Measuring the Summer: Seasonal Pace Slows a Bit; Is Vineyard in Transition?

By JULIA WELLS
Gazette Senior Writer

Traffic was down, but parking tickets were up. The weather was changeable; ditto for the restaurant and retail business. The wild blueberries were not so hot, but the fishing was great - lots of big bass and small bluefish, and on the full moon in July the fluke were so thick in some places you could practically throw out an old shoe and catch one.

These are the benchmarks of the summer of 2003, and as the official summer season came to a close this week, the people of the Vineyard took a quick look back, and most could agree on two things:

It's the national economy, stupid. But it's also the weather.

Or maybe even the weather forecasting.

"The forecasting has been awful - I mean partly sunny is the same thing as partly cloudy, but how you say it makes a huge difference," declared Valerie Richards, executive director of the Martha's Vineyard Chamber of Commerce.

And if it seems like a reach to blame the weather forecasts for the fact that business on the Vineyard was a little off this year, Ms. Richards said consider the national trend:

A recent poll found that 51 per cent of Americans did not take a summer vacation this year - and among those who did, the traditional seven-day vacation dropped to three or four days.

"Three or four days - that is the trend in travel and that translates to long weekends and spontaneous bookings. If you're only taking a long weekend and you think the weather is going to be bad, you won't come to the Vineyard," Ms. Richards concluded.

"It's been a very crazy year - there are so many things that you can't point to any one of them," said Renee Balter, who is executive director of the Oak Bluffs Association. "We've lost the college kids, they don't come here to work anymore because they can't find places to live. The year-round population is increasing. The pricier, high-end places seem to be affected the most because people aren't spending money at those places like they used to. If we have a good fall we'll be okay, but the high-rollers are going to have to roll back the prices a little. Next year we're going to have to work twice as hard," Ms. Balter said.

On the Vineyard, hard statistics for tourism and the seasonal economy are as scarce as hen's teeth - there are no room occupancy numbers, and no real dollar numbers pegged to certain segments of the economy.

Steamship Authority traffic is about the only way to track the numbers - and traffic statistics from the boat line show that this year the numbers are down.

Passenger traffic on the Vineyard run is down 6.4 per cent for the year. Last year by the third week of August, the boat line had carried 1.6 million passengers between the mainland and the Vineyard; this year the number stands at 1.49 million for the same period. Passenger traffic fell most sharply on the New Bedford route; traffic on the passenger ferry Schamonchi dropped from 73,264 to 48,703 through August 21, a decrease of 33 per cent. Service on the Schamonchi will end next week, a month earlier than planned, as boat line managers try to contain operating losses.

Car traffic on boat line ferries is essentially flat compared with last year. Through August 21 the SSA carried 262,961 cars on the Vineyard run, compared with 264,435 the year before, a decrease of 0.6 per cent. Truck traffic is down about three per cent - 47,139 trucks were carried on the Vineyard run through the third week in August, down from 48,573 the year before.

It all confirms what most people on the Vineyard say about the summer - things were a little lighter this year.

"It does seem like there are fewer people this year, but they're still buying alcohol," declared Art Honig, the friendly, cigar-chomping owner of Your Market in Edgartown. "They are buying just as much. It's still beer, white wine and white liquor. Budweiser, pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc and vodka. We're pretty close to where we were last year," he said.

Close to last year - it was a common refrain among business owners this week.

"The businesses who pay attention to the trends are doing fine - the one who are here for the short term and do nothing but complain, well they just come and go. So much of it has to do with attitude, experience and hard work," said Ms. Balter.

More than one person used the word transition.

"This is a time of transition. During the boom years, people on the Vineyard were able to just open their doors and money would fall in - and that isn't happening anymore," said Ms. Richards. "You have to think outside the box and be creative about your business now. And you have to work hard," she added.

"I think the Vineyard is in a kind of transition, and our business is also in a transition" said Jackie Korell, who with her husband, Doug, owns Lobster Tales Catering and Clambakes. This summer the Korells also bought the Katama General Store, where they have been peddling provisions to Katama residents and visitors headed for a day at South Beach.

The Korells may have hit on an entirely new niche for business: the neighborhood store. As traffic jams have become more and more the norm in the down-Island town centers, neighborhood stores have benefited, picking up more business from people who don't want to wait in traffic and stand in long lines to buy a quart of milk and a loaf of bread.

"It's a natural extension of what we do," Ms. Korell said. The Korells got their start on the Vineyard a decade ago when they began catering high-end clambakes, and the Lobster Tales clambakes quickly earned a reputation for their high quality.

But just as quickly, the Korells decided not to stay stuck in the high-end catering business, and they began to do catering across the board, from fancy weddings to small family cocktail parties.

Now with the general store they are expanding their base again, and Ms. Korell said this summer they actually began to turn down some catering business as they focused on the store.

She said the catering business in general is still active, but again, some trends are changing.

"People are still hiring caterers, but even people with a lot of money are scaling back in volume - what we are seeing is people who say, ‘I have a houseful of people, can I get a lasagna and a salad,' or it might be a plate of sandwiches," she said.

Business owners can think creatively and adjust for trends, but the one thing they can't change is the weather.

And on the Vineyard this summer, weather was definitely a factor.

Records from the national weather service cooperative station in Edgartown show that there was rain for 14 days in the month of June. July was the best month - rain was recorded for only six days. In early August the weather turned impossibly soggy again - rain was recorded during 13 of the first 18 days in August. On August 19, a sunny stretch began that continued through this week. The Labor Day weekend forecast called for rain - but who believes the forecast anymore?

Certainly not Ms. Richards.

"I like to look forward," she said. "And we're looking forward to a good fall."