Soundings : The Island's soft shoulders
For sheer jarring contrast, nothing in the Vineyard year matches the turn from August into September. Summer may sneak up on us in June, but it ends with the bang of fireworks and the rumble of school buses. Suddenly the streets and sidewalks are wider. This delightful change of seasons brings drops in the Island's average temperature, the dew point, and the collective blood pressure.
The pricing schedules of Vineyard inns and hotels suggest there's some disagreement over the exact boundaries of our "shoulder season," that time which travel pundits also call the sweet spot between the seasons high and low. Some establishments drop to shoulder-season rates on the day after Labor Day; some extend their peak-season rates as late as Halloween. Lumping October with summer is good money if you can get it, but wishful thinking. We've just been through the peak season, and even September isn't it.
At the Vineyard Transit Authority, which works overtime all summer to carry folks from town to town while easing traffic on our roads, the numbers are in for July and August, and both saw records set. In July the VTA carried 261,735 passengers, up 18 percent from the year before. In August the buses carried 286,044 people, up 13 percent and the busiest month in the agency's history. Angela Grant, VTA administrator, says that on several days this summer the buses carried more than 10,000 people. That's two-thirds of the Island's winter population in a single day.
The seasonality that the VTA must cope with is brutal: Fully half the year's traffic is compressed into July and August.
It's really no different for many Vineyard businesses. Data from the state department of revenue show that nearly half of the Island's meal service receipts are gathered in July and August. A recent economic study done for the Martha's Vineyard Commission by John Ryan of the Amherst consulting firm, Economic Cycles, found that fully 64 percent of the overall purchases of goods and services on the Island are made by seasonal owners, vacationers and day-trippers.
Every economic study ever undertaken of the Vineyard speaks loftily, even longingly, of building up the shoulder seasons and promoting a stronger year-round job environment. And in fact, there's some evidence that the off-season isn't as decidedly off today as it was years ago. But the progress has been slow. According to the Ryan study, the six spring and fall months together generated 44 percent of the Island's total wages in 1990 - that number has grown now to 50 percent. But winter wages accounted for 19 percent of the total in 1990, and have grown to just 20 percent in 2006.
Stretching the shoulder season is a fine goal, but it doesn't solve the problem of seasonality itself. Whether for six months or nine, Vineyard businesses have to staff up at the start of each busy season and scale back at the end. The transitions have moved, but they're no less wrenching. And because it's hard enough to live on the Vineyard with a year-round job, there's never going to be an adequate local demand for our seasonal jobs. For better or for worse, this economy will continue to be heavily dependent on imported labor to fill the service-industry jobs that multiply here each summer.
Importing labor, whether from New Bedford or Belarus, is a politically charged subject. Critics of the practice like to say that if stingy Vineyard employers just paid a decent wage, it wouldn't be necessary. That's dreaming. In fact, the Ryan study found that the lowest-paying jobs in the service industry already pay dramatically more on the Island than across the rest of Massachusetts. It's not about the pay; there simply aren't enough bodies here to punch the cash registers, change the beds, and wash the dishes in July and August.
One of the peculiar challenges of this boom-and-bust cycle is that the problems of July and August are so short-lived, we're tempted to suffer through them year after year rather than try to fix them. We're in the predicament of the man with the leaking roof, who won't go out to patch it in the pouring rain - and when the sun shines, there's no leak to fix.
This reality - that our high season is beset with problems we've chosen not to fix - is one of the things that make August on Martha's Vineyard, August. It's hard not to feel that August has passed some kind of tipping point, the point at which Island life, on balance, stops being fun. Profitable though it might be, I can't believe anyone would honestly like to see another August squeezed into the Vineyard calendar.
In fact, I think the stresses and strains of August color our community discussions of the growth and development issue with a special sense of foreboding. We know what August feels like, and we wonder, fearfully, is this what we might have to look forward to every day in 20 or 30 years?