From mussels for the president to lobster rolls for the press, from publicity to dollars, the economic impact — and the buzz — from President Obama’s Vineyard vacation spread far and wide across the Island.
While the partial closure of South Road for the duration of President Obama’s visit was a source of angst for some West Tisbury merchants, others saw the visit as a positive force for Island businesses. The vacation fell during one of the busiest weeks on the Island, when hotels, restaurants and ice cream shops are filled to capacity anyway. Still, the presidential seal of approval goes a long way toward generating business, they say.
“We look at it two ways,” Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce executive director Nancy Gardella said. “In the long view, it’s always good when Martha’s Vineyard is portrayed as a beautiful location, so beautiful that the first family wants to vacation here. That’s a win for every business on Martha’s Vineyard.”
This year, she added, the weather was almost perfect, and there were pictures of the first family enjoying a low key vacation.
She said the Chamber of Commerce website received 87,000 more unique visitors than it did during the same time period last year. If just 10 per cent of those visitors plan a Vineyard trip, “that’s huge,” Ms. Gardella said. “I see it as a huge plus.”
“Of course there are inconveniences,” in the short term, she said, such as the road closure. “I certainly feel compassion, but this is the first year that has happened,” she said, adding: “I was at the farmers’ market [near the road closure] Saturday and it was a mob scene.”
Many businesses see a tremendous boost, Ms. Gardella said, including any of the restaurants the Obamas go to. Information about where the Obamas are eating goes viral in real time, she said. “Those restaurants will tell you the uptick they get almost immediately.”
With the president comes the media, White House staffers and Secret Service. These people, too, rent hotel rooms, eat out and go shopping.
There is now a long tradition of presidential visits to the Island. While there’s no word on where Ulysses S. Grant ate when he was the first sitting president to visit the Island, several Island restaurants and shops, like Mad Martha’s ice cream, still hang pictures of visits from President Bill Clinton.
For the third year, Katama General Store provided food for the visiting press corps — lobster rolls, quiches and Asian noodle salads were all supplied, usually eaten on the big yellow bus that served as a portable office for the media. One night the press dined on a stack of pizzas from Chilmark General Store.
“It’s definitely a nice little piece of business for us,” said Katama General Store co-owner Jackie Korell.
Otherwise, she said, it was hard to gauge impact on business from the presidential visit. “There’s so much going on,” Mrs. Korell said. “So many people on the Island . . . so we can’t really quantify the Obama effect.” But the buzz is undoubtedly there, she added, with people asking, “Have you seen him?” In that vein, Mrs. Korell does have a story to tell. During one of President Obama’s visits to the Island before he was elected, she and her husband did some private catering and ended up providing breakfast for the Obama family. The kids had pancakes, she said, and there was lots of bacon for the Secret Service.
“I feel like our history goes way back,” she said.
On Tuesday during the week of their visit, the president and first lady had a meal of North Tabor greens with mushrooms, lobster, mussels and blueberry cake at the Beach Plum Inn and Restaurant in Chilmark.
Chef Chris Fischer said the restaurant sold “astronomical amounts of mussels” after Mrs. Obama ordered the dish.
“Word must have gotten out,” he laughed. “And even the North Tabor greens too.”
Mr. Fischer said the restaurant also saw an elevated number in seatings after the presidential visit, on top of an already busy week.
“We’re so lucky to have had them come here,” Mr. Fischer said. “We were honored to feed him. We had a great time.”
It is of course a well-settled fact that the president is a frequent visitor at Island golf courses.
In an email, Farm Neck Golf Club general manager Timothy Sweet called President Obama a gracious guest.
“I am always taken aback by how much he seems to appreciate and enjoy the simple pleasure of being able to spend few hours outside on a sunny day on the links with a few friends and ever so briefly free of the fishbowl,” Mr. Sweet wrote.
The news wasn’t all rosy from Vineyard businesses this year, though. Because of security concerns, part of South Road surrounding the Obamas’ Chilmark rental home was closed to traffic; area businesses said the prominent detour signs hurt sales.
At Alley’s General Store, sales were down about $10,000 compared to last year at this time, said Chris Scott, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust, which owns the store. “It was a busy week in relation to other weeks in the year,” he added.
“What really got us is what we call the beach business,” Mr. Scott said, referring to people who drive by on the way to the beach and buy boogie boards, folding chairs and sunscreen.
Next year, he said, “I hope that they choose a location that doesn’t necessitate a road closure.”
Up-Island Automotive said last week that gas sales were down, and organizers of the Vineyard Artisans Festival said Sunday business was slower than usual.
Some said things weren’t so bad. Next door at 7a foods, owner and chef Daniel Sauer said if anything, the restaurant was busier than last year.
“I had a good market,” West Tisbury farmers’ market co-manager Linda Alley said. “It seemed to be busy.”
“I do know that people were very confused,” she added. She said that as she was pulling up extra signs that the market had put up near a detour sign, a couple pulled up in their car to ask if they could still get to the general store just down the road.
Regardless, she said, “we were quite busy.”
While Martha’s Vineyard Transport and Tours usually spends summer days giving Island tours and providing transportation for weddings, two of the company’s grey vans became part of the presidential motorcade for the third year in a row. The vans carried members of the press from the day the Obamas landed to the day they left.
“It doesn’t really help anything [in terms of business],” said owner Ron Minkin, who drove one of the vans. “Last year he wasn’t here and we did just as well.”
The filing center for the traveling press corps was at the Vineyard Square Hotel in Edgartown this year. One day principal deputy press secretary Josh Earnest held a press briefing in front of a butterfly bush in the hotel’s back courtyard. Television reporters filmed news spots at the hotel and the footage was “broadcast live across the world,” general manager Joanne Sardini said, calling the whole thing exciting.
“We always sell out in August, but it’s exciting to have the extra buzz from the visit,” she said.
Susan Goldstein, co-owner of Vineyard Haven’s Mansion House Inn, said the same.
“We would have been filled up anyway,” she said, adding: “When the president of the United States chooses to come to the Vineyard it’s a wonderful endorsement of the choice we have all made to live and work here.”
The Mansion House rents some rooms to White House support staff. “It’s fun to be part of history, part of the democratic process,” she said. “We hope he comes back.” But she had a request: maybe next time the president could come at the end of August.
Remy Tumin contributed to this story.