Merchants Report August Spike in Island Tale of Two Summers

By JAMES KINSELLA

Oak Bluffs harbor reports a record July, while fewer boats appear in Edgartown. Steamship Authority passenger traffic is up a bit, while commercial airline traffic is down a little. July generally lags the same month last summer, while August seems to be running ahead.

A classic mixed economic bag appears to have landed on the Vineyard's doorstep this summer.

All told, not much has changed from the summer of 2004. Indicators generally show slight increases or decreases from last year, which was not much different from the summer of 2003.

For a real departure in the Island economy, many say you have to go back to the the turn of the millennium, a time boosted by a stock market boom and by President Clinton's vacations on the Vineyard.

The story this summer seems to be a tale of two summers: an early summer and July about the same if not weaker than the same period last year, followed by a stronger August than a year ago.

"We're about the same," said Matthew Stackpole, executive director of the Martha's Vineyard Historical Society. "A little behind in July, a little ahead in August."

Passenger traffic on the Steamship Authority between Woods Hole and the Vineyard actually crept up 1.8 per cent in July. For the first seven months of the year, passenger traffic on the route is off 3.9 per cent.

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Automobile traffic on the route was up 5.1 per cent for July, though it was off 1.8 per cent for the first seven months of the year. Truck traffic, which includes some SUVs, was up 7.2 per cent for the month and 9.2 per cent for the year.

For the first 14 days of August, according to the most recent numbers available from the Steamship Authority, passenger traffic was up 1.2 per cent on the Vineyard route, with automobile traffic up 2.5 per cent and truck traffic up 10.1 per cent.

At the Martha's Vineyard Airport, acting manager Sean Flynn said Cape Air passengers were off one per cent in July compared with a year earlier. Mr. Flynn said fuel sales at the airport are even with last year, with a slight decline in July countered by an increase so far in August.

Pleasure boat traffic tells a varied story in Vineyard harbors. At Oak Bluffs, mooring and slip revenues dropped $16,000 to $114,000 in June, but climbed $44,000, to $253,000, in July.

"We had the best July we ever had," Oak Bluffs harbor master Todd Alexander said. August, through yesterday, at least equaled results from August 2004, Mr. Alexander said.

May and June, meanwhile, lagged the same months from 2004.

For people seeking explanations, Mr. Alexander replies, "It's all weather."

Edgartown tracks its boat traffic in a different way. The town's 70 moorings and limited slip rentals all are filled and yield the same revenue every year, harbor master Charles Blair Jr. said.

For indicators, Mr. Blair casts his eye out to the place where boats can anchor for free, and where fewer boats have appeared this year.

He also knows from a byproduct of boat life - trash - that July was off from last year. While boats typically generate about 800 pounds a day, or close to 25,000 pounds a month, this July showed a decrease in tonnage of 6,000 pounds.

Vineyard Haven, meanwhile, also sees the 150 moorings in its inner harbor routinely occupied in the course of a summer. For his indicator, harbor master John M. (Jay) Wilbur casts an eye to the private moorings in the outer harbor, which he said mostly have been filled until recent days.

Speaking of boat traffic at Vineyard Haven, Mr. Wilbur called this year "better than last summer."

Some observers said this summer is showing more strength than might be obvious.

Fielding Moore, president of Edgartown National Bank, said demand deposits - more commonly known as checking account funds - were flat at the bank in July, but have been up six per cent in August.

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He said a number of contacts in the business community corroborate what he is seeing in demand deposits: that this season is better than last year.

Chris Wells, president at Dukes County Savings Bank, said commercial deposits were up seven per cent at the bank in July and 10 percent so far this August, following a decline in May and June.

Mr. Wells also said loan delinquencies have been higher for the summer than they were last year. If businesses aren't making money now, he said, that can come back to haunt them in the leaner off-season months.

While Ralph Packer, owner of the RM Packer fuel company in Vineyard Haven, declined to discuss specific numbers, he did say that "the numbers we're looking at are comparably the same. We thought there might be a dip."

Given that "the price of gas is scary," Mr. Packer said, "I thought we did very well compared to other summers."

Overnight stays at the youth hostel on Martha's Vineyard in West Tisbury were off 10 per cent from its opening in April through July, but has since rebounded in August, manager Monroe Sheperd said.

"We had a very good last week of July, a very good first three weeks of August," he said.

Thanks to an increase in the number of cruise ship visits - typically from the vessel Enchantment of the Sea - more people are walking around Oak Bluffs. Mr. Alexander said cruise ships scheduled a total of 14 visits to the town this year, up two from last year. Six more visits are planned.

Visits to the town's visitors booth were off 2.8 per cent in July, according to Renee Balter, executive director of the Oak Bluffs Association.

Another fixture of Vineyard life, both in summer and year-round, is the Chappaquiddick ferry. Owner Roy Hayes reports that passenger traffic on the ferry was up 2.12 per cent to 77,407 in July, while car traffic slipped 1.15 per cent to 32,274.

More people are riding the buses of the Martha's Vineyard Regional Transit Authority, administrator Angela Grant reports. This past June, 110,243 people rode the buses, an increase of 7.5 per cent. The following month, 210,985 people rode the buses, 5.1 per cent higher than the previous July.