Renee Balter Is Force Behind Business Revival

By JAMES KINSELLA

Renee Balter is a celebrant of art, of Mini Cooper automobiles and especially of her adopted home town of Oak Bluffs - its downtown, its architecture, its Camp Ground, its parks, and something harder to define.

"The feeling here. There's just such a wonderful sense of community," Mrs. Balter said.

If she celebrates Oak Bluffs, the town celebrates her: the Connecticut native who over the past 15 years re-energized the town's business community and its ties to the town at large.

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"Renee is just an exceptional human being," said Dennis da Rosa, president of the Oak Bluffs Association, the business organization that she helped form in 1991. "It's just terrific what she's done."

Now Mrs. Balter, 71, the association's longtime executive director and go-to person, is stepping down to devote more attention to other parts of her life, such as her artwork. She will continue to serve the association as a vice president and board member. Bob Glover of Oak Bluffs, who is active in television production in the Boston area, succeeds her as executive director.

But Mrs. Balter's seeming omnipresence in Oak Bluffs life - as a member of the Cottage City Historic District Commission, the Oak Bluffs Historical Commission, the Copeland Plan District Review Board and the Community Development Council, as co-proprietor of the Titticut Follies lodging house on Narragansett avenue, as a member of the Friends of Oak Bluffs - is not likely to wane anytime soon.

"She's very involved," said Priscilla Sylvia, who serves with Mrs. Balter on the historical commission. "She really knows and understands Oak Bluffs, and loves it too, I might add."

Mrs. Balter, however, found her way to Oak Bluffs through an up-Island route.

One of her high school teachers, Betty Gifford, was married to Willis Gifford of West Tisbury, who had deep Vineyard roots. Every summer, they would return to the Island.

"She was kind of my mentor, and I loved her, and she said, ‘Would you like to live on Martha's Vineyard for the summer?' And I said, ‘Wow, sure.' "

"She said, ‘You will just love Martha's Vineyard. It will be the best place you've ever gone.' And she was right."

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The year was 1954. Mrs. Balter came to work at the Menemsha Inn in Chilmark for Olga and DeWolf Thompson. The inn still offered the so-called American plan, offering its guests breakfast, lunch and dinner every day.

She did not have much time to herself, but when she did, she was able to get away to the decidedly un-Chilmark enclave of Oak Bluffs.

In 1959, she married her first husband. They went on to spend most of their family vacations in Chilmark, with their time down-Island spent in Oak Bluffs.

In 1981, following the dissolution of her first marriage, Renee and her future husband, psychotherapist Bruce Balter, bought Titticut Follies. "It was affordable, and it was so incredibly charming," she said.

The lodging house, with three apartments and two bedrooms, has won a devoted following, with many guests returning year after year. They come back despite - or perhaps because of - the Balters' decision to eschew modern trappings such as telephones, televisions, air conditioning and credit cards.

In 1987, the couple moved year-round to the Island. A few years later, Mrs. Balter was sitting with Will Elliott on the porch of the Oak Bluffs Inn, which he owned, and talking about business in the town. The existing Oak Bluffs Business Association had been losing steam.

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"Will and I decided - I proposed it, and he helped - to try to get the business community to come together, and get them to understand all the important issues in the town, and be part of the town. And, at the same time, to get the residents of the town to realize what the business community is all about, and the value of the business community to the community in general," she said.

"It's so important to recognize the specialness of the Vineyard," Mrs. Balter continued. "We are not part of that Wal-Mart, corporate America, McDonald's, chain store situation. It's more like the people who own the businesses here live here, they are part of the fabric of the community, and that's important."

In spring 1991, the Oak Bluffs Association came into existence, with Mrs. Balter as its first president. After about a year, as the work became all-consuming, she went on to become the association's paid executive director.

She said she took a few years to really learn the job.

"I took my time," she said. "I didn't rush it. I just learned so much through other people, who was who, what was what, their histories, their interests, the direction they wanted to go."

By 1993, Mrs. Balter's energy had won her recognition in the form of the Martha's Vineyard Hospitality Award, an honor bestowed by then-Gov. William Weld.

The citation read: "The Oak Bluffs Association has developed into an organization of the entire Oak Bluffs community, and Renee's hard work and guidance has nurtured the group of dedicated individuals who make up the Oak Bluffs Association."

Some of the association's work was eye-catching, such as the creation of the Oak Bluffs Harbor Festival, launched with an air-sea rescue demonstration just outside the harbor. Some was community-minded, such as helping collect thousands of bottles and cans to pay for a seventh-grade trip to a museum in Worcester.

And much of it was unsung, including Mrs. Balter's constant attendance at meetings of the board of selectmen, not to mention the town sewer committee.

"I was kind of like the liaison between the business community and the town," she said. It's a role that she plans to continue to fill, even as she steps away from the day-to-day work that keeps the association running.

But for now, she said, "I want to devote most of my time during the day to my artwork."

A self-taught artist who works in acrylics and monoprints, Mrs. Balter has been painting Vineyard scenes since 1966. She is working on pieces for a show scheduled for Memorial Day weekend at the Dragonfly gallery in Oak Bluffs.

A spiritual source helped her decision to resume her art.

"Several years ago, my husband got involved with the Bohdi Path Buddhist Center in West Tisbury," Mrs. Balter said. "The past couple of years, I've been going there with him, on a fairly regular basis. And I think that's had a huge effect on my awareness of things, my outlook on life and where I am now, how many years do we have left, what-are-you-going-to-do-with-the-rest-of-your-life kind of thing.

"So I made the decision and I feel so good about it," she said. "We have Bob Glover on board [as executive director]. He will work out so well as a director. I'll be on the board, and work on new ideas for the Oak Bluffs Association, and I'm involved with the town, and I have two wonderful grandkids here. Life is really very, very full, and just so rewarding."

Perhaps the most visible symbol of recent change in her life is her bright yellow Mini Cooper. For years, Mrs. Balter drove a large van, which she describes as "a shed on wheels," largely to lug stuff around for Titticut Follies.

But in 1983, when she and Bruce Balter got married, they went to Portugal for three weeks, where they drove around in a Mini.

When an opportunity arose to drive a different sort of vehicle, she and Mr. Balter headed to Boston and bought the yellow Mini. "I love funny little cars," she said.

Another love in her life is the Camp Ground.

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"My favorite thing is to walk down Circuit avenue in the middle of August at 10 o'clock at night with all this wild abandon going on, and to go down to the end of Circuit avenue, hang a left, hang another left, and go into the Camp Ground, because you can hear a pin drop," she said.

"And you can see these wonderful little cottages lit from within - a lot of my artwork is about night, and the cottages lit from inside - and you can see people playing card games or watching television or talking or having dinner or whatever, and it's this open, inviting, wonderful kind of setting, and so sweet and it's beautiful and it's so special."

Oak Bluffs truly is Renee Balter's kind of place. She remembers going to her first town meeting there, and hearing the passion in the voices of those who spoke. She is impressed with her fellow members on the Community Development Council, a fact-finding group that researches questions such as the use of the old town hall. She cherishes the post office.

"I just have to go to the post office," Mrs. Balter said. "I mean, if the day goes by and I haven't been to the post office, something's missing.

"And people do welcome you," she said of her fellow residents. "It's a very, very warm and welcoming community, and they appreciate anything that you do. They care about you."