By Air and Sea, the Daily Trip to the Office


NANTUCKET - It's 6:40 in the morning. The workmen stepping off an Island Airlines puddle jumper are already through their second cup of Dunkin' Donuts coffee. In cut-off shorts, steel-toe boots and sleeveless T-shirts, the new arrivals cradle Styrofoam mugs in one hand and coolers in the other.

They are nine of 320 men expected to make their way through Nantucket's single-terminal airport this weekday morning to report to work - forcing two airlines hauling passengers from Hyannis to run as many as seven planes per departure time.

In 10 more minutes, another 30 workers will step off the Steamship Authority's Flying Cloud, a fast ferry that cuts the standard boat trip from two and a half hours to half that time. Another 30 or 40 more make their way onto the early morning runs of Hy-Line Cruises, a private fast ferry outfit also docking in Nantucket harbor.

And there are others, like the 30 Marine Home Center employees who catch one of the three private planes that company owner Dennis Gazaille bought specifically to haul them over from Hyannis each morning.

These are the commuting workers of Nantucket - a fleet of 400 who earn their paycheck on the island but live their lives on the mainland.

"It's not exactly the lifestyle I want. I wouldn't commute if I didn't have to pay $1,400 a month for a place to live here. I could make money here. I just couldn't meet the rents," said Charlie Manville, an electrician and native Nantucketer who abandoned his island home five years ago for life as a commuter.

Now, Mr. Manville wakes up at 4:30 each morning and drives himself to the Hyannis airport to catch the 6:05 flight to Nantucket. He passes on his $12 receipt for daily parking in Hyannis and his weekly $345 in flying expenses to his boss at Ellis & Schneider Inc.

Mr. Manville and his fellow commuters are riding Nantucket's boom - a surge in second home construction that came so furiously in the mid-1990s that longtime Nantucketers are still spinning.

"Every week we get calls from someone who hears there's work over here and good wages," said Bob Liddle, partner and vice-president of Sibley and Liddle and board member for the Nantucket Builders Association.

The last two decades brought 6,000 new homes - two and a half times the number existing in 1980. A quarter of these new homes have been built since 1999.

More than bricks and mortar, Nantucket's building boom delivered a new market of buyers - mainlanders with a buying power to match the supply of multi-million-dollar homes.

In 2000, the hottest year in the real estate market, more than $628 million in real estate changed hands from the sale of just 654 properties.

Between 1997 and 2001, the town issued more than 1,200 building permits for new dwellings - bringing $1.1 billion of real estate value to the island. Homes are now out of reach for nearly all of Nantucket's 1,365 renter households. Only 20 per cent, officials say, could afford a piece of land on the island, let alone the house to accompany it.

The surge sent local business owners scrambling, trying to secure the last of a disappearing breed: Nantucket's skilled laborer.

"We have a shrinking supply of skilled labor. People are being forced off because of the housing scarcity," Mr. Liddle said.

Having already tapped the limited supply of certified electricians still living on the island, Brian Ryder, who runs Nantucket's largest electrical outfit (Ryder Electric Inc.), frequently advertises for laborers in the Boston Herald and the Cape Cod Times.

"But I refuse to fly them back and forth. The only reason I can get them here is by promising housing. But the turnover is high. Most just can't get used to life on Nantucket," said Mr. Ryder, who built two apartment units above his new office to house staff.

Other employers, though, haven't been able to attract and relocate mainland workers. Nantucket's commuting work force has been growing since the mid-1990s and - despite a recent cooling in the island's real estate market - shows few signs of waning. And community leaders, tradesmen and conservationists are worried.

That $345 a week cost for transportation - $220, if the laborer opts for the Flying Cloud - eats away at the businessman's bottom line and inevitably finds its way into the customer's bill.

"Their travel expense is a new burden that the year-rounder must pay," said Renee Ceely, director of the Nantucket Housing Authority, noting a recent surge in homeowners abandoning life on Nantucket because of the rising cost of living.

"When someone juggling two jobs to pay a mortgage is having to pay $90 an hour for a plumber, that's it," she said.

"The little guy is getting hammered," agreed Alvin "Toppy" Topham, a native islander who runs a property management business and is chairman of Nantucket's planning and economic development commission.

Even if as a business owner you're willing to pay airfare, the vagaries of the weather mean your workers' arrival is less than certain. Commuters may get fogged in at the Hyannis airport or bail early from the job site to beat a brewing storm - forcing the businessman to bear that $6 an hour transportation cost without hours of work to show for it. Delays or early departures come nearly twice a week during fog season, says Dan Eslick, manager for Island Airlines.

Aside from the rising cost of essential services, the overwhelming demand and still short supply of laborers is changing the social landscape of the island. Plumbers, roofers and electricians are at the head of the food chain, calling the shots.

"If something goes wrong in your house, better try and fix it yourself. You'll wait at least a month for a plumber," said John Cranston, who works at an R.B. Corcoran and Co. plumbing supply store.

"When I was a kid, the worker used to go to the client, hat in hand, and ask to be paid for his hours. Now, the opposite is true. They demand 50 per cent of the bid before they show up the first day. The worker knows he's got you between a rock and a hard place," said Mr. Topham.

Much of the wealth generated from Nantucket's boom heads off Island every day in the pockets of the commuting work force.

"A day commuter brings his own lunch and spends nothing on this island. A dollar earned by someone who lives here circulates nine times. If you ship all of that off, you're bound to take a hit," Mr. Liddle said, noting that the members of the Nantucket Builders' Association often affirm their commitment to hire locally, even sharing crew members, before they give in to the temptation of importing labor from the mainland.

But the drawback of relying on commuters may go far beyond questions of dollars and cents.

"Over 350 people take their paychecks and go home every day. They have no pride in the community, and they don't share in a cohesive vision of this place," said Mr. Topham.

"We don't want to lose the community. This is a character issue. We don't want a community of people just here for the boom. It's not good for the economy and it's not good for the community," said John Pagini, director of the Nantucket Planning and Economic Development Commission.

Some on Nantucket also fear that construction workers spilling over from the mainland are rushing the rate of buildout - speeding along the pace at which residents and potential residents develop the remaining seven to 10 per cent of the island, its last 3,072 acres of vacant, undeveloped and unprotected land. Attempts to slow growth in Nantucket through building caps often adopted through the 1990s created a sense of panic among property owners, leading to a flurry of construction work that otherwise may have come more gradually, some officials and tradesmen speculate.

"There is a prevailing fear that if we welcome with open arms folks from around the world to build this limited quantity of homes, we'll be giving away opportunities for locals," Mr. Liddle said.

Fewer than 10 per cent of Nantucket's workers earn their living through the trades; but one estimate says that construction jobs account for 40 per cent of all wages earned in a mid-winter month like February.

The commuting lifestyle, meanwhile, is no picnic for the laborer.

While the army of workers pours into the Nantucket airport just before 7 o'clock this weekday, fresh for the start of another shift, Jeff Watkins throws a crumpled dollar bill, his last, down on the counter of the airport diner. Unshaven and smudged with grease, Mr. Watkins is headed home - 12 hours later than usual.

His paving work finished after the last flight left Nantucket the previous evening, forcing him to crash on the couch in the shared house of some fellow crew members.

"I'm getting too old for this," he says, as the cashier upgrades his small cup of coffee to a large, on the house.

Coming Friday: How the battle for affordable housing played out on Nantucket.