Twenty-one years ago, Rehoboth Beach was suffering from a seriously bum shoulder.
The weeks between Memorial Day and Labor Day bustled with summer visitors—all shorts and flip-flops and ice cream cones up and down the boardwalk. Sun, surf and sand made a natural recipe for success. But when the weather began to cool, the kids returned to school and their parents hunkered down in their suburban hibernations, the shoulder season began. Rehoboth Beach—along with its kid brother Dewey—felt the pain.
Save for their locals, Rehoboth and Dewey became positively ghostly. Officials knew something had to be done to lure visitors back. They had to fix that damned bum shoulder.
So in 1989 the Rehoboth-Dewey Chamber of Commerce advertised for someone to plan and produce an event that could draw visitors who never thought they’d find themselves on the coast of Sussex County after their white pants had been mothballed for the year.
“Back then, everyone was fond of saying that you could roll a bowling ball down Rehoboth Avenue the day after Labor Day,” says Carol Everhart.
Everhart had coordinated everything from kids’ parties to weddings. She’d done some creative consulting for local corporations and had worked with tourism officials in Ocean City, Maryland. So she found the idea of planning an event for Rehoboth and Dewey intriguing.
Everhart met with the chamber’s executive committee. She presented her portfolio, explained her qualifications. The committee was impressed. “So I asked them what their budget was.”
And now Everhart begins to chuckle.
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“They said it was $5,000. And I said, ‘Does that include me?’ And they said yes.” The chuckle turns to full laughter. “Even 20 years ago, that was not a large budget, even for an event of a relatively small scale.”
Yet Everhart came up with an idea: Halloween. It comes with costumes and a built-in spirit of fun, she told the committee. Pumpkins and mums would not be expensive to buy. Neither would straw. Or produce. It was perfect. But the chamber committee wasn’t keen on the idea.
“They said, ‘Oh no, no. We’re not talking about October. We’re just talking about the weekend after Labor Day.’ But from my vantage point, it was the only possible option they had,” Everhart says.
The chamber relented. The first festival drew about 5,000 people—”which was not what I would have considered a success,” Everhart says.
Walking down Rehoboth Avenue the Monday after the event, Everhart spotted one of the board members walking toward her. “I immediately thought, ‘Well, I’ll probably be asked to depart right now.’ But he came right up to me and shook my hand and said, ‘So, what does it feel like to have such a success on your hands?’”
These were the seeds of what would become the Sea Witch Halloween and Fiddlers Festival, now considered one of Rehoboth Beach’s most successful annual celebrations. Today Sea Witch draws more than 150,000 visitors during the last weekend in October. And you can bet no one is fretting about the shoulder anymore.
Rehoboth celebrated its 21st annual Sea Witch Festival this year, surrounded by the myriad businesses, cultural attractions and restaurants that have come to define the town. Looking back as president and CEO of the Rehoboth-Dewey Chamber of Commerce—a position she’s held for 13 years—Everhart says that even with the challenges presented to her in the early days, she knew the potential of Rehoboth and Dewey.
“I thought the event was something that absolutely, positively could be a tremendous success,” she says. “I knew that Rehoboth and Dewey were destined to grow.”
Chip Hearn has been a Rehoboth Beach business owner for more than 20 years. During the early days of Sea Witch, Hearn owned a restaurant on Rehoboth Avenue. He recalls many of those ghostly winters and shoulder seasons, back before anyone thought to make the beach town a year-round destination. Everhart, he says, was instrumental in transforming all of it.
“It’s all about Carol’s vision for things,” says Hearn. “If you had told me 20 years ago that Sea Witch would have this many people, I would have told you that you were absolutely bonkers. And it’s not just about Sea Witch. It’s about the jazz festival, the film festival, all of it. There’s a million other things happening down here in the fall now.”
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Indeed, Everhart’s influence—whether directly or indirectly—can be seen at events like the 21st Annual Rehoboth Beach Autumn Jazz Festival, and the Rehoboth Beach Independent Film Festival, which, since its inception in 1998, has offered screenings of more than 100 features, documentaries and shorts.
But it’s taken 21 years to get here, Everhart points out. Following her success with Sea Witch, she took a full-time position as the chamber’s marketing director, a post she held for seven years before stepping up to president. Her vision was grand, even if the gears of change clicked ever so slowly.
“One thing I learned early on was that, even though the location was perfectly accommodating to growth and return visits in the fall and winter, Rehoboth and Dewey had not experienced that kind of growth before,” she says. “And I quickly learned that I had to gain permission to do almost anything.”
Everhart recalls wanting to host a square dance on the boardwalk. What she thought would be a simple event to plan turned into “a major issue.” Or consider the Easter Promenade, an event that had been an institution after more than 50 straight years. When Everhart suggested that it be shuttered due to waning interest and participation, she was met with some resistance.
“Did it have community support? Yes. Was it meeting our goals? No. But we took the energy that went into that event and turned it into the Sandcastle Contest,” says Everhart. “It wasn’t that the community was opposed to these changes or this kind of growth. They just hadn’t thought about it that way before.”
Which is why Everhart became an expert in baby stepping. She learned early on that her vision for Rehoboth and Dewey was not going to be realized overnight. It would be an evolution that required deliberate, delicate movement that balanced the needs of the business community and the character of the area and its people.
“I have a very big patience button,” Everhart says with a chuckle. “You need to be very patient. And you also need to be willing to share the credit.”
Hearn, who once served as chair of the Rehoboth-Dewey chamber, has been witness to Everhart’s patience and diplomacy on many occasions during his 20-plus years in Rehoboth Beach.
“She has this ability to get her ideas and projects across to people and to get those people working together toward the same point without coercion,” says Hearn. “Carol will talk you into something, and you don’t even realize you’ve been talked into it.”
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For Everhart, this seems to come naturally. It’s as much about intuition as calculation.
“There’s always a percentage of folks who resist any change, and the longer something’s been going on and is seen as a tradition, it’s even more difficult to make that change. But one of the keys is that you make a change, but then replace it with something else,” she says. “If the trend has changed and the activity is no longer as popular as it once was, take that energy and put it toward something that is growing in popularity and does create the buzz and excitement you’re looking for.”
Bitsy Cochran is the owner of Monograms Unlimited, a cozy embroidery and retail shop on First Street that has been a Rehoboth Beach staple for nearly 30 years. Cochran says Everhart has excelled in her ability to unite the community around its growth and innovation while ensuring that it never lost its sense of tradition and character.
“It was always about tourism and bringing people to Rehoboth and experiencing Rehoboth as a fun little town,” says Cochran. “We never wanted to see it become the next Ocean City. We like it as a small town, and I think that’s always been the focus of Carol’s work with the chamber—to get the people here. Once they’re here, it’s up to the businesses to make sure the tourist is happy and will come back.”
This may be why Everhart so often uses the word catalyst.
“I always say that most successful chambers of commerce are catalysts,” says Everhart. “You don’t necessarily have to do the task or even be in charge of the activity. If you can be a catalyst to something new, and that is a major accomplishment for any organization.”
Regardless of the breadth of her accomplishments, Everhart displays a constant air of humility and deference. This is not her doing. It’s everyone’s. She just helped steer the ship in the right direction.
“I always had the belief, the instinct, that if you have a location where people want to be, you can’t go wrong. And people already wanted to be here, so if you gave them additional reasons to come back, even if it wasn’t in season, I knew they would return,” she says. “And the reason is simple: Fun trumps everything. Fun trumps financial concerns. Fun trumps gas prices. Family fun will always trump it all. And I knew that from the beginning.”