Island harbors stay afloat in sinking economy
An analysis of harbor revenue from services to visiting boaters this summer reveals mixed results. In general, the revenue mirrored the economic slowdown in other sectors of the economy. Boaters held on to their money early, but spent enough later to mostly make up for the slow start.
"The first three months, I thought it was going to be a catastrophe," Oak Bluffs harbormaster Todd Alexander said. In February, March, and April, when most of the advance reservation deposits come in, Oak Bluffs harbor revenue was down $63,941, or 37.8 percent, from the same period the year before.
"They definitely waited," Mr. Alexander said. "But that was when everything was melting down. Those were the worst advance reservations we've ever had."
Rainy weather in June held revenue down for another month, but after that Oak Bluffs Harbor was full of boats. In terms of revenue, the town recorded the best July, August, and September ever. The town finished the year with a decrease of $20,186, or 2.1 percent for February through September 2009, compared with the same period the year before.
In Edgartown, harbormaster Charlie Blair also saw signs of a wait-and-see season early in the year. "We realized by the middle of July that the small boats weren't coming, and the big ones were," he said. "The little guys got hurt."
Mr. Blair estimates that the harbor saw about 100 fewer boats per day than in years past, with many fewer boats anchored outside the harbor mooring area. Boats that might have had to anchor outside in previous years easily found moorings this year.
"When you looked out into Nantucket Sound on a nice August day, there weren't as many boats," Mr. Blair said. "Usually we're turning people away, and on the weekends we're turning a lot of people away."
Boats that anchor outside the harbor don't pay a fee to the town, so the harbor didn't lose revenue, but Mr. Blair said it was obviously a revenue loss for local businesses, with fewer boat owners and crews eating in restaurants, buying supplies, and shopping in stores.
While harbor revenue early in the year fluctuates as advance reservations come in, revenue for July, August, and September is from transient boaters. Those months were off $30,389, or 17 percent, higher than in the same months last year.
Mr. Blair also noticed many local residents who usually spend the summer on a harbor mooring did not launch their boats at all this year. Also, there were fewer yacht club cruises stopping in Edgartown, and those that did stop had fewer boats.
Overall, however, the total revenue from the harbor increased $9,047, or 1.9 percent in 2009, over the same period the year before.
All the changes prompted Mr. Blair to adjust his business plan, and it will change more next summer. "We're making plans for next year, without raising fees, to keep our revenue up," he said. "We are going to reorganize our rental field, and have fewer moorings but bigger moorings. Keeping it simple is out of the question now; you've got to go after it."
Vineyard Haven Harbor was as busy as ever this year. Harbormaster Jay Wilbur said he had a gut feeling that revenue would be about even with last year, and the numbers bear out his prediction. Using only mooring and dockage fee revenue for comparison, not seasonal rentals or fees, Vineyard Haven Harbor revenue was up $2,253, or 2.4 percent in 2009, over the previous year.
Mr. Wilbur said Vineyard Haven might be less vulnerable to economic turmoil than other places.
"We're such a sailing oriented harbor," he said. "Nobody travels particularly far to get here. The places that had a downturn were places that were far away from home. People only have to get on their boat and spend a dollar on fuel to get here."
Chilmark recorded a decrease in revenue this past summer. Harbor administrative assistant Virginia Jones said weather was a factor. "Until middle to late July, it really wasn't summer," Ms. Jones said. "The regulars arrived, the slips were full, the slips leased by residents."
Comparing the first nine months of 2009 to the same period in 2008, revenue dropped $8,185, or 3.8 percent. Harbor revenue was down significantly in January, when mooring permit fees are due, and in July, the first busy month of the summer season.