The headlines in the local papers this past week were predictable: Strong black type proclaimed that a strong economy is forecast for the coming summer but troubling labor shortages are causing anxiety. The labor shortages were attributed to the lack of affordable housing although students from foreign (almost exotic) countries have arrived to take up the slack. This trend has been evident when middle and eastern Europe accents provide clues to the nationality of the staff. This has lead to interesting conversations as these summer workers confide that they will return home to take a bar exam or sit for a graduate degree in the fall so are taking an opportunity to travel. But there is another looming problem which we need to seriously consider. While it is true that the lack of affordable housing is dramatically affecting the Island, there is another factor as well — and it is a much harder nut to crack. This is our economy. As we all know, our economy is based on a smoke-and-mirrors fluff factor: Second homes, tourism, the real estate market and all the ancillary and peripheral businesses. You will notice that most are seasonal. Thus many Islanders have patched together several seasonal jobs in order to earn an annual income while moving seasonally to keep ahead of the eviction notice. Did I mention the second home factor?

As the last 10 days have unfolded, the rush to summer has built up exponentially and the amount and rush of traffic on roads has built up as well. With a short spring after a harsh and extended winter, the contractors (all the construction trades and landscaping) and merchants, even the farmers, have found themselves caught short. Last week as merchants were arranging their wares on shelves, stocking their pantries with food for the coming weeks and decorating their windows, painters were scraping and sanding the window frames — prepping for a coat that they hoped to apply before the first shoppers. Inevitably the shoppers arrived first, entering through doors propped open to keep people from brushing against a still-wet coat of paint.

Meanwhile, road crews were out mowing and pruning the sides of the roads, and crews were up poles or laying wire in trenches for communication lines while crews were repairing and even repaving some roads. Farmers were struggling to get seeds and seedlings in and established while their counterparts with animals were wringing their hands over another dry spring and little native hay; for both this means more expense for irrigation and hay bought in from off-Island. On the second home and tourist front, homeowners (if they could get a reservation on the ferry) were arriving to clean and gussy up their houses and to check on projects. Many, if not most, of those houses are part of the very lucrative (for them) rental market and as has been reported, many houses are already fully booked for summer. (I won’t even mention the substantial sums that some houses rent for weekly or that if they are treated as investments, as so many are, the owners receive a healthy income stream and generous tax benefits).

As many owners arrived, they found that winter projects were incomplete and unfinished as contractors struggled to catch up with delays caused by winter storms, or rushed to answer calls for emergency repairs where the harsh weather had caused damage — a flood-damaged ceiling, rotted out deck, broken pipes leaking into a cellar, or a septic system blocked by roots.

As we all know, Memorial Day weekend is actually the shakedown cruise for many Island businesses, with several weeks to go before the real summer season begins. Most, if not all, problems, delays and deficiencies will get sorted out — houses and businesses will begin to sparkle (and the toilets flush), roadsides will be cleaned up and trimmed, seasonal stores will get staffed and stocked, potholes and crumbled edges will get repaired and ruffled feathers will smooth down. Farmers have some crops such as asparagus and pea shoots, early greens and herbs to sell as well as plants for home growers.

But this year there seem to already be a large number of summer visitors from all over. It is as if May is our new June (and we already know that June is our new July, and July our new August). A brief bit of anecdotal evidence, confirmed by comments from around the Island, is revealing. In a small shop in Menemsha, open only on weekends so far, there have already been visitors from 18 out of the 50 states and from China, Puerto Rico, Yugoslavia, Sweden, India and Hong Kong. Of course these visitors provide a large opening burst to the season and many merchants will be clapping their hands with glee, although after a few weeks of long hours and too few staff they may feel otherwise. But to ask the hard question, does this seasonal economy help with our largest year-round problems? I don’t think so.

On Memorial Day I was listening on WCAI to a program about innovative businesses on Cape Cod. A business named Hydroid was mentioned as one of about 80 Cape businesses which hires over 100 people (Hydroid currently employs 147 people).

It is a high-tech business for automated underwater exploration devices and techniques, so it fits in nicely with our world class ocean science community just across the Sound. It is located in Pocasset. In fact, Hydroid provided a REMUS system for WHOI as well as other sophisticated pieces of innovative gadgetry. The program went on to report that while the bulk of the Cape economy is made up of small businesses employing four to eight people, the year-round ripple effect — all positive — of a business such as Hydroid is incalculable. Particularly as the business, and so many others, are year round, sustainable, broad-based, green, and they provide good wages with benefits. Honestly, what is there not to like?

This small example highlights what many Island planners and leaders know but haven’t yet begun to address. And that is that our economy is strangling us — too many cars, too many people and totally unsustainable. Jobs, often seasonal and/or part time, carry with them no benefits (no health care, no pensions, no anything) although they may have a high wage, particularly as some are paid under the table. Meanwhile, homeowners are encouraged to charge rents that make your eyes water (can you really enjoy a house that costs $25,000 a week?) and much of that money goes off-Island rather than being thoughtfully reinvested into projects and businesses that truly benefit the Island and Islanders.

So here is my annual plea to Island planners and leaders: We need serious sessions with some clever and innovative lateral thinkers, folks who understand and appreciate Islands, as well as a constructive, well-funded planning effort to modify our economy so that it works for us. There is a role model. We can look to the Island Institute up in Rockland, Me., for guidance because they seem to get it. Meanwhile put your thinking cap on and come up with some sort of new mouse trap. It could be something like a call center (why should Comcast customers be talking to someone in Mumbai, India?), or a small research lab working on arthritis cures (I’ll volunteer), or a group figuring out how to truly eliminate ticks (plenty of research material here). It could even be a mouse trap modified to catch rats (and we all know that we’ve got plenty of them here too), an “energy efficient” bike, or a way to deal with red tide. It could be something like Chilmark Toasted Sesame Seed Dressing (no GMO, although actually made on the Cape now). Or taking a look into the recent past, Woodchips, which was just one (and very successful) of Ralph and Millie Briggs’s business, or ORE (Ocean Research Equipment) started by the late David Frantz in 1961, could help to set a course.

Put your thinking cap on, and see you again when summer is winding down.

Virginia Crowell Jones lives in West Tisbury.