Robert Murphy Has High Hopes for the Vineyard of the Future

By IAN FEIN

Robert C. Murphy remembers his childhood winters in Oak Bluffs, when there were no movie theatres open and the bowling alley was the only source of social activity.

Island children today by comparison have a bounty of entertainment and cultural opportunities - which Mr. Murphy sees as one of the many positive aspects of the growth that the Vineyard has experienced over the last few decades.

"When I was growing up the season began on Memorial Day, and the sidewalks were all picked up after Labor Day," he recalled. "Now it seems like the season goes from April right through Thanksgiving. And I really enjoy that. love it." He continued:

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"Some people say they're excited for everybody to leave in the winter, but I dread it every year. The visitors bring so much to the Vineyard."

On an Island where most residents complain about the smallest of changes, Mr. Murphy maintains a refreshingly upbeat attitude about the last 20 years, and an optimistic outlook for the next 20 to come.

"I don't think it's gone so bad," he said during an interview this week.

"For those of us who have been here, we look at growth differently because we remember everything the way it was, and somehow we want to keep it that way," said Mr. Murphy, who turned 62 last month but looks as though he is still in his forties. "But the Vineyard has seen a lot of positive growth."

That said, Mr. Murphy also believes it is important to plan for the future. And he praised efforts under way at the Martha's Vineyard Commission to draft a comprehensive Island Plan, which will help chart a course for the Vineyard community in the coming decades.

"We definitely need this plan. To go blindly down the road would be pointless and foolhardy," Mr. Murphy said, sitting in his office at Towne and Country Realty in Oak Bluffs, only a few doors up from the commission offices on New York avenue.

"We all have our pet peeves about the commission, but we would be in real trouble right now without them," he added. "We're lucky that we have planners who actually think about the future for us. Because otherwise, it's too easy to be shortsighted."

There are downsides and problems associated with growth, Mr. Murphy acknowledged, specifically criticizing what he called a historical lack of planning for parking lots and other Island infrastructure.

"We should have made sure that our infrastructure kept pace with the growth," he said. "The parking lots and things - these came last when they should have been in place beforehand. If you're going to allow a subdivision, then you need to plan for those cars in the future."

After spending 25 years as the Vineyard representative on the Steamship Authority financial advisory board, Mr. Murphy said his greatest frustrations came when Island residents blamed their traffic problems on the ferry service, and not all the development that had taken place. He noted that the Vineyard built 200 to 300 new homes every year, yet did not want the Steamship Authority to change its schedule.

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"People only take the boat over and pay the price if they have a place to stay. And if you allowed them to build a new rental house, then why shouldn't they have access to it?" he asked.

He sees parking as a large problem on the Island, and particularly in Oak Bluffs. He believes the town needs to create an offsite parking area, as they have done in Edgartown and Vineyard Haven.

But Mr. Murphy is also critical of the practice of putting overflow parking from summertime events in town parks. He said the parks play an important role in the town, and are some of the jewels on the Vineyard that must not be sacrificed to accommodate growth.

He cited the location of the comfort station built on the Oak Bluffs harbor as a similar example, noting that it blocks the view of the harbor as you drive into town from New York avenue, which he considers a primary gateway for the Island.

"Sure it's a small thing, but that beautiful view of the harbor is the exact type of thing we should not be taking away," Mr. Murphy said. "We need to make sure we protect our beaches, harbors, and parks. Because any time you start infringing on something, then people think they have that right. And that's how we allow creeping growth."

An Oak Bluffs businessman who enjoys the busy season, Mr. Murphy revealed that he also appreciates his peace and privacy. He said he often escapes into the outdoors up-Island.

"I like nothing more than to go up to Cedar Tree Neck in West Tisbury, or walk on beaches with my dog," Mr. Murphy said. "It is so great to go up to Prospect Hill in Chilmark and have the freedom to walk around, which few people do."

He expressed his support for the conservation efforts on the Island, but said he has mixed feelings about the affordable housing initiatives. He understands the plight of young Vineyard residents, but is worried that the Island is putting too much emphasis on the issue.

"We've somehow got it in our minds that everyone who lives here should be able to buy a home. But it's not like that in Boston or really anywhere else in the real world," Mr. Murphy said. "People can criticize me for my position because I'm successful and own my own home, but no, I took out three mortgages to buy my first home. I worked for these things. No one gave me anything."

Mr. Murphy lives today on the same street where he grew up, but on the opposite end of Spruce avenue from his childhood home. He started his own real estate business about 35 years ago, when he said there were only a dozen offices on the whole Island.

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"Now I can't guess how many there are," he said. "Everyone and their brother is a real estate agent today."

As a co-owner of Seasons Restaurant, the Lookout Tavern and the Game Room, Mr. Murphy also has roughly 20 years of experience in the Oak Bluffs food and entertainment businesses. He said the industry has evolved as the season expanded, and he estimated that the number of restaurants and bars in town has roughly doubled.

"Before I got into the business, I spent ten years as an Oak Bluffs police officer and used to monitor the bars," he said. "Back then we had only one or two officers patrolling the streets at night. Now they have two on every corner."

With his business partners, Mr. Murphy decided last year to replace the Atlantic Connection - a nightclub and Circuit avenue mainstay for 20 years - with the Game Room, a family arcade that used to be located on Oak Bluffs avenue. The concept of putting children smack dab in the middle of Circuit avenue raised a number of eyebrows on the Island, but Mr. Murphy said that since the Game Room reopened in May, he has heard feedback that it has rekindled a family atmosphere in downtown Oak Bluffs.

"Since when did the bars own the street? It never felt that way growing up," he said. "I'm really glad that we did it. It has created a safe environment, and I think it will help the other stores on Circuit avenue."

Mr. Murphy also shared plans to renovate the front of Season's Restaurant, and said he hopes other Island businesses will clean up their facades and improve the faces of the towns. Overall, he believes the Vineyard needs to do a better job of making itself accommodating to visitors - by creating more accessible amenities like public rest rooms, benches, bicycle racks and rubbish barrels.

Nantucket and other resort towns in Florida do a far better job of catering to their visitors, he said.

"Our business here is tourism and second homeowners, whether we like it or not. There's no way around it," Mr. Murphy said. "But for whatever reason, we don't recognize where the money comes from. We just don't see it here, and we have to."

He said Island voters have a responsibility to think about these other interest groups when deciding their joint destinies at town meeting.

"We have so many groups on the Island - older retired people, tourists, younger working people striving to be successful, wealthy second home owners, and people who grew up here - but the only people with any real say are the voters," Mr. Murphy said. "And it's hard for one group to plan for all the others and not be selfish," he added.

"We talk about preferential spaces on the ferries for Island residents, but that takes away rights and access for second homeowners, and they're who provide the bulk of the cash that flows out here," Mr. Murphy said.

"We have to be respectful of their needs."

The Martha's Vineyard Commission is soliciting comment from the public for its Island Plan, a two-year project to develop a 10, 20 and 50-year comprehensive plan for the Vineyard. For more information, visit Islandplan.org or call the commission at 508-693-3453.