At Large: Real estate “” is it who we are?

The news this morning is that the real estate market shows unmistakable signs of stabilizing. It has been battered certainly but, as has been the case for the past 50 years, not broken. It’s welcome news.

Through mild and severe recessions, fuel shortages, gasoline price increases, terrorist attacks, wars, domestic political upheaval, Democrat and Republican federal administrations, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, even through the Massachusetts governorships of Michael Dukakis, Jane Swift, and now the hapless Deval Patrick, the Vineyard real estate industry has weathered each storm. And, doing so, it has suffered less when the nation has suffered and enjoyed greater success than much of the nation when the nation has exulted economically.

This is so because the Vineyard is a clean, lovely, peaceable place that is smack in the accessible middle of the Boston-Washington megalopolis. It is also true that although property values are staggeringly high, even still as a monumental recession appears to be loosening its grip, they are mostly high in the view of those of us who live here year-round, or who have descended from long-time, legacy Islanders, and tried to live Island lives of limited opportunity. (At dinner the other night, an incredulous Chappaquiddick seasonal resident, asked, “How do you make any money living here year-round?” It was, to him, a concept beyond all reason.)

To the seasonal property owners who own the high-price spreads and who pay the largest share of the real estate taxes that support town and county spending, the prices are not so high, and the taxes, compared with what they pay in Weston, Wellesley, North Salem, Manhattan, Ramapo, Darien, Ridgefield, Mount Kisco, etc., are not especially discouraging either.

So, they come. And, consequently, the enduring success of the real estate economy is the financial foundation of life on Martha’s Vineyard. And, that’s not merely because a rich family from Greenwich Village buys a fizzy waterfront spot on Katama Bay. That’s just the downpayment.

It’s the landscaping, caretaking, plumbing, remodeling, new construction, tree trimming, house painting, home furnishing, banking, dining, shopping dollars that spin from that purchase annually, and over time, that buoys what we nervously describe as the Island economy. Take all that wealth transferred in from big money, ambitous, risk taking households based elsewhere and add the transfer income that flows to retirees whose careers were elsewhere as they summered here, and then retired to their Vineyard summer place — the total is most of the Vineyard’s GDP.

But, of course, there’s a downside. All our eggs are in one basket. Fashion is fickle. Even fashionable summer resorts go out of fashion. Southern Pines was bigger once, so was Maine, but not so much these days. And, there’s competition. The Berkshires, the Hamptons, Nantucket — each attracts customers/vacationers/summer property owners from the same pack we court.

And, there’s attitude. One presumes that vacationers like to go where they are welcomed, not disdained, not regarded as necessary evils who we, as is our customary smug practice, consider trainees, whose bad habits and deplorable appetites must be restrained and, if possible, extinguished. After all, who better than us to teach these pilgrims how to behave, after they’ve paid the multi-million entry fee?

Finally, there are the distortions that living life the way we do practices upon us. In many parts of the country, folks earn their daily bread in a variety of industries. They start industries of their own. They peddle their skills and products in competitive markets that are not circumscribed by salt water. If the financing they need is not here, they try there. If the market for their goods is not there, they market their goods elsewhere. If they need another degree or specialized training, or a bigger office, more parking, easier access to shipping, it’s all possible with a train ride, a flight, a commute, or a move to another part of town. If they need a place to live, they can start small and inexpensive, as a renter or first-time homebuyer. If the neighborhood they like is too expensive when they’re just starting, they move out of the center of town and find something cheaper. Nearly everything’s possible.

Here, not so much. One sometimes wishes that instead of spending millions in subsidies for low income/moderate income folks to buy what are actually leased dwellings masquerading as the home of a lifetime, we put the same funds in a scholarship bank to help Island young people move off-Island for college educations and important careers. That way, when they have made their marks, they can return, if they like, to join the seasonal or year-round populations.

When we think of broadening the economic base, we imagine spawning more farmers’ markets or building a $200 million community-owned wind farm. We might better consider how to incinerate our waste stream to create energy, rather than shipping it at great cost to an incinerator elsewhere. We might do better to consider investing what funds we can assemble in wicked-fast broadband technology and then encouraging information-based, high-value, low-impact businesses to locate here.

Then there is the ultimate distortion that occurs when one’s personal economy, as well as the six-town community, depends as heavily as it does upon the financial contributions of a very few — for it is a very small number — seasonal property owners and an even smaller number of retirees. One yearns for a product that attracts dollars from faceless Californians and Chinese, or even from middle-aged computer game designers who like the quiet life. One yearns to care less about the comfort level of our well-heeled neighbors and more about the independent spirit that would come with the diversification of Martha’s Vineyard’s gross domestic product.