It’s not easy to pinch pennies on the Vineyard. We all pay the price for the trouble it takes vendors to get their store shelves stocked and their gas pumps filled on the Island. In the best of times, it’s an inconvenience. In the worst of times, such as now, inflated Island prices can be a threat to survival for merchant and consumer alike.
The recession had not yet begun in the early years of the last decade, when Geoff Rose of Oak Bluffs and Jonathan Bernstein of Chilmark moved to the Island full-time. But both felt the effects of the hopped-up price for a gallon of gas or bag of groceries. It applied to just about everything, from restaurants to retail stores to health clubs; everyone’s prices seemed prohibitive compared to their mainland counterparts.
Mr. Rose and Mr. Bernstein met some years later while working together for a local organization, and bonded over a shared interest in making Island life more affordable. Their question: “Why shouldn’t somebody come up with some kind of cooperative or club where people could save money on essential products and services?”
And so in September of 2005, with little more than a smart concept and a philanthropic spirit, Our Island Club was born. It probably would have been a success if built only on the idea of giving Islanders a much-needed spending break on goods and services. But under Mr. Rose’s and Mr. Bernstein’s direction, the club has become a homegrown entrepreneur success story, a money-saving, business-growing enterprise with a significant charitable constituent. For a small annual fee ($79 for an individual, $99 for a family), club members are eligible for a long list of discounts from local vendors. Cronig’s Market, Island Propane, Shell at Jim’s Island Market, and Martha’s Vineyard Insurance are the anchor business partners, providing discounted groceries, heating fuel, gasoline, and insurance options. The rest of the list seems endless.
The Sweet Life Café in Oak Bluffs discounts entrees 20 per cent for club members. The Hanover House Inn does the same thing on accommodations off-season. Club members save on classes at Vineyard Yoga and Massage in West Tisbury, kayak tours at Island Spirit Kayaks, and even dog-sitting services at West Tisbury’s On-Island Dogs. Not to mention savings on taxis, contractors, cleaning services and auto repairs.
“In the early goings, I reached out to restaurants, retail stores and services. At this point, I get more calls from businesses wanting to be a part of the program,” said Mr. Rose in an interview this week. “This is a very valuable partnership. It’s helping to develop a loyal customer base for the business, which is very important to them.”
And there’s more: 20 per cent of the price of each membership is donated to a local charity of the member’s choice. “We don’t have a list. It’s simply the individual’s passion,” said Mr. Rose. An itemized list of annual donations shows over 100 recipients. “We donate anywhere from $2,000 to Hospice down to $15.60 to another organization,” he said. And because a number of new members opted not to designate a particular charity, club owners found themselves with extra money to donate. “So three years ago, we set up scholarships for education,” said Mr. Rose, to the tune of some $3,500 per year.
After four and a half years in operation, the club’s charitable donations total over $120,000. “I’m starting to get phone calls from different organizations saying, please put us on the list, and I explain to them that there is no list. It really is up to the individual who is joining to choose a charity,” said Mr. Rose. They have, however, begun to organize membership sign-ups. In late February a club sign-up at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital will designate the donations for Windemere Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. “At this time, when charitable donations are down, we’re certainly willing and wanting to be able to talk to any organization about how we can help them fundraise through membership,” said Mr. Rose.
Our Island Club also offers free memberships to families unable to afford the fee. The program is called Island Angels, and is underwritten by Martha’s Vineyard Insurance at $2,500 per year. The club matches the number, offering a total of $5,000 annually to needy families identified through organizations like the Food Bank, Island Elderly Housing and Vineyard Health Care Access.
The club caught on quickly, enrolling more than 1,100 members by the end of 2005 just four months after its launch. There are now over 3,500 members and 150 participating businesses. The rapid growth opened the doors for expansion.
“About two years ago I created a program for the Cape called the Cape Cod Community Club,” said Mr. Rose. “It’s very similar in its design to Our Island Club, and there is reciprocity which allows those who are members of Our Island Club to use the card if and when they do some shopping or dining on the Cape, and conversely those who are Cape Cod Community Club members can use it here on the Vineyard.”
Participating businesses also benefit from a Web site called Vineyard Connections, an online classified forum which was established as a free service for business owners. The Web site is now open to the entire Island business community.
“The value is certainly there, and I think we’re helping to build community,” said Mr. Rose of his small business enterprise. “It’s a labor of love,” he said.