Soundings : Thank you, and goodbye
Across the street from our place in Edgartown, our neighbors have built a small guest house. This summer they moved into it for July and August, renting their main house to vacationing families by the week. That move, I think, is emblematic of the displacement all of us in the Island's year-round community feel to some extent when summer's influx hits.
The stresses of the high season involve more than the mere contrast between our winter population of 16,000 and summer's quadrupling of that number. The starkest contrast of all is between the lives of the year-rounders who struggle to earn their money during the busy season and the seasonal visitors whose wealth is so great that they've lost all connection with the daily drama of a dollar less, a dollar more. For them the numbers have become an abstraction, just a way of keeping score.
They come here to unwind, but sometimes the quest for relaxation is complicated by the impatience that accompanies great wealth. When you have more money than you could ever spend, it seems unfair, somehow, to be stuck in the same traffic jams and long lines at the supermarket and post office that everyone else has to live with. Time, for the wealthy, becomes the most precious commodity, and so each summer we observe the spectacle of tailgating, tightly-wound vacationers in a hurry to get somewhere and relax.
Years ago a friend returned to her house after renting it out for August and found that a favorite oriental rug was missing from the living room floor. She frantically called her rental agent, who contacted the renters. "Oh, the children tracked sand on that rug so we took it to the dump," they said. "Please just replace it and send us the bill."
This is how the calculus of time versus money plays out when you have so much of the latter, it's easier to replace an heirloom rug than to vacuum it. And in fact, that last bit of instruction from the wealthy renters was truer than they probably realized. In myriad ways, this has become the dynamic that shapes the relationship between the Vineyard's year-round and summer communities: We send them the bill.
Enrollment in our public schools, which has been dropping steadily as year-round families give up trying to make ends meet on the Vineyard, stands somewhere around the 2,100 mark this fall. Altogether, our six Island towns will spend well over $50 million delivering a year of education to these students, which puts the average expenditure per pupil at more than $20,000.
Our per-pupil spending on public education is among the highest in the state, and yet property tax rates on the Island are among the state's lowest. How do we accomplish this? Again, quite simply: We send them the bill.
On this Island where food pantries run year-round and the homeless count hovers consistently at more than 100 people, we enjoy the services of a modern hospital built with nearly $50 million in private contributions, a new $12-million YMCA, and more than 3,000 acres of Land Bank sanctuaries bought with fees charged on sales of the Island's outrageously expensive real estate. The same seasonal residents whose wealth has driven the cost of a working family's house far beyond a working family's reach are investing heavily in the quality of Island life each year, not just with their property tax dollars but also with their charitable giving.
I've been told that the Navy, when training its submariners, places special emphasis on the social skills necessary to get along in cramped quarters – you need a lot of "excuse-me's" when squeezing past each other in tiny passageways, and when each bunk is shared in eight-hour shifts. That sounds like the sort of training we could use for summer on Martha's Vineyard. By late August, it's hard for most of us to remember how much the summer people contribute that's positive – not least of which is purchasing nearly two-thirds of all the goods and services sold here, by the estimate of the Martha's Vineyard Commission.
The bright idea in economic circles, for more than half a century, has been to build up the Island's shoulder seasons. The Martha's Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby, which starts a week from Sunday, was launched in 1946 with just that goal in mind. The derby is one of the Island's great fall traditions now, but in early September it's hard to be upset that efforts to boost this shoulder season have gone only so far. Our summer population does so many things that benefit the Island, and one of the most wonderful things they do each September is leave.