Building bridges to a stronger local economy
As the Vineyard's parade of presidential candidates comes to an end, and with it the summer, it's time to shift our focus from national issues back to local ones. The Island Plan, after holding five issue-oriented forums across the season, will hold its final one, about livelihood and commerce and our local economy, next Wednesday, just after - appropriately - Labor Day.
Economist Michael Shuman, author of The Small-Mart Revolution and Going Local, says that "the single most important piece of data a community [needs to know] is how many dollars are leaking out of the economy because of unnecessary imports. "'Leakage' analysis is powerful - it measures how much income, wealth, and jobs a community is losing."
What's shocking about the field of economic development, he says, is how little leakage analysis is used. The United States has some 36,000 municipalities but the number with comprehensive leakage studies can be counted on two hands. This means communities are flying blind, unaware of what the best investment of scarce public resources might be.
The livelihood and commerce work group of the Island Plan has taken him at his word and commissioned him to do such a study. The results have just become available.
In the conclusion, Mr. Shuman indicates that we have tremendous opportunities for localization - producing on-Island a greater proportion of the goods and services consumed here - and resulting economic benefits. He singles out a core economic challenge: how to grow the economy without increasing burdens on the local resource base and destroying the essential features of the Island that make it so attractive in the first place. Localization - through the more even utilization of buildings, roads, and businesses year-round - offers the possibility of growing the economy off-peak without necessarily growing the peak.
This is consistent with a comment made by West Tisbury planning board member Virginia Jones at the recent Island Plan development and growth forum. She said we should be thinking more about how to diversify economically as a partial antidote to the development path that threatens to overwhelm us.
Our economy is driven by seasonal residents and visitors and will continue to be. Within that context, the livelihood and commerce work group has begun to look at how we might imagine and develop the economy we would like, rather than accepting - without question - the economy we get.
The emerging consensus is that too much Vineyard money is spent off-Island, and not enough of the goods and services we need are produced here. By increasing local production of food, energy, and other essentials, and by stimulating local buying, investment, and ownership, we can minimize economic leakage, increase economic multipliers (money spent locally tends to re-circulate several times within the local economy), control costs, and perhaps have access to higher quality goods and a broader array of services.
What are some of the components of a diversification and localization campaign that emphasizes community value, authenticity, and economic advantage? What specific undertakings would lead us toward a vibrant, more self-reliant economy capable of holding the interest of youthful entrepreneurs and inviting them to stay here on the Island and participate?
I'll touch on just four:
1) Develop a strong eco-cultural tourism program, building on previous efforts to expand the tourist season with an off-season program of educational, ecological, recreational, historical, social, and spiritual activities. Build a partnership between the Island's hospitality industry and the Island's vital not-for-profit sector. As a related effort, promote post-secondary education - "the Vineyard as campus" - and opportunities for lifetime learning, training, and certification.
2) Re-invigorate agriculture, aquaculture, and fishing to benefit the Island's economy, quality of life, and character. Farmers, fishermen, and shellfishermen have expressed the need for better infrastructure, such as a meat processing facility for poultry and large animals; a fish processing facility with the proper wholesale licensing to allow products to be sold direct to consumers, restaurants, and stores; a codfish nursery; a dairy co-operative to process milk and related products; and efficient greenhouses for locally grown, year-round produce. Some of these are currently in development.
But the biggest problem for agriculture is the high price of real estate. The current effort to preserve Thimble Farm as productive cropland, however it turns out, indicates the lack of an essential building block for our future. Agriculture will need (as land conservation and housing have) to develop a constituency of seasonal residents who are committed, create long-term sources of funding, and partner with the Land Bank, to build an expanding pool of perpetually protected farmland.
3) Establish a community-owned electric utility for the Island that could establish aggressive energy efficiency programs and use renewable energy to generate a part (and, over time, a large percentage) of our power. This would keep the money spent on electricity within the Island economy while creating highly skilled jobs in engineering, meteorology, financing, and construction. This is a complex endeavor likely to take many years, but many municipalities have their own utilities, including Hull, not far from here, which generates a growing percentage of its power with wind.
4) Convert the waste we generate into useful and valuable products rather than paying through the nose to ship it off-Island and dispose of it. A central composting facility (similar to Nantucket's) and a used building materials exchange run by the refuse district would be positive steps in this direction.
This is a sampling of the ideas we have examined. We have looked at other communities, too. Some have created local currencies or credit cards to promote local buying and produce revenue. Others are assisting the growth of a "new export economy" by bolstering high-speed and wireless communications systems to facilitate Internet-based commerce.
We have more questions than answers. This fall John Ryan of Development Cycles, who was responsible for the landmark 2000 Housing Needs Assessment which helped to jump-start affordable housing solutions, will be answering some of these by analyzing employment trends, the cost of living, and the cost of doing business. What are your questions? What are your views? Join us at next week's forum to express yourself and help us determine next steps.
John Abrams, a builder, is chairman of the Island Plan livelihood and commerce work group and is a member of the plan's steering committee. The Forum will be held on Wednesday, Sept. 5, at 7:30 pm at the Harbor View Hotel in Edgartown.