Five years after the recession hit the national economy, anecdotal reports from Island businesses say the local economy is slowly creeping back to normal. Businesses are reporting slightly improved summer seasons, with higher traffic to the Island, especially in August. While heavy rain fell in spring, and June and July saw unreliable weather patterns, August drew more tourists than recent summers.
Numbers released by the Steamship Authority this week confirmed the trend.
SSA passenger traffic was up 3.3 per cent this August over last year, while July passenger traffic fell by one per cent. Car traffic was up 2.9 per cent in June, down 1.8 per cent in July and up again in August by 2.3 per cent, when compared with the summer of 2012.
Overall, 968,646 passengers made the trip between Woods Hole and Martha’s Vineyard this summer.
Boat line general manager Wayne Lamson said ferries see heavier passenger traffic when the weather is lousy and Cape Cod visitors decide to see what’s going on on the Island. “We are usually busy when it’s overcast and it’s not a beach day,” said Mr. Lamson.
A quick survey of area business owners told just about the same story: a summer that was a slow start, followed by a strong finish. Overall, most said the summer business was on par with or better than last summer.
“We had a good season, or at least people stayed the same from last year,” said Dennis daRosa, president of the Oak Bluffs Association.
The shoulder season suffered from wet weather. “May and June were terrible because it rained,” Mr. daRosa said. “Nobody was coming over for the first two months of the shoulder season. It was just pathetic. None of those impulsive tourists came.” Instead, the tourists seemed to save up their vacation dollars for the peak season, and it paid off.
“August was fantastic for a lot of people,” Mr. daRosa said. “It was like a breath of fresh air commerce-wise.”
Though numbers are not yet available for the month of August, summer ridership aboard the Vineyard Transit Authority buses remained consistent with last year, with 158,389 people riding in June and 282,606 riders in July. August’s ridership is expected to exceed last year’s number of 291,568, considering heavy ridership seen by the VTA during the week of the Agricultural Fair and fireworks. “That week, [fare box collections] surpassed money that we collected over the Fourth of July week,” reported transit office manager Lauren Thomas.
Island hoteliers reported high occupancy in August.
“We had a slower spring than last year, but [overall] the summer was more robust from last year,” said Susan Goldstein, who owns the Mansion House in Vineyard Haven with her husband, Sherman.
She’s not sure what weather pattern is to blame for the weaker spring occupancy. “When you are a hotelier, it’s sort of like fishing,” she said. “You can never be sure of why the bluefish aren’t in here, if the water is too hot or too cold.” She guessed that guests opted to skip the rainy spring, and “keep their vacation dollar for the wonderful season that we have July 4 through Labor Day.”
Over Labor Day weekend the Mansion House reported 100 per cent occupancy. “We have been very lucky and we’ve been very strong,” she said. Mansion House opened eight of their rooms to guests with dogs, and these rooms went fast, she said. “I am surprised by the amount of people who want to travel with their pooches.” She continued:
“Since 2011, each year has been a little bit better than a year before. We are looking at getting back to before 2008 and 9 and 10.”
She praised the Tisbury selectmen and Dawn Braasch of Bunch of Grapes for their work to improve Main street in recent years. “The town of Tisbury has done some wonderful things for its guests,” Mrs. Goldstein said. “I think that the selectmen have really led this revitalization of the town, and I think they deserve a lot of the credit.”
In Edgartown, the Harbor View Hotel reported a reasonable July, slightly up from last year, and a stellar August, said general manager Robin Kirk. The hotel is most excited about advance reservations for September, which will bring the highest occupancy in any September on record at the hotel, he said. Occupancy will surpass 85 per cent, “which feels more like July than September,” he said.
While the wedding business was slow at the hotel last summer, this year it has picked up considerably. Group reservations and bookings of conference rooms have also swelled into the shoulder season. The hotel accommodated more couples than families this summer, and more Europeans, hailing from England, Scandinavia and Germany.
On the opposite end of North Water street, Christina Gallery reports a 25 per cent increase in sales compared with last year, for June, July and August. “We were very pleased,” said owner Christina Cook.
As president of the Edgartown Board of trade, Ms. Cook said other business owners also noted increased foot traffic in August over July. July was soft, she said, owing to unreliable weather patterns. “Overall the summer weather wasn’t great. I don’t think we are able to get the last-minute people who will say, let’s head down to the Vineyard.”
Crowds filled downtown streets of Edgartown throughout the month of August, Ms. Cook said. “To me, it felt like the traffic used to be in 2007, prior to the economy falling apart,” she said. “The economy definitely is improving.”
Poor weather also affected business up-Island in the beginning weeks of summer. “The season was pretty good once it kicked in, but it was very late in starting,” said Scott Jones, co-owner of Lambert’s Cove Inn and Restaurant in West Tisbury. Revenues at his inn and restaurant were up 15 per cent for the month of August, and net income was up 35 per cent when compared with August of 2012, but July lagged slightly behind last year.
“I think it’s going to end up being a good year,” Mr. Jones concluded. The restaurant opened earlier this year to cater to the locals, but the shift did not prove profitable, he said. They will not be opening early next year.
From what he’s heard from other business people, summer revenues were on par with last year. “Everybody I talk to is about flat with last year,” he said.
Further up-Island, Larsen’s fish market is reporting a good summer overall. May and June were slower, but July brought sunset-watching crowds to Menemsha nearly every night. “Physically, it feels like we had a good summer,” said Betsy Larsen, who’s worked at the market for more than 40 years, and has yet to crunch the numbers to make an official determination. “We did a lot of running around.” They’ve been especially short-staffed in the past few weeks, when college-bound staffers left early for orientation. “All the colleges are taking our work forces from us,” she said.
Their season, like that of most seasonal businesses, concludes with the end of October.
Usually October means more trips to the mainland for Islanders who like to take advantage of reduced excursion fares on Steamship Authority ferries. But that pattern has seen a notable change from last year, Mr. Lamson said. Excursion fares are down by 2,200 reservations this year compared with last year. “I don’t know if it was the winter, or the economy, or whether people just didn’t travel as much,” he said.
The SSA has the rest of the year to make up the difference. “I think we are heading in the right direction and we have four months left to see whether we can pull through and carry more passengers and cars,” Mr. Lamson said.