Survey of Businesses Seeks Facts, Opinions on Island Economics

By MANDY LOCKE

Two Vineyard agencies are joining forces in an effort to capture the dynamics of the Island's business community through an extensive survey of more than 1,000 business leaders.

The Martha's Vineyard Commission and the Martha's Vineyard Chamber of Commerce leaders crafted an eight-page survey due to arrive in the mailboxes of most Island businesses next week. The questionnaire solicits data on everything from how much the business relies on foreign workers to whether the owner rents or owns his business space.

"The nature of business is so different on the Vineyard. Some of the information gathered on the state level doesn't necessarily give us a picture of the Vineyard because of our unique seasonality and size of businesses," said Mark London, executive director of the commission.

Currently, the Island's lead planning agency and the Vineyard's advocate of the business community have precious little information about this sector of the local economy. Neither the commission nor the chamber even knows how many businesses exist on the Vineyard.

"The state [Department of Employment and Training] in 2000 told us there are just over 1,000 business establishments on the Island. But DET only tracks businesses that are paying into unemployment, which eliminates sole proprietorships and those with less than 20 employees. It's certainly not accounting for those businesses that are paying people under the table or those that only have one employee. You have to take these numbers with a grain of salt," said Christine Flynn, affordable housing and economic development planner for the commission.

Chamber membership includes 1,050 Island businesses.

Leaders of both organizations agree the Vineyard is highly dependent on tourism, but admit their opinions are based on anecdotal observations instead of grounded statistics.

"We want to know exactly how dependent we are on tourism. From where I sit, it's the number one economy on the Island. But to those not necessarily on the front lines, they may not be willing to admit our full dependence," said Valerie Richards, executive director of the chamber of commerce.

Responses will help guide the Martha's Vineyard Commission in upcoming Island-wide and town-by-town planning efforts.

"To that end, it's a high priority to have good data on which to base discussions and decisions. In general, there is a lot of basic information we do not have about our Island," said Mr. London.

The survey solicits details about the following aspects of local business activities:

* Local or mainland ownership.

* Size of business space and monthly rent.

* Length of time in operation.

* Type of customer: year-round resident, seasonal resident, day-tripper, vacationer.

* How much of business depends on tourism, construction trade, weddings, real estate market.

* Increases or decreases in revenue year to date.

* Total number of employees: those that commute, those from foreign nations.

* Benefits offered to employees.

* Effect of affordable housing problem on business.

* Mode of transportation used by employees reporting to work.

* Businesses' proximity to bus route.

* Availability of parking.

* Number of and schedule of off-island deliveries.

* Means of promotion, total advertising budget.

The survey also gauges business owners' opinions about transportation efficiency, character of the Vineyard, growth limits, local tax laws and zoning regulations.

Every chamber member will receive a survey through the mail. Additional copies of the survey will be available at the chamber's and the commission's offices and local libraries. Commission staff will also be hand-delivering copies to large business owners not belonging to the chamber.

Responses will be compiled and analyzed by the Center for Economic Development at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Survey respondents are not asked for their name, and their individual responses are confidential. The project is being funded in part by a commission planning grant from MassHighway and the federal highway administration.

While results will not be scientifically valid, the number of surveys returned will determine the clarity of the picture painted of the business community.

"Hopefully people will see the longterm benefit of everyone having a better understanding of the business community and take the time to fill out the survey," Mr. London said.

But officials are realistic about the survey's ability to capture information about the Island's well-known underground cash economy.

"We're hoping people will participate and be forthcoming with their information, but, realistically, we don't want to put any unreasonable expectations on it," said Ms. Flynn.

The data will supplement information gathered through surveys completed on Steamship Authority ferries, Vineyard Transit Authority buses and the Martha's Vineyard Airport this summer. Commission staff distributed and collected more than 600 surveys aimed at capturing details of how tourists spent their money on the Vineyard, where they stayed during their visit and what they thought of Island transportation.

The visitor surveys will be tabulated by the end of November. The business responses should be analyzed after the first of the new year.