgiving and even deeper.”

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