Seasonal workers for Island hotel and restaurant businesses could be arriving by ferry from New Bedford through an organized program within the next few weeks.
And a second proposed program, which would tap federal grant money, could be flying workers from New Bedford to the Island next summer, said Nancy Gardella, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce.
Speaking before a public hearing held yesterday in Edgartown by the Massachusetts Joint Committee on Tourism, Arts and Cultural Development — a committee co-chaired by state Rep. Eric T. Turkington, who represents the Vineyard — Ms. Gardella said tightened visa restrictions are spurring the efforts.
She said those restrictions have created a shortfall of perhaps 1,200 seasonal workers on the Vineyard this summer.
Answering a question from state Rep. David B. Sullivan of Fall River about the impact of visa restrictions on the seasonal workforce, Ms. Gardella said “Our members are worried. Very, very worried. I’ve hear some talk about reduced hours or days of operation.”
She said a series of meetings in the past two weeks with New Bedford development officials, facilitated by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, has led to a commitment by New England Fast Ferry to make 25 round-trip seats available each week day to seasonal workers from New Bedford.
Under the pilot program, the New Bedford economic development council would subsidize about 80 per cent of the fare with Island employers picking up the difference, less than $15 round trip.
Matthew Morrissey, director of the New Bedford Economic Development Office, said the office is seeking Vineyard employers to participate in the ferry plan.
In a related move, the New Bedford regional airport last Friday applied for a four-year, $1.1 million federal grant in association with Cape Air which would enable 45 workers to be flown to the Island daily next summer.
The grant would allow Cape Air to charge $10 round trip, Ed DeWitt, airport manager and author of the grant, said yesterday.
“This looks like a no-brainer to us. Martha’s Vineyard needs workers. New Bedford has experienced workers and the two are only 15 minutes apart by air,” Mr. DeWitt said.
Mr. Morrissey described the two programs as baby steps which could lead a much larger scale of operation. ”First, we want to ensure a good experience for workers and employers,” he said.
He said that his organization would provide trained workers in restaurant and hotel skills and, in the long term, certified bus drivers.
Mr. Morrissey said he was “sensitive to the need for Island people to be employed first” but had read reports of Island hotels providing housing to attract workers so he concluded that a need existed.
Ms. Gardella was one of a dozen Island business and cultural organization executives who addressed the committee.
The hearing, held at the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown, was one of a series of meetings sponsored by the committee to gather reactions to their work over the past three years.
For some, the two-hour meeting was an opportunity to explain programs funded by state arts and tourism funds, to ask for continued and additional funding and to thank Mr. Turkington for his work in creating the committee three years ago.
Mr. Turkington, whose district includes the Vineyard, will retire in January 2009 after 20 years in the legislature.
Several speakers said cultural affairs on the Island have become more cooperative since funding through the committee began.
Each Island town now receives a $4,000 state grant, up from $2,500 three years ago, Mr. Turkington noted, complimenting the arts, education and cultural groups for using the money well.
The funding effort has prompted cooperation among the six Island communities, said Russell Smith, the new Dukes County manager.
“Our towns cling to their individual identities with ferocity,” he said, eliciting some confused looks on lawmaker faces until Mr. Turkington quipped, “Have you ever heard of the Balkans?”
Nancy Cole, project manager for the Vineyard History Map project in Island schools, said that funding by the Massachusetts Cultural Alliance allowed her to work closely with Martha’s Vineyard Museum researcher Lynn Whiting.
“You can’t imagine the power that holding a primary source material, such as an original journal, has on a child. They understand their cultural heritage through that work,” she said.
Ms. Cole said that specific curriculum has been developed for primary grades and is hopeful that additional curriculum will be developed for the high school.
Ms. Whiting was succinct.
“We are cultural collaborators here. You cannot survive on this Island without being collaborative, even as you compete for the same grants [with collaborators,]” she said.
Mr. Turkington said he has seen a similar change in the past few years. “There were a whole lot of people who didn’t play well with each other. Now they do,” he said.