Survey Offers Snapshot of Businesses

By MANDY LOCKE

Daytrippers pump little revenue into the coffers of Island businesses. Vineyard establishments are well-rooted; the majority have survived more than 17 years. Despite the national economic downturn of the last few years, Vineyard business owners weathered it quite well; nearly three-quarters earned as much if not more in 2003 than the previous year.

This is a snapshot of the Island's business community - captured by a survey distributed by the Martha's Vineyard Commission and the Martha's Vineyard Chamber of Commerce. MassHighway and the Federal Highway Administration funded the project.

"We have a much clearer portrait of the business community now," said Mark London, executive director of the Martha's Vineyard Chamber of Commerce.

The results - released after months of tabulation and analysis by the University of Massachusetts at Amherst's Center for Economic Development - confirmed much of what officials knew anecdotally about Island economics; planners hope they will provide a statistical baseline to monitor business growth in years to come.

"If we are going to plan for the future, the first step is to really understand what is happening today. We have very sketchy information about businesses and the economy," said Mr. London.

Results cover monthly rent paid for commercial space; the housing needs of employees; the number of foreign workers hired; the charitable donations of the business community, and more.

Of 1,000 surveys distributed last fall, 161 businesses responded - a response rate Mr. London described as excellent. Virtually all respondents are members of the Martha's Vineyard Chamber of Commerce.

Survey results suggest the Vineyard's business community is rather insular. Eighty-three per cent operate out of only one location, and the Island is their home base. Five of the respondents were Vineyard chains, businesses with stores sprinkled around the Island. Thirteen of the participants have a related store off-Island. The Vineyard is the primary residence of more than 85 per cent of the business owners.

"Businesses on the Vineyard are part of a distinct community of stable, mature, small, locally-owned businesses," the report summarizes.

The bulk of these businesses - nearly 60 per cent - are owned by the people who started them. More than half own their business space. For those who rent, monthly costs run the gamut - from less than $800 to well over $3,200. Half, however, reported paying less than $1,500 a month.

Despite an affordable housing shortage on the Island, few businesses - less than 10 per cent - rely at all on commuting workers from the mainland.

A majority of respondents said their employees managed to find stable, year-round housing, but more than seven per cent of businesses said none of their employees had suitable housing arrangements. Only 20 per cent offered any staff housing assistance.

Each of the 161 businesses are in full swing in the height of summer. Three-quarters say they depend at least partially on tourism. One-third said tourists - seasonal residents, transients and daytrippers - account for three-quarters of their business.

Employee demands in the summer more than double their full-time year-round staff needs. And the vast majority of these businesses, 76 per cent, do not depend at all on foreign labor to function in the summer. Of those that do, less than 10 per cent say that foreign workers account for more than half of their summer work force.

Island businesses support local charities, schools and events - the average yearly donation exceeded $7,500. But only a limited number offer any health benefits to employees. Forty per cent provided health insurance to staff; only 14 per cent offered dental benefits.

Few offered any retirement benefits or profit sharing to workers. Fewer than 14 per cent provided a 401K or similar retirement fund, while fewer than 10 per cent let employees share in profits.

Mr. London said these results will help the commission better plan for business growth in the future.

"It is certainly a part of the commission's mandate to work toward a sustainable economy," he said.