A proposal by the Steamship Authority to close down the Oak Bluffs terminal at the end of September instead of mid-October has stirred up protest from business leaders in town.
It's only two weeks less at the seasonal terminal, but shopkeepers and restaurant owners in downtown Oak Bluffs say the potential fall-off in passenger traffic from the SSA ferries could put a significant dent in the cash drawers.
"It's such a short season to begin with. That two weeks can be a profit for a lot of small business people," said Dennis daRosa, president of the Oak Bluffs Association, a civic and business organization in town. "You get people who come into town dropping people off, picking them up at the boat, and it just resonates money through the community."
The proposed cost-cutting move by the Steamship Authority is part of larger plan aimed at handling the post-summer fluctuations in ferry traffic.
SSA chief executive officer Fred C. Raskin called the plan to end service earlier at the Oak Bluffs terminal next year an operating decision.
The boat line runs four boats a day into the terminal in the autumn months, but the reality is that traffic drops off dramatically after Labor Day, he explained.
"We have four vessels running and not that much traffic," Mr. Raskin said.
An important aspect of the new plan also calls for changing the start date for off-season excursion fares from Oct. 15 to Sept. 15, and reducing the number of ferries using Oak Bluffs from four to three.
"Changing the date for excursion rates - that's something the Islanders will like, we did it last year on Nantucket. But it also means we will get a rush of traffic and eliminate some of the dead time that we have been seeing in Oak Bluffs," he said.
The earlier closing of the Oak Bluffs terminal could save the SSA about $30,000 and the trimming back of boats on the schedule could reduce the budget another $75,000, Mr. Raskin said.
He also said the boat line has many interests to balance in many ports, and it cannot play a completely parochial role when it comes to boosting shoulder-season business in downtown Oak Bluffs.
"It's a tough thing - we're going to try to do what's right, but we're going to try to do what's right for everybody," he said, adding: "This may not work out, and if it doesn't, we'll look at it again."
Mr. Raskin and the SSA board of governors can expect to hear some arguments even before this idea reaches the try-out stage.
Oak Bluffs selectmen already began sounding off against the plan last week at their regular meeting and chastising Vineyard SSA governor Kathryn Roessel for not informing them of the proposed cutback in service.
"I was a bit surprised we hadn't been contacted by our representative on something of this significance," said selectmen chairman Richard Combra.
"There's a domino effect here," said selectman Todd Rebello. "It's saving $30,000 for the Steamship Authority but the impact to the local economy could be $150,000 to $250,000."
While leaders in Oak Bluffs are complaining about the possible loss of ferry traffic to their downtown, they have seen an increase in other boat traffic in the last two years.
Cruise ships have begun to make stops outside the harbor, sending hundreds of passengers aboard tenders to the harbor dock. And this year, selectmen welcomed a fast ferry from Rhode Island which traveled to Oak Bluffs two and three times a day through the summer.
Despite the throngs of tourists entering town through the harbor, the last thing the business community in Oak Bluffs wants to see is a dormant SSA terminal in October.
Those other boats - Island Queen, Hy-Line and the fast ferry - arrive in the summer and drastically cut back service after Labor Day, noted Renée Balter, executive director of the Oak Bluffs Association.
In 1996, the SSA decided to extend service at the Oak Bluffs terminal through Columbus Day. From 1992 to 1995, the terminal stayed open until the end of September. Before that, the curtains closed after Labor Day.
Mrs. Balter said businesses in Oak Bluffs initially needed some convincing to keep their doors open past Labor Day. Now, she said, many simply plan on staying open through Columbus Day.
"Businesses have come to rely on the fact that the Steamship Authority will be coming here until mid-October. They've written it into their business plans and ordered supplies," she said.
Both Mr. daRosa and Mrs. Balter acknowledged that the cutback proposed by the SSA comes after a rough season on the retail front.
"With an economic downturn like this year, we need that extra two weeks," said Mrs. Balter.
"To make up for a bad spring or a slow summer, it's very important that the Steamship Authority keep things rolling along," said Mr. daRosa.
Marc Hanover, the SSA port council representative from Oak Bluffs and the co-owner of Linda Jean's Restaurant, said he is upset by the process.
"The whole reason they extended Oak Bluffs was the mass congestion and chaos in Vineyard Haven seven or eight years ago," he said. "It just didn't seem like a lot of sense went into it."
Oak Bluffs selectmen will meet with Ms. Roessel at their Nov. 18 meeting. And businesspeople from Oak Bluffs are planning to show up at the Nov. 20 SSA board meeting on Nantucket.
Julia Wells contributed to this story.