Shoulder padding


The director of an Island nonprofit with whom I meet every week looked out from his office window a month ago and surveyed a raw, drizzly, early-spring morning. “You know,” he remarked, “there’s a reason people don’t come to the Vineyard at this time of year.”

A month later, on the first weekend of May, I bicycled a balmy lap around the State Forest and, in a 20-mile outing, encountered only two other cyclists. People don’t exactly throng to the Vineyard at this time of year, either, and you can’t entirely blame the weather.

Bolstering the so-called shoulder seasons of the Vineyard year has been the holy grail of economic development around here ever since there was a season to tack shoulders onto. The first major effort at seasonal shoulder-padding was the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby, hatched as a fall promotion in 1946 by an ad man named Sperber who worked for the Island ferry service.

The fishing derby has seen its share of changes — it no longer has a derby dance or a derby march, and it no longer names a derby queen — but the tournament endures: Not only is the derby the definitive event of early fall on the Vineyard, but the organization has awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars in college scholarships to Island high school grads.

The Vineyard’s economic cycle follows the academic year (a professor once told me the three best reasons for a career in academia are June, July and August). July and August are hands-down the busiest months of our year, but my candidate for most stressful has to be June — the month of wrenching transition, of hiring and training, and bringing summer enterprises up to speed.

Another transition awaits each Island business at the end of summer — but somehow the adjustments involved in easing up, working less and getting out more are much easier to make than those of June. (Is autumn our favorite season because of its still-warm, crisp days, or because it’s the season when we get our lives back?)

Seasonality is the elephant in the living room of the Vineyard economy. We can talk about its girth and the width of its shoulders, exploring ideas for extending the high season into spring and fall. But the elephant remains. No changes to the endpoints of our busy season will alter the fact of a boom-and-bust cycle that gives us some months when jobs are scarce, and others when employers recruit workers from around the globe — and we’ll still have the rollercoaster cycle of seasonal rents that quadruple and worse.

The Vineyard’s powerful annual rhythm presents so many challenges that it’s easy to forget all the advantages we get from this seasonal arrangement. There’s a reason the Island towns have some of the lowest tax rates in the state — it’s because our seasonal homeowners pay taxes, but don’t use our municipal services for most of the year. We have a brand-new, $42-million Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, a new YMCA center is opening this month, and this community’s most essential nonprofits rely heavily on the generosity of our summer residents.

It’s humbling to realize that although we year-round residents might like to think of ourselves as the vital core of this community, we actually buy only about a third of the goods and services sold on the Vineyard each year. The biggest customers, by far, are seasonal homeowners and their guests — they account for 38 percent of all economic activity on the Island. Seasonal homeowners and short-term visitors (vacationers and day-trippers) together support a whopping 64 percent of the Island’s economy.

Those of us who live here year-round may not be the primary engines of the Vineyard economy, but we are in a real sense the Vineyard’s keepers. Like the caretaker while the owner is away, we have the run of the place for much of the year, and a responsibility to look after it. Seventy cents of every tax dollar may come from summer folks, but it’s the voters at town meeting each year who decide how those dollars will be spent on the things that enrich the public sphere — the things we all enjoy together — from schools to parks, clean water, and public safety.

The seasonality of Vineyard life has its positives and negatives, but the seasons themselves — the changes of the natural year — are one of the great joys of living here. Walking in our neighborhood last week, we noticed little clumps of yellow flowers on trees along the boulevard in Edgartown. I took a photo, and did a bit of online research back at home, and discovered that these flowers — miniature fireworks at the branches’ ends — are from the sassafras tree.

We’ve walked past the sassafras trees each spring for going on thirty years without noticing their flowers before. I wonder, what other beauties of the Vineyard year are blooming in the hectic summer season, while I rush past, too busy to notice?